Jamelle Bouie recognizes that Bernie Sanders’ candidacy strongly resembles those of previous insurgent Democrats like George McGovern, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean. Each of them ran campaigns that excited liberals, but couldn’t expand beyond that base, and their impact waned quickly after they lost. However, Bouie says, Sanders’ appeal to young voters could have a lasting effect that his predecessors couldn’t pull off…
All the enthusiasm is there; it just needs to be cultivated and channeled into something durable. But that requires a sacrifice, of sorts. For as much as Sanders and his most vocal supporters identify themselves as outside the party system, the only way a real Sanders movement can make change is to take an active role within that system. Voting is too imprecise to send a message or make a statement, and withholding a vote does nothing to persuade or build influence. (Who in the Democratic Party solicits Ralph Nader for advice and aid?) Sanders supporters who want to move the Democratic Party to the ideological left need to become Sanders Democrats, political actors who participate in the system as it exists. To win a lasting victory—to define the ideological terms of Democratic Party politics—the people inspired by Sanders need to do more than beat the establishment; they need to become it.
Liberals and leftists will have to work with an eye toward the long-term, operating from the ground up to make ideological liberals a key power-broker in the party. If the Bernie Sanders effort shows anything, it’s that the odds are in their favor. The youngest, most active Democrats are more liberal than their older counterparts, and technology has advanced to the point where they can organize and raise money without relying on established power centers. Even if Bernie Sanders is just the inheritor of friendly demographic and technological trends, his success suggests a real opportunity for the liberals and leftists who back his campaign. They have the chance, if they want it, to channel their energy into a move to make the Democratic Party theirs, in the same way that conservatives—until the rise of Donald Trump, at least—took hold of the Republican Party.
The energy of the Sanders campaign will almost certainly fade away. But if the voters inspired by Sanders can gather their energy and become a part of the Democratic Party, they can win the influence they need to shift its direction in the long-term. And with their youth, they can play the long game, if they choose to.