When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.
This article appears in the Special Preview: June 2020 issue.
Check out the full table of contents and find your next story to read.
The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly—not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.
Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price gouging and corporate profiteering. Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power—a beggar nation in utter chaos.
Donald Trump saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms. Fearing for his reelection, he declared the coronavirus pandemic a war, and himself a wartime president. But the leader he brings to mind is Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1940, signed an armistice with Germany after its rout of French defenses, then formed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Like Pétain, Trump collaborated with the invader and abandoned his country to a prolonged disaster. And, like France in 1940, America in 2020 has stunned itself with a collapse that’s larger and deeper than one miserable leader. Some future autopsy of the pandemic might be called Strange Defeat, after the historian and Resistance fighter Marc Bloch’s contemporaneous study of the fall of France. Despite countless examples around the U.S. of individual courage and sacrifice, the failure is national. And it should force a question that most Americans have never had to ask: Do we trust our leaders and one another enough to summon a collective response to a mortal threat? Are we still capable of self-government?
This is the third major crisis of the short 21st century. The first, on September 11, 2001, came when Americans were still living mentally in the previous century, and the memory of depression, world war, and cold war remained strong. On that day, people in the rural heartland did not see New York as an alien stew of immigrants and liberals that deserved its fate, but as a great American city that had taken a hit for the whole country. Firefighters from Indiana drove 800 miles to help the rescue effort at Ground Zero. Our civic reflex was to mourn and mobilize together.
Partisan politics and terrible policies, especially the Iraq War, erased the sense of national unity and fed a bitterness toward the political class that never really faded. The second crisis, in 2008, intensified it. At the top, the financial crash could almost be considered a success. Congress passed a bipartisan bailout bill that saved the financial system. Outgoing Bush-administration officials cooperated with incoming Obama administration officials. The experts at the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department used monetary and fiscal policy to prevent a second Great Depression. Leading bankers were shamed but not prosecuted; most of them kept their fortunes and some their jobs. Before long they were back in business. A Wall Street trader told me that the financial crisis had been a “speed bump.”
All of the lasting pain was felt in the middle and at the bottom, by Americans who had taken on debt and lost their jobs, homes, and retirement savings. Many of them never recovered, and young people who came of age in the Great Recession are doomed to be poorer than their parents. Inequality—the fundamental, relentless force in American life since the late 1970s—grew worse.
This second crisis drove a profound wedge between Americans: between the upper and lower classes, Republicans and Democrats, metropolitan and rural people, the native-born and immigrants, ordinary Americans and their leaders. Social bonds had been under growing strain for several decades, and now they began to tear. The reforms of the Obama years, important as they were—in health care, financial regulation, green energy—had only palliative effects. The long recovery over the past decade enriched corporations and investors, lulled professionals, and left the working class further behind. The lasting effect of the slump was to increase polarization and to discredit authority, especially government’s.
Both parties were slow to grasp how much credibility they’d lost. The coming politics was populist. Its harbinger wasn’t Barack Obama but Sarah Palin, the absurdly unready vice-presidential candidate who scorned expertise and reveled in celebrity. She was Donald Trump’s John the Baptist.
Trump came to power as the repudiation of the Republican establishment. But the conservative political class and the new leader soon reached an understanding. Whatever their differences on issues like trade and immigration, they shared a basic goal: to strip-mine public assets for the benefit of private interests. Republican politicians and donors who wanted government to do as little as possible for the common good could live happily with a regime that barely knew how to govern at all, and they made themselves Trump’s footmen.
Like a wanton boy throwing matches in a parched field, Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and—every day of his presidency—political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying.
Trump acquired a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. He set about finishing off the job and destroying the professional civil service. He drove out some of the most talented and experienced career officials, left essential positions unfilled, and installed loyalists as commissars over the cowed survivors, with one purpose: to serve his own interests. His major legislative accomplishment, one of the largest tax cuts in history, sent hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the rich. The beneficiaries flocked to patronize his resorts and line his reelection pockets. If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end.
This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.
If the pandemic really is a kind of war, it’s the first to be fought on this soil in a century and a half. Invasion and occupation expose a society’s fault lines, exaggerating what goes unnoticed or accepted in peacetime, clarifying essential truths, raising the smell of buried rot.
