With Joe Biden leading the race for the Democratic nomination and much of the party base consolidated behind him in the wake of Super Tuesday, one might be tempted to count him out. That would be a mistake. Bernie Sanders has been ignored and dismissed for most of his career, so he knows such terrain well. Though the odds are indeed very slim, there is still hope for Sanders. His supporters will hold onto this hope while they fight through the next few primaries. But they must also be aware that they are the underdogs yet again, and that failure is an option, just like it was in 2016.
Failure on the campaign trail is a reality that most candidates who run for office will face at some point. For supporters, the toll can be exceptionally high. Following the end of her campaign, Warren’s supporters are currently passing through all of the stages of grief, from anger straight the way through to acceptance. But Bernie Sanders supporters are in some ways also grieving, or at least preparing to grieve. Going into Super Tuesday, Sanders seemed unbeatable. Coming out, he seems defeated already. And so the grieving has begun, but only in an anticipatory sense. His supporters have a sneaking suspicion that he will lose. It is a suspicion they have had all along, but like Warren supporters just weeks ago, and Klobuchar supporters before her, Buttigieg supporters before Klobuchar, and Yang supporters before all of them, many of the die-hards cannot allow themselves to contemplate what will happen in the event that Sanders loses. To do so would hurt morale and make it harder for them to keep going. But some supporters are willing to imagine such a scenario. After all, it has happened before. Sanders supporters know what it is like to lose.
The bad news is that if Sanders loses, progressive politics will not become the status quo for at least another 4 more years. As Paul Krugman argued recently, at least Biden does support some progressive positions: “The fact is that whatever you may say about Biden's past positions, the policies he's advocating now are remarkably progressive. He's calling for a major expansion of Obamacare, which would probably get us close to universal coverage.” He also notes that Biden’s tax plan would hit the 1% hard. But of course, these are small concession prizes that are unlikely to satisfy many Sanders or Warren supporters.
The good news is that progressives will have 4 years to build their base of support at the grassroots level and come back stronger than ever in 2020. Remember, progressives do well as underdogs. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) went from 5000 members to 50,000 over the past few years. Socialism is cool again. There is no reason why the DSA couldn’t turn 50,000 into 500,000. And DSA members make up just a small fraction of the wider progressive base, which has expanded as well. That expansion will continue.
Of course, Sanders has not dropped out yet, so this sort of rationalizing may seem a bit premature, but it is important to keep the reasons why progressives are advocating for the policies they are advocating for in sharp focus. For progressives to win offices and change this country, they must build a movement. Such a movement will be bigger than one politician or even one institution. Sanders may be regarded as the father of the modern Socialist movement and Warren may be regarded as the mother of the modern progressive movement, but whichever branch of the family tree people currently align with, what matters is the ideas they are fighting for, not the people who are sent to represent them at any given time. Sanders and Warren will both be gone someday soon. There is a good chance that neither of them will be around a decade from now. But the progressive movement they fostered will go on.
So, whether Bernie Sanders wins the presidency or not, progressives will have their work cut out for them. For the progressive movement to grow, progressives must put candidates up for election in down-ballot races across the country. The conventional wisdom is that down-ballot candidates benefit from riding the coattails of the party leadership. To be sure, Biden has long coattails, and progressives will have to face that challenge through savvy organizing and fundraising at the grassroots level. But would be two benefits to having Biden at the helm: progressives would be able to continue to play the underdog in American politics, and they would not have to deal with turbulent tailwinds of a rocky Sanders presidency.
And let’s be honest: we all know that Sanders’ first term would be rocky no matter what. After such a bruising 2020 primary season, and with the wounds of 2016 still aching slightly, the donor class of the Democratic party would not be thrilled to invite Sanders into their clique, nor would Sanders likely join them. On top of internal party strife, the Trumpian backlash would be phenomenal. With Trump out of the White House, who knows what kinds of antics he would get up to. Like Italy’s Burlesconi, Trump would almost certainly command the nation's attention even out of office. Trump supporters would be mad and scared of a socialist in the White House, and Democrats would suffer down the ballot, the Senate, to the State legislatures and governorships, to the municipal levels. A solid backlash at the polls in 2022 could wipe out the Squad and crush the Democrats majority in the House. If Democrats were impressed by the blue wave in 2018, the red wave of 2022 would be nothing less than awe-inspiring.
That would be very bad for progressives. At the moment, the progressive movement is quite young still. It is not as immature as it was prior to 2016, but it is still fragile. The DSA is in the middle of its growth curve, and the broader progressive movement is somewhere between brand new and established. The goal of the progressive movement now should be to make gains at the local and state levels, and that task will be much harder to accomplish if candidates are exposed to the blustery tailwinds of a Sanders presidency. Without prominent examples of failures of progressive politics coming out of the Sanders administration as it tries to ram Medicare for All through a Republican Senate, progressives at the local and state levels will have a much easier time of selling the dream of Universal Healthcare and the rest of the progressive agenda.
All of this being said, a Sanders presidency would undoubtedly be better for progressives than a loss. Our entire political system is characterized by presidentialism, and so there is no denying the power that controlling the office would give to the movement. But the purpose of the above considerations is to demonstrate that there are bright sides to a loss if it comes. Perhaps this is just bargaining, a sign of preemptive grief, but it helps, and it is true. Progressives must build a movement, one that will outlive the current leadership. They can still do that under Biden.