If one needed any additional evidence that Bernie Sanders has captured the imaginations and desires of a good chunk of the populist, progressive left, all you needed to do was listen to his speech Tuesday night as the California primary results were coming in. He was loud and boisterous, and his thousands-strong crowd was hanging on his every word. When Sanders pledged to continue the fight at the Democratic convention next month, the crowd went wild.
Even the most passionate anti-Sandernista has to admit that the once fringe, white-haired loner from Vermont has shaken the Democratic Party to its core. Indeed, despite losing four out of six states last night—including a twelve-point loss in California, a state where the Vermont senator thought he had a chance in squeaking out a victory—Sanders appears to relish his role as an attack dog on Hillary Clinton’s left. The fact that Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to win the nomination of a major party means nothing to him.
Bernie’s supporters are just as vehement about the “political revolution” as they were when the primary season started in Iowa. Summing up her interactions with Sanders supporters in California, Molly Ball of the Atlantic wrote that “Sanders and his people have their own sets of rules.” In their eyes, the Democratic primary is “rigged.”
There is clearly a lot of animosity in the Sanders camp. A large part of it is the realization that their candidate will not win the nomination and that the tens of millions of dollars in $27 donations were not enough to beat the Clinton political machine. Another part is a genuine anger towards anything and everything that reeks of “the establishment,” from the Democratic National Committee and its chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, to the very reporters who cover the presidential race.
Has Bernie’s political revolution died?
Electorally, yes. With Clinton’s wins in California, South Dakota, New Mexico, and New Jersey, Sanders would need to convince hundreds upon hundreds of superdelegates currently in Hillary’s column that he has a better shot at defeating Donald Trump in November. That case, needless to say, fails to take into account the results of the Democratic primary, where Secretary Clinton has won more states, more votes, and the majority of pledged delegates. For his strategy to succeed, Sanders would need a miracle bigger than the 1986 New York Mets.
Bernie’s “political revolution,” however, has the potential to outlast his presidential campaign and is certain to be far stronger than his final delegate count.
Far from being a typical presidential candidate, Sanders has successfully transformed his campaign into a platform for challenging how the Democratic Party selects its nominees and does business during a presidential election year. Before Sanders announced his candidacy last spring, only the most inside-the-Beltway, inside-baseball politicos cared about the utility of superdelegates or the fairness of the closed-primary system. Now, thanks to Bernie, American voters—particularly those under the age of 40—are asking serious questions about whether independents should be shut out of the Democratic primary process in dozens of states.
Superdelegates—those party elites, politicians, and former politicians who are allowed to vote for a candidate regardless of how the people in their state vote—are increasingly being portrayed as a mechanism used by the Democratic Party to keep the masses in check and ensure that their favorite candidate eventually becomes the nominee. Whether or not that characterization is fair or not is beside the point: what is relevant is that Bernie’s bashing of the superdelegate system is making life uncomfortable for the DNC and directly challenging the way the party has conducted their delegate allocation process for about three and a half decades.
It’s unlikely that superdelegates, the closed-primary system, the delegate allocation process, and how the Democratic Party writes the platform would be issues if Sanders chose not to run. All of them are now under assault, forcing DNC members at the very least to consider changes during the next presidential cycle.
Sanders may have lost the primary, but the political revolution that he has built up and led over the past year has been victorious in raising some of the issues that the Democratic Party would likely have ignored were Jim Webb or Martin O’Malley the runner-up candidate.
Daniel R. DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm and a freelance researcher. He has also written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and the Diplomat.