The virus should have united Americans against a common threat. With different leadership, it might have. Instead, even as it spread from blue to red areas, attitudes broke down along familiar partisan lines. The virus also should have been a great leveler. You don’t have to be in the military or in debt to be a target—you just have to be human. But from the start, its effects have been skewed by the inequality that we’ve tolerated for so long. When tests for the virus were almost impossible to find, the wealthy and connected—the model and reality-TV host Heidi Klum, the entire roster of the Brooklyn Nets, the president’s conservative allies—were somehow able to get tested, despite many showing no symptoms. The smattering of individual results did nothing to protect public health. Meanwhile, ordinary people with fevers and chills had to wait in long and possibly infectious lines, only to be turned away because they weren’t actually suffocating. An internet joke proposed that the only way to find out whether you had the virus was to sneeze in a rich person’s face.
When Trump was asked about this blatant unfairness, he expressed disapproval but added, “Perhaps that’s been the story of life.” Most Americans hardly register this kind of special privilege in normal times. But in the first weeks of the pandemic it sparked outrage, as if, during a general mobilization, the rich had been allowed to buy their way out of military service and hoard gas masks. As the contagion has spread, its victims have been likely to be poor, black, and brown people. The gross inequality of our health-care system is evident in the sight of refrigerated trucks lined up outside public hospitals.
We now have two categories of work: essential and nonessential. Who have the essential workers turned out to be? Mostly people in low-paying jobs that require their physical presence and put their health directly at risk: warehouse workers, shelf-stockers, Instacart shoppers, delivery drivers, municipal employees, hospital staffers, home health aides, long-haul truckers. Doctors and nurses are the pandemic’s combat heroes, but the supermarket cashier with her bottle of sanitizer and the UPS driver with his latex gloves are the supply and logistics troops who keep the frontline forces intact. In a smartphone economy that hides whole classes of human beings, we’re learning where our food and goods come from, who keeps us alive. An order of organic baby arugula on AmazonFresh is cheap and arrives overnight in part because the people who grow it, sort it, pack it, and deliver it have to keep working while sick. For most service workers, sick leave turns out to be an impossible luxury. It’s worth asking if we would accept a higher price and slower delivery so that they could stay home.
The pandemic has also clarified the meaning of nonessential workers. One example is Kelly Loeffler, the Republican junior senator from Georgia, whose sole qualification for the empty seat that she was given in January is her immense wealth. Less than three weeks into the job, after a dire private briefing about the virus, she got even richer from the selling-off of stocks, then she accused Democrats of exaggerating the danger and gave her constituents false assurances that may well have gotten them killed. Loeffler’s impulses in public service are those of a dangerous parasite. A body politic that would place someone like this in high office is well advanced in decay.
The purest embodiment of political nihilism is not Trump himself but his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. In his short lifetime, Kushner has been fraudulently promoted as both a meritocrat and a populist. He was born into a moneyed real-estate family the month Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office, in 1981—a princeling of the second Gilded Age. Despite Jared’s mediocre academic record, he was admitted to Harvard after his father, Charles, pledged a $2.5 million donation to the university. Father helped son with $10 million in loans for a start in the family business, then Jared continued his elite education at the law and business schools of NYU, where his father had contributed $3 million. Jared repaid his father’s support with fierce loyalty when Charles was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2005 for trying to resolve a family legal quarrel by entrapping his sister’s husband with a prostitute and videotaping the encounter.
Jared Kushner failed as a skyscraper owner and a newspaper publisher, but he always found someone to rescue him, and his self-confidence only grew. In American Oligarchs, Andrea Bernstein describes how he adopted the outlook of a risk-taking entrepreneur, a “disruptor” of the new economy. Under the influence of his mentor Rupert Murdoch, he found ways to fuse his financial, political, and journalistic pursuits. He made conflicts of interest his business model.
So when his father-in-law became president, Kushner quickly gained power in an administration that raised amateurism, nepotism, and corruption to governing principles. As long as he busied himself with Middle East peace, his feckless meddling didn’t matter to most Americans. But since he became an influential adviser to Trump on the coronavirus pandemic, the result has been mass death.
