Bernie Sanders is more than just a former presidential candidate. He is—and will likely always be—a beloved progressive icon that not only transformed the U.S. political landscape, but galvanized millions of Americans. After witnessing his remarkable performance in Univision’s Democratic debate in Miami, Florida, my mother enthusiastically asked me to help her register to vote for the first time in her life at 65 years-old. She wasn’t alone, as notable surges in voter registration among Sanders’ core demographics occurred in states such as California. Additionally, Bernie Sanders managed to break fundraising records—even surpassing President Obama—in spite of the fact that he rejected large contributions from billionaire and corporate donors. The passion among Sanders’ supporters was palpable. However, that may be changing.
On my progressive podcast, The Humanist Report, my coverage of the launch of Bernie Sanders’ 501(c)(4) organization, ‘Our Revolution,’ was met with ambivalence by much of my progressive audience. While one commenter expressed that she still has “respect for Sanders,” and argued that his political revolution is “up to us now,” others were less supportive of Sanders. Many commenters voiced skepticism with the organization, or a newfound lack of confidence and trust in Sanders. I, myself, have been critical of the Vermont senator as of late. This prompts the following question: are progressives turning on Bernie Sanders?
Disbelief and disappointment set in immediately after Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton. Though I may have vocalized my disappointment with his decision on my podcast, I defended his decision, given that he pledged to “support the eventual Democratic nominee” back in September, 2015. Regardless if his endorsement meant he broke his promise to fight on until the Democratic Convention, I defended Sanders against accusations of him “selling out.” This, however, wasn’t the only reason why many Sanders supporters felt disillusioned with him. Bernie’s silence on the voting irregularities and potential fraud—which cost him an estimated 184 pledged delegates, according to one report—was troubling. Progressive YouTuber Debbie Lusignan, otherwise known as “Sane Progressive,” described his silence as “deafening.”
Aside from a few softhearted criticisms of Sanders here and there, my complaints were mild, and essentially could be boiled down to minor policy disagreements I had with him (primarily with respect to foreign policy and gun control). However, in the 57th episode of The Humanist Report, I admittedly came down pretty hard on Bernie for the first time (which you can watch below), namely because he inexplicably chose to distance himself from Tim Canova, the progressive challenger to Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida’s 23rd district. Even mainstream media outlets picked up on my denunciation of Sanders’ decision to ditch Canova, as NBC News cited my criticism to illustrate why his supporters were disenchanted with him.
In an interview with Bernie Sanders on ‘Meet the Press,’ Chuck Todd brought my criticism to Sanders’ attention, asking what he would say to me, as well as his other supporters “that feel as though” he “didn’t do enough” for Canova. This was Bernie’s response:
“Well, you know, there are a lot of things happening in this country, things happening in my own state, work that I have got to do. I can’t do everything, but I would say that our supporters—as I understand it—contributed about $600,000 to Mr. Canova’s campaign. That is a very significant contribution. I think what you’re gonna be seeing in the weeks and months to come, Chuck, is me playing an active role—not only trying to make sure that Donald Trump does not become President of the United States—but that, in fact, we create a movement for this campaign and for the future, which creates a government in which our government responds to the needs not of the Koch brothers and wealthy campaign contributors, but to ordinary people.”
As a longtime admirer of Sanders, is this a satisfactory response? Not exactly. Nonetheless, to be fair, he was not given the full context of my comments, and thus, was not able to fully grasp the crux of the issue I took with him “abandoning” Canova.
I made it very clear that, as a 74 year-old progressive warrior, Bernie is not only likely in need of a long vacation, but is entitled to one after running an unprecedented, hard-fought campaign—irrespective of the importance of Canova’s campaign. As I noted on Twitter, my primary objection to Sanders not campaigning for Canova was contingent on the fact that he would still be campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Had he opted to not campaign for anyone, I would have nothing to say, but if he was going to act as a campaign surrogate for any candidate, Tim Canova should have been his first choice, not Hillary Clinton.
Tim Canova was trailing in the polls. Hillary Clinton has been ahead of Donald Trump according to Real Clear Politics. Furthermore, Tim Canova remained loyal to the progressive base he cultivated. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is choosing to turn away progressives by courting endorsements from war criminals such as Henry Kissinger and John Negroponte. This behavior is indefensible for a so-called “progressive,” yet Bernie Sanders, presumably, still felt obligated to campaign for her, but didn’t feel that same obligation to Tim Canova.
This hurt. It felt like Bernie Sanders ditched his own political revolution for the same political establishment he frequently railed against throughout the duration of his campaign. I’ll say it again: Bernie is in serious need of a vacation, but if given the choice, he shouldn’t have left Tim Canova out to dry, nor should he have prioritized Hillary Clinton’s campaign over Canova’s.
Therein lies the contention many of Sanders’ supporters have with him, myself included. It felt as though he ran away from a candidate championed on ‘Our Revolution,’ and seemingly, his political ideals too. When he needed Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, she chose to remain silent and later endorsed Hillary Clinton. When Tim Canova was in a similar situation, Bernie’s treatment of Canova was akin to Warren’s treatment of him, albeit to a lesser extent since, to be fair, he did actually endorse Canova. Still, the optics are bad. Tim Canova had the potential to play a key role in the progressive political revolution, but it appeared as though Bernie chose the establishment over his own supporters.
Bernie Sanders’ supporters aren’t turning on him. Rather, they’re terrified of the prospect that he may be turning on them. After getting shunned by Warren and other notable progressives, the progressive political revolution he started may be on the cusp of death if his supporters continue to receive the cold shoulder from him. Of course, it was never truly about Bernie Sanders; quite contrarily, it was always about the political ideals he represented (e.g. that healthcare is a right, that Americans deserve a living wage, that our tax dollars should go towards tuition-free colleges, not unnecessary foreign interventions). The problem, however, is that Bernie’s progressive political revolution will inevitably suffer the same fate as the ‘Occupy’ movement in the absence of actual leadership, or at the very least, a face to represent the cause.
While the feelings of excitement about the progressive policies Bernie Sanders championed will be here to stay, disenchantment with the political process will swiftly creep back in if it’s the case that progressives feel as though someone as genuine, trustworthy, passionate, and progressive as Bernie Sanders will be just as quick to serve at the behest of the corrupt political establishment as anyone else. His inaction prompted questions as to whether or not he “sold out”—because if he can—then anyone can. And, certainly, if Bernie Sanders is willing to abandon us, then a progressive political revolution may never come to fruition without anyone willing to take up the cause and stand by it no matter what.
In conclusion, the suggestion that Bernie Sanders’ supporters are turning on him is a gross misrepresentation of the concerns they’re vocalizing. They want a leader that’s unapologetically progressive, and unabashedly anti-establishment. Many of his supporters believed Bernie was that individual, but his recent behavior has them questioning whether or not that’s actually the case.