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Bernie Got a Lot of Love, But He Failed to Grow

It turns out 2016 was a high watermark, not a baseline, for what he could achieve with his prog-grassroots appeal.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in Austin, Texas in February 2020. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In his Pat Buchanan memoir The Crusader, journalist Timothy Stanley recalled the final moments of the eventual TAC founding editor’s 1996 presidential campaign. On the eve of the Republican National Convention in San Diego, the Buchanan brigades had spent four years following him into battle against the GOP establishment and were loaded for bear. They had come to hear their man speak at one last rally.

“The mood was ugly. It was a hot, dry afternoon and the rumor was that Buchanan was going to endorse Dole,” Stanley wrote. “After four years of fighting, after coming so close to toppling the kings in their castles, the peasants weren’t ready to accept that.” Pat took the stage and began to speak. “It seemed they would have done anything they asked at that moment,” Stanley continued. “If he had told them to, they would have stormed the convention and taken Bob Dole hostage.”

Instead Buchanan told them to forgo third-party options and vote for Dole, predicting the GOP would one day be a “Buchanan party.” The crowd promptly turned on him. 

That is the moment Bernie Sanders finds himself in right now, as he winds down the second of two insurgent presidential campaigns and attempts to rally the Bernie bros (and sisters) behind the uninspiring Joe Biden. Even though in 2020 there are more reasons to believe the Democrats will eventually become the Bernie party than there were in 1996 to think the Republicans would go Buchananite (though the 2016 election of Donald Trump proved Pat was right, as usual), the septuagenarian socialist senator’s supporters will be no more forgiving.

“He hasn’t just run a political campaign; he’s created a movement,” Biden declared of his vanquished rival. In truth, Sanders’ campaign had become less a run for the presidency than an exercise in movement-building by Super Tuesday. Even that was too much for a Democratic establishment whose support is a mile long but an inch deep—they could not let Bernie continue even a futile attempt to accumulate delegates, give young socialists political experience and try to influence the Democratic platform in Milwaukee.

Yet the reason Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chose Sanders over Elizabeth Warren is precisely because she thought he was better suited to perform that role. For me, it wasn’t even about helping the senator. It was a moment of clarity for me personally in saying, ‘What role do I want to play?’” she once told NBC. “And I want to be a part of a mass movement.”

As it happened, the movement Sanders started didn’t have enough mass. He made inroads with Latinos but piled up Republican-like vote shares among blacks, especially in the South. His coalition didn’t diversify enough while at least some of his 2016 white working class support was revealed to be anti-Hillary Clinton, just like all the blue-collar whites in West Virginia who voted for Hillary in 2008 were really anti-Barack Obama. The Democratic Party of today looked at its future and recoiled, stampeding toward the exits as soon as Bernie looked like he could snatch the nomination, even if that meant resuscitating Biden’s flatlining candidacy. 

We all remember the stories of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, once landslide losers who would go on to reshape their respective parties. But in recent years, we have seen movements arise from campaigns that didn’t even get particularly close to the nomination. The conservative Christian organizations that took over state Republican organizations in the 1990s sprang from Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential bid, which peaked with a second-place showing in Iowa. Howard Dean gave life to antiwar progressives representing the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” even though he bombed in the 2004 early states. Ron Paul started the “libertarian moment” with spirited campaigns in 2008 and 2012, despite never improving on his strong third-place performance in Iowa and running second in New Hampshire.

The Paul campaigns were only partly about the young libertarians they inspired to enter politics, though organizations like Young Americans for Liberty remain influential to this day. They also represented politically homeless populists, a bridge between the 1990s paleoconservatism of Buchanan and Trump’s less sophisticated but more electorally potent “America First” nationalism. 

Sanders has good reason to hope that the young socialists following him will ultimately grow into the Democratic Party of tomorrow, even if progressives are increasingly animated by race, gender and identity politics rather than economics or class. Even as their candidates prattled about Medicare coverage for illegal immigrants and free abortions for transgender men, rank-and-file Democrats almost across the board rejected performative wokeness. Elizabeth Warren came the closest to exciting this niche and she failed to win her home state. 

On the other hand, Tulsi Gabbard hated war, not conservatives, so the erstwhile Bernie backer gained little traction. Her endorsement of Biden puzzled people. Sanders has more clout but his movement could prove to be beyond his command in November. Biden has his work cut out for him if he doesn’t want to be another Dole. And Bernie might hear some boos from his own “revolution.”

W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.

about the author

W. James Antle III, contributing editor, is the Politics Editor at the Washington Examiner. A former senior writer at TAC, Antle also previously served as managing editor of the Daily Caller, editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation, and associate editor of the American Spectator. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Antle has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and NPR, among other outlets, and has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Politico, the Week, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Daily Beast, the Guardian, Reason, the Spectator of London, The National Interest and National Review Online. He also serves as a senior adviser to Defense Priorities.

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