In his first week on the job, in mid-March, Kushner co-authored the worst Oval Office speech in memory, interrupted the vital work of other officials, may have compromised security protocols, flirted with conflicts of interest and violations of federal law, and made fatuous promises that quickly turned to dust. “The federal government is not designed to solve all our problems,” he said, explaining how he would tap his corporate connections to create drive-through testing sites. They never materialized. He was convinced by corporate leaders that Trump should not use presidential authority to compel industries to manufacture ventilators—then Kushner’s own attempt to negotiate a deal with General Motors fell through. With no loss of faith in himself, he blamed shortages of necessary equipment and gear on incompetent state governors.
To watch this pale, slim-suited dilettante breeze into the middle of a deadly crisis, dispensing business-school jargon to cloud the massive failure of his father-in-law’s administration, is to see the collapse of a whole approach to governing. It turns out that scientific experts and other civil servants are not traitorous members of a “deep state”—they’re essential workers, and marginalizing them in favor of ideologues and sycophants is a threat to the nation’s health. It turns out that “nimble” companies can’t prepare for a catastrophe or distribute lifesaving goods—only a competent federal government can do that. It turns out that everything has a cost, and years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflicts a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives. All the programs defunded, stockpiles depleted, and plans scrapped meant that we had become a second-rate nation. Then came the virus and this strange defeat.
The fight to overcome the pandemic must also be a fight to recover the health of our country, and build it anew, or the hardship and grief we’re now enduring will never be redeemed. Under our current leadership, nothing will change. If 9/11 and 2008 wore out trust in the old political establishment, 2020 should kill off the idea that anti-politics is our salvation. But putting an end to this regime, so necessary and deserved, is only the beginning.
We’re faced with a choice that the crisis makes inescapably clear. We can stay hunkered down in self-isolation, fearing and shunning one another, letting our common bond wear away to nothing. Or we can use this pause in our normal lives to pay attention to the hospital workers holding up cellphones so their patients can say goodbye to loved ones; the planeload of medical workers flying from Atlanta to help in New York; the aerospace workers in Massachusetts demanding that their factory be converted to ventilator production; the Floridians standing in long lines because they couldn’t get through by phone to the skeletal unemployment office; the residents of Milwaukee braving endless waits, hail, and contagion to vote in an election forced on them by partisan justices. We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death. After we’ve come out of hiding and taken off our masks, we should not forget what it was like to be alone.
This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “Underlying Conditions.”
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo accused President Donald Trump of “spoiling for a fight”, as the US leader lashed out at “Democrat Governors”.
Several states, including New York, have begun cautious talks on reopening, but Mr Trump has claimed he has “total” power to lift virus lockdowns.
Mr Cuomo refuted the claim on Tuesday as Mr Trump took to Twitter to criticise the governor.
The US is the epicentre of the pandemic with 592,743 cases and 25,239 deaths.
New York state has the most cases, with almost 190,000 cases and over 10,000 deaths. However, it has seen signs of improvement, with the number of people hospitalised due to coronavirus falling for the first time on Tuesday.
What’s the row about?
On Monday, Mr Trump wrote on Twitter that deciding when to reopen states was “the decision of the president”, not state governors, although he added that he would make his decision “in conjunction with governors”.
The US Constitution says that states maintain public order and safety. So far, it has been individual state governors who have issued lockdown or shelter-in-place orders.
Also on Monday, several US state governors discussed plans to resume economic activity without apparent input from the Trump administration.
Ten states – seven on the East Coast, led by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and three on the West Coast, led by California Governor Gavin Newsom, said they would co-ordinate how to reopen businesses after the outbreak is contained. All but one of the states is led by a Democratic governor.
Now, a row has erupted over who has the ultimate authority to lift lockdown orders.
Who said what?
On Monday night, Mr Trump gave a combative press conference where he feuded with reporters, criticised their coverage of how he handled the outbreak, and said that when it came to reopening the economy, “the president of the United States calls the shots”.
“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” he said, adding: “They can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.”
His position has been contradicted by governors and legal experts. It also contrasts with his earlier position that the responsibility for fighting the outbreak and order lockdowns lies primarily with state governors.
