He ran for president more than once, and never really came that close to reaching the White House. Many argued his defeats were proof that America would never accept his socialist ideas. Even some of his allies wondered if he stuck around too long instead of passing the torch to the next generation. But over time, most of his seemingly radical ideas about improving the grim plight of the American worker gained strength, and eventually many became reality.
That was Eugene V. Debs, the fiery labor leader who became head of the Socialist Party of America and ran for president five times around the turn of the 20th century. It’s all too easy to see how Debs became a hero and role model for the democratic socialism of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders — who famously made educational filmstrips about Debs in the late 1970s when it looked like his political career was going nowhere — Debs never stopped pushing for his ideas like a 40-hour work week, child labor laws or union power that were dismissed as extremist … until suddenly they weren’t.
In American history, Debs would probably rank near the top of any list of men who ran for president and lost, and yet managed to change America, along with the likes of Barry Goldwater, the godfather of modern conservatism, and the prairie populist William Jennings Bryan. Today, we can add Sanders — who ended his 2020 White House bid last week and at age 78 is all but certain not to run again — to that list. Bernie’s 50-year march from the literal wilderness of rural Vermont into the mainstream of U.S. politics is one of the epic narratives of the 21st century.
While most other politicians who came of age in the 1960s buckled under the weight of the Reagan years into mushy centrism or worse, Sanders’ remarkably consistent messages about income inequality and the need for a European-style social-welfare state that includes universal health care and higher ed proved prescient as the 2008 fiscal collapse, the Great Recession that followed and now — most regrettably — the coronavirus crisis has washed over the vast American middle class.
The irony of Sanders leaving the center stage of the presidential race right as the cataclysmic economic consequences of the public health lockdown slam America is hard to bear. The numbers out there seem staggering — nearly 17 million jobless claims in just three weeks — but they’re really not when I think of how all the family members or their friends I know under 35 are now suddenly unemployed or “furloughed” or struggling to pick up enough hours. Long before this happened, Sanders (and others) were out there warning about the stunning fragility of an economy where 40% have reported they don’t have even $400 saved if an emergency hits.
Now an emergency has hit, and it looks even worse than anyone imagined. Heard about Pittsburgh … or San Antonio, or Maine? In all of those places, a “Field of Dreams”-length endless line of cars has waited hours in desperation for a box of free food, at just the very beginning of a Great Depression-sized meltdown that could last for months if not longer. And it’s not just basic nutrition. Because of all the job losses, millions of Americans — including many under age 45 — abruptly find themselves without health insurance right when a global pandemic is spiking hospital admissions. The nation may absorb a new wave of medical bankruptcies before any economic recovery starts.
In running for president in 2020, Sanders made single-payer health insurance — what citizens have in most advanced Western democracies — the cornerstone of his campaign. Although his idea of Medicare for All is arguably the simplest way to get there, it also seemed too complicated and disruptive for a lot of voters as the 2020 primaries drew near. Many simply wanted to keep their insurance. But now, with tens of millions instantly jobless, most voters are either experiencing a Kafka-esque quest for coverage or know someone who is. COVID-19 has changed the game.
In fact, it’s possible that with the kind of democratic socialism that Sanders has advocated for decades, America’s economic meltdown might never have even happened. On Sunday, the Washington Post chronicled how Germany and France also shut down their economies to stop the spread of the virus yet expect just mild blips in joblessness (in Germany, a rise of just .2 to .5%!). How could this be? Those nations were ready to go with generous programs that allowed firms to keep lock-downed employees on their payroll — expensive, yes, but less expensive than our Great Depression II will be. In the United States, the ridiculously complex Rube Goldberg-like machines to get a simple check to struggling citizens or loans out to small businesses, laundered through banks that are mucking up the process, are a disaster.
To be sure, Bernie Sanders as the 46th president of the United States wouldn’t have solved these problems overnight, even if a November political landslide magically washed away the destructive obstructionism of Mitch McConnell for good. But Sanders won’t be the next president. Even as many of his ideas took root within the Democratic Party, that party’s two core voting blocs rejected the man behind them. The fear factor, that Bernie’s lifetime of pretty-out-there leftism would guarantee four more years of President Trump, proved too large an obstacle. Pragmatic older African American voters never warmed to him, while many white suburban women — with the biggest spike in 2020 turnout — can’t forgive him for challenging Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Many trees have been killed to write long analyses of “What went wrong for Bernie” or looking for that one bad decision that cost him the nomination, when the truth is there was absolutely nothing he could, or would, have done differently. Bernie Sanders was always going to be Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Sanders was always going to lose. But what about his ideas now that we really need them?
