Bernie Sanders pushed the Democrats to the left. But now it’s time for someone else to take the lead

Sanders should step back and throw his weight behind the candidate he believes will best advance his legacy.

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American progressives have much to thank Bernie Sanders for. The unexpected success of the democratic socialist and long-serving Vermont senator in the 2016 presidential primary helped push the Democratic party leftwards, demonstrating that once-fringe ideas like Medicare for All (universal health coverage) are popular with voters.

Sanders was the ideological lodestar for a youthful and diverse new generation of congressional progressives, including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and America’s first Muslim congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. It’s thanks to Bernie that the crowded 2020 presidential primary is already packed full of candidates vying for the progressive vote. Four of them – senators Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker of New Jersey – are co-sponsors of Sanders’ Medicare For All Bill.

Yet it’s possible to acknowledge all this and still feel disappointed that Sanders has decided to run for president. In some ways he’s a victim of his own success. In 2016, Sanders was able to run as an outsider, the sole progressive and a refreshing alternative to Hillary Clinton’s image as the slick, Wall Street-friendly insider. In 2020, Democrats will be able to choose from a diverse group of candidates running on left-wing issues, who are also better able to reach demographics that Sanders cannot.

Responding earlier this year to allegations that women working on his 2016 campaign experienced discrimination and sexual harassment, Sanders apologised but initially added that he “was a little busy running around the country, trying to make the case.” He later issued an unqualified apology, but the bad air lingered. Does Sanders at heart believe that gender equality is a side-issue, something that’s nice to focus on when you have the time (which is basically never), and when more important class battles have been won (again, basically never)? Women, and especially women of colour, are at the forefront of the party’s new left-wing and can and should demand better.

In 2016, non-white voters made up 40 per cent of the electorate in the Democratic primary, and Clinton won the African-American vote by more than 50 per cent. There’s little evidence that Sanders has made significant steps to reach out to non-white voters, or acknowledge that in America you cannot talk about class without talking about race. Now that Democrats no longer have to choose between two white candidates in the 2020 elections, this may cost Sanders dearly. 

Losing in 2016 to a candidate as flawed and ill-qualified as Trump marked a bitter, searing defeat for the Democrats. The party must demonstrate how it has changed and moved on. It’s unclear how reviving Sanders’ campaign can do that. Many voters have indicated they want a fresh face. As the political website FiveThirtyEight points out, 59 per cent of voters in a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll said they would be interested in someone “entirely new” as their nominee, and 41 per cent said Sanders shouldn’t run again.

Then there’s the matter of his age. Sanders is 77 now. He would be 79 on his inauguration and 83 by the end of his first term. As Vox observes, by the age of 70 almost a fifth of Americans experience mild cognitive impairment and by the age of 85 almost a third experience some form of dementia. “On the one hand, competitive and successful senior politicians are surely less likely to suffer these difficulties. On the other, driven people are less likely to be self-reflective about when it’s time to move on,” Vox argued. American politicians may also be healthier than most of the population, but the chances that Sanders could suffer serious health problems or die in office are alarmingly high.

Sanders nevertheless enjoys widespread support, especially among young voters, and as the New York Times reports his lead among low dollar donors is roughly equivalent to the donor base of all other Democratic hopefuls combined. He is well-known, charismatic, and widely respected for his ideological commitment and clarity.

But anyone with an interest in seeing real progressive change in the US – the expansion of Medicare for all, decisive action on climate change, free college tuition, a minimum living wage – should worry that if Sanders doesn’t win the primary, he’ll only serve to fragment the progressive vote. Which means it’s a shame that Sanders isn’t prepared to step back and throw his political weight behind the candidate he believes will best advance his political legacy.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.