The row continued on Tuesday, as Mr Cuomo told CBS Mr Trump did not have total authority to decide when to reopen businesses, because “we don’t have a king, we have a president”.
During his daily press briefing, Mr Cuomo criticised Mr Trump, adding he would “not engage” in a fight with him, but would have “no choice” if the president the threatened the welfare of New Yorkers.
He added: “I put my hand out in total partnership and co-operation with the president.”
Meanwhile, Mr Trump took the row to Twitter on Tuesday, criticising Mr Cuomo and issuing an oblique snipe at other governors.
“Tell the Democrat Governors that ‘Mutiny On The Bounty” was one of my all time favourite movies,” Mr Trump, a Republican, wrote.
“A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain.” The tale tells of a ship’s revolt in which mutineers meet with unhappy ends, with Mr Trump appearing to compare himself to the captain.
The president aimed particular fire at Mr Cuomo, who he said was calling “daily, even hourly, begging for everything,” like hospitals, beds, ventilators for his state. New York remains the US state hardest-hit by the coronavirus outbreak, reporting 778 deaths in the past 24 hours.
However, Mr Trump struck a less combative tone later on Tuesday, saying he would make a decision on the economy “in conjunction with governors” soon.
“We have tremendous support from governors, and what I do is going to be done in conjunction with governors.”
WASHINGTON—Speaking at a press conference to address the growing Covid-19 pandemic, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner admonished resource-stricken states this week that they should have shown some foresight and planned ahead before joining the Union. “To any governors coming to me and saying the White House hasn’t given them what they need, I would urge them to ask why they didn’t consider these possibilities centuries ago when they first joined together into a federal republic?” said Kushner, singling out Texas’ governor in particular and questioning why the Lone Star state didn’t simply start stockpiling their own ventilators or face masks back in 1884 when they allowed the United States to annex them from Mexico.””Some of you, like Massachusetts or Virginia, have actually had several hundred years with the knowledge that our Constitution grants significant independence in resource allocation to individual states. Frankly, you could have decided way back in 1776 that this setup wasn’t for you. Instead, you impulsively formed a unified nation without even considering the consequences. I’m sorry if I don’t sympathize here.” Kushner stressed that he was tired of hearing excuses from states that didn’t begin building a respirator cache in the 18th century because they were busy with westward expansion or that modern germ theory simply had not yet been developed.
Some Mississippi mayors had put controls in place to help fight the spread of coronavirus—until Gov. Tate Reeves issued an order overruling mayors and reopening many businesses. Reeves has made his choice about what’s important, at least in the short term.
Moss Point Mayor Mario King had closed restaurants for dining in, salons and barbershops,houses of worship, and more. Reeves’ order “completely makes our order null and void” and reopens much of what was closed. “So barbershops and salons are open today. People are actually at church making up Bible studies lost on Wednesday, so they’re having Thursday Bible studies. There are restaurants that re-opened their dine-in services today,” King told the Mississippi Free Press. “I understand they’re just trying to make a dollar, but if one person sneezes who has COVID-19 and someone else comes in, they’re possibly exposed to that. So his order puts our people at risk.”
King described Reeves’ action as “complete foolishness and foolery” that makes him “embarrassed not just as a mayor, but as a citizen of Mississippi. We are the laughingstock of the country because our governor has enacted an order that does not only protect the safety and welfare of the people, but puts Mississippians in harm’s way.”
On the afternoon of Saturday, March 7, Bernie Sanders stood in an empty conference room in a hotel in downtown Chicago, looking quietly agitated, like a man trying to figure out how to be in seven places at once. A couple of blocks away in Grant Park, where Barack Obama gave his soaring victory speech in November 2008, thousands of supporters awaited him as the sound system blasted a medley of songs with a familiar lyrical theme: “talkin’ ’bout a revolution” (by Tracy Chapman), “the revolution starts now” (Steve Earle), “burn, baby, burn” (the Trammps) “so let the revolution begin” (Flogging Molly). In a few minutes, one of his warm-up acts, a local teachers’ union organizer named Stacy Davis Gates, would be pointedly warning the crowd, “See, moderation is a dream killer.” And then, “Moderation is inhumane.”