Twenty million desperate, hungry jobless Americans can’t wait until Jan. 20, 2021, for answers. In the first three coronavirus relief bills from Congress, Democrats used their two power points in Washington — their House majority, of course, and to some degree the ability to filibuster in the Senate — to win some concessions, like the $600 add-on to state-administered jobless benefits, that Democrats don’t usually get. Some of Sanders’ congressional colleagues — most notably Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who arguably ran an even better campaign for president, and got a rawer deal — are showing true leadership in pushing for even more aggressive, more people-friendly economic stimulus. Sanders has always been more of a political bomb-thrower than a patient lawmaker, but the full weight of his political revolution is desperately needed on Capitol Hill right now.
Then there’s the Democrat who would be president, presumptive nominee Joe Biden. I was hardly alone among voters in initially ranking the 77-year-old Biden — far too cautious, seemingly out of touch, and weighed down by his past — near the bottom of his party’s pile. But now that Biden on the November ballot is inevitable, it’s time to focus on one of his strengths. The former vice president is less of an ideologue and more of a survivor who feels the winds of change (like, for example, when he was quicker to embrace gay marriage than Barack Obama), and reacts accordingly.
Both Warren, who in the past has had a rocky relationship with Biden, and Sanders, who has a surprisingly good one, have been wise to say nice things about the presumptive nominee but withhold their very important official endorsement while they try and move his campaign further to the left. This is already bearing a lot of fruit. Since building his insurmountable delegate lead, Biden has adopted Warren’s bankruptcy plan (the original bone of contention between these two), expanded his proposal for free public higher education, and now — in a seeming nod to Sanders — says he would lower the Medicare enrollment age to 60, potentially insuring millions more.
All good, but the coronavirus crisis shows a President Biden would need to go much deeper to rescue America from a depression. The most politically active under-30 voters who belong to groups like Sunrise Movement or March for Our Lives are pressuring Biden to get much more progressive on issues like gun safety and climate change. In the end, the success of this effort may determine whether Biden ultimately takes the oath nine months from now.
Since Sanders was bumped from his brief stint as front-runner in early February, it’s become all too fashionable among my suburban baby boomer neighbors — at least back in the good ol’ days when they could still drive their massive SUVs to their favorite mimosa spot for brunch — to mock not just Sanders but the mostly under-45-year-old folks who voted for him. Young people just don’t exercise their right to vote, they chortle, and they didn’t get the all-or-nothing importance of beating Trump.
We’ll talk some other time — at length — about how my fellow boomers created the wretched world of climate change, college debt, McJobs and $2000-a-month rents that makes it hard for stressed 20-somethings to prioritize voting. But while it’s true that older Democrats turned out at a higher rate than younger ones, my rough calculation is that — at least before the pandemic interfered — some 7 million Democratic primary ballots were to be cast by voters aged 18-29. This in a world where Donald Trump is our catastrophic president because of just 77,000 voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Maybe, just maybe, the stupid people aren’t so much the millennials and Gen Zs who may or may not vote but any Democrats who think that mocking them is a better strategy for November than listening to their very real, very valid concerns about climate change, crushing student debt, and a wider affordability crisis in America. Yes, it’s a stark choice between Biden and Trump, but it’s also a stark choice between fixing what’s wrong in this country — so painfully exposed by the coronavirus — and the rising alternatives of utter chaos and collapse.
The Sanders campaign motto — “Not me. Us” — feels like it means even more now that he’s out of the race. It’s going to take a village — progressive lawmakers like Sanders, Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, activist groups like Sunrise Movement, and everyday folks like, well, us — to get immediate coronavirus relief to more people and to make sure that a Biden presidency becomes a second New Deal for Americans. That now falls not upon the President Bernie Sanders that — just like his idol Eugene V. Debs — will never be. It falls upon us.
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