There Are Many Bernie Sanders’ Movements

It’s no mistake we recognize this image of Bernie Sanders tussling with police.

Last April, when Bernie Sanders announced he was running to be the Democratic nominee for president, few progressives could have imagined that the avuncular senator would do well enough to break their hearts by narrowly losing a year later. With the one exception currently sitting in the White House, insurgent presidential campaigns flame out long before New Yorkers vote in their state’s primary. That Bernie Sanders — for years a marginal figure hawking socialism to one of the whitest states in the union — has ignited populist passion for democracy in the face of oligarchy is a cause for celebration.

But “Feeling the Bern” is not a sui generis phenomenon. The Sanders campaign owes its astonishing success to the nation’s disenchantment with party leaders who have led the country through both a devastating war and an insufficient economic recovery. This alone, however, does not capture the crotchety senator’s enduring appeal. The framework for Sanders’ meteoric popularity has been set over the last decade by sustained organizing by social movements. Activists have prepared the nation for a candidate like Sanders by building mass support for the policies that the senator champions, injecting iconic political fights into the cultural mainstream. These fights made the Sanders’ candidacy feasible. They will carry more candidates like him to victory down the line.

The relationship between Sanders and social movements is symbiotic, though it’s true that he needs us more than we need him. In other words, Bernie is symptomatic, not causal. Sanders knows this. He cultivates his image of a grassroots protester just as he cultivates the support of the grassroots. We know about his involvement in CORE during the Civil Rights movement. We’ve seen the photos of him inspiring a crowd during a sit in to end segregated housing at the University of Chicago and the subsequent tussle with the police. Senator Sanders, along with his regalia of tousled hair and thickened accent, has become a symbol around which progressives have rallied. Symbols, as historian of science Naomi Oreskes puts it, signal our intent. While Bernie Sanders will not be elected president, his popularity represents a symbolic victory in our politics, signaling just how far the country has come to embrace social democracy since the first Clinton administration.

The most obvious nexus of Bernie Sanders and social movements is Occupy Wall Street. Often derided as hopelessly horizontal and lacking in specific, actionable demands, Occupy succeeded, not in dismantling capitalism, but in popularizing an infectious tribal identity: we are the 99%. By presenting in simple, meme-able terms the perversion of the second Gilded Age, with the vast majority of wealth concentrated within a minuscule fraction of America, Occupy codified both an “us” to band together and a “them” against to rally. As the centerpiece of Sanders’ rhetorical revolution, the message of economic inequality and the greed of the 1%, of the “millionaire and billionaire class,” launched an unabashed socialist into mainstream politics.

This isn’t to suggest that Sanders adopted the language of Occupy when it became fashionable. Wealth disparity has been the senator’s calling card for decades. But it was only after Occupy, which held the world’s attention on Wall Street’s excesses, that Sanders sought and gained national prominence. By dividing the populace into a 1% of robber barons that exploited the 99% of hardworking Americans, Occupy laid the foundation for millions of people to identify with an angry socialist running for president.

Likewise, a fully fledged federal minimum wage of fifteen dollars did not spring from Sanders’ campaign like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. For years, workers in fast food restaurants have been striking and organizing for a livable wage. What was unthinkable when the strikes started has now become law in cities across the country — and has been endorsed as part of the Democratic Party’s platform. When Hillary Clinton indicated a nebulous support for a fifteen dollar minimum at the final primary debate, she, too, bowed to the power of the movement in setting the narrative for the larger Democratic Party.

The climate movement, where I hone my organizing chops, has made similar use of Sanders. I started organizing four years ago on campus at Bowdoin College for fossil fuel divestment. Out of calls by college activists to divest holdings in oil, gas, and coal companies, the carbon bubble — the amount of fossil fuel that cannot be burned to avoid catastrophic climate change — gained traction among political bigwigs. Last fall, Senator Sanders introduced the Keep It In The Ground Bill which would ban extraction of fossil fuels on federal lands in order to lock away some of this unburnable carbon. He has also thrown his support behind the student fossil fuel divestment movement. Because Bernie has taken leadership from students and activists, the climate movement has used this as leverage to demand similar concessions from Hillary Clinton. Right before the New Hampshire primary, for example, I filmed an exchange between Secretary Clinton and an activist where she called a ban on extraction a “done deal.”

If nothing else, Sanders has revealed a deep discontentment with the direction that the country’s leadership steers us. This message was not born out of Sanders’ decision to run for president. It will outlive his valiant campaign. Crucially, however, his supporters have to get involved with the movements that set the conditions for Sanders’ improbable rise. The success of these movements will resonate beyond a star-crossed candidacy. They have shaken the core of the Democratic establishment, forcing the party leadership to adopt policies that 25 years ago would have been inconceivable. Reaching a moment when Hillary Clinton finds it politically expedient to support a fifteen dollar minimum wage, or to endorse the notion that we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground, or to threaten Wall Street bankers with jail time is not something to jeer at. It is a sign that the left is winning.

Sanders’ theory of change, his conviction that the only political revolution can rescue us from government corruption, is shared by grassroots organizers across the country. Change happens when millions of Americans demand it, from the bottom up. It was these same people — organizers, protesters, activists, voters — who made Bernie Sanders a viable candidate in 2016. They will bring their vision of change to fruition in 2017 and beyond.