At the park and in the conference room, the air was charged with a state of urgency that did not yet approach panic but was not so distant from it. After Joe Biden’s incredible string of victories on Super Tuesday, just four days earlier, a new phase of the Democratic primary campaign — one that greatly disfavored Sanders’s once-unstoppable candidacy — was now underway. Former opponents and media pundits were coalescing around Biden, the newly restored front-runner, all but demanding closure to the horse race — essentially, for Sanders to pack up and go back to Vermont. Sanders had a different view of the situation: In so swiftly closing ranks, his detractors were inadvertently proving the case he had been making all along.
“Look,” he told me, “we are taking on the establishment. Wall Street is now opening up their checkbooks for Biden, because we are a threat to them. The pharmaceutical industry strongly supports Biden. Health care stocks went up after Super Tuesday. So, no, I’m not shocked by this.”
I suggested to Sanders that while his candidacy was demanding soul-searching on the part of the Democratic Party, it was his failure to persuade its most reliable constituents — African-American voters — that had led him to this precarious moment. But the candidate remained fixated on his adversaries. “Look, what we’re trying to do is take on the entire political establishment,” he repeated. “We’re taking on the entire corporate establishment, the entire media establishment. The real question,” he continued as he edged toward the doorway, “is: A year ago, would somebody have believed that a grass-roots coalition would be where we are today, a few points behind the establishment candidate? That is the real question. We’re taking on everybody! That’s something that has not been done in American history!”
The campaign was nonetheless scrambling to at least slow if not reverse Biden’s momentum. Sanders had in effect conceded the South to his opponent, canceling a long-planned rally in Mississippi while furiously concentrating his efforts on the Midwest. Several appearances were added in Michigan, which would host its delegate-rich primary in three days. A victory there might change the narrative once more. Instead, as we now know, Sanders’s defeat in Michigan seemed to many to be the moment his campaign ended.
He stepped toward his waiting entourage out in the hallway, then turned back. “Do you understand what I’m saying? It’s like saying, you know, ‘We’re surprised you didn’t defeat the heavyweight champion of the world!’”
Less than three weeks earlier, members of the Democratic establishment had all but resigned themselves to Sanders as the party’s nominee. What could they do? He was playing by their rules, was dominating the early states and had the resources — starting with $18.2 million cash on hand at the beginning of the year, more than double Biden’s amount, and then receiving a whopping $46 million in donations in February alone — to outlast every challenger. This state of affairs seemed astounding even to Sanders himself. “Coming from where I’ve come from in my life,” he told me one afternoon in late February, “from the first time I ran for office and won 2 percent of the vote, and then the next time 1 percent of the vote, then 4 percent, then 6 percent — is the idea that, according to some polls, I’m leading the Democratic primary process for president of the United States, is that a little bit strange? Yes, it is.”
Sanders was sitting in a backstage holding room in Bakersfield, Calif., where he would soon be addressing a noisy crowd of mostly young white and Latino supporters. His voice was somewhat hoarse, and he would need to reserve what lung power he had left for when he would be yelling about “the whole damn 1 percent” a few minutes later, so Sanders asked me to sit in the heavy chair directly beside his. The 78-year-old candidate wore neither jacket nor tie, just a baggy and wrinkled light blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows like a 1960s union boss.
He seemed relaxed, even good-humored, beneath his eternally dyspeptic veneer as he reflected on the improbable arc that began with his tenure as a small-city mayor 39 years earlier. “What we accomplished in Burlington is very much on my mind as I think about the presidency,” he said. He ticked off some of those accomplishments: Most of them reflected liberal priorities, like fighting greedy landlords and “recognizing the gay community in a way that was never done before,” but a few were nonideological triumphs, like bringing a minor-league baseball team to Burlington and rebuilding the city’s wastewater plant. A few days earlier, his wife and confidante, Jane Sanders, told me that they had been discussing potential members of a Sanders cabinet. The media was “crazy, totally wrong” in its speculation about what his administration would look like, she insisted, adding that his choices “will not be coming from the corporate world for the F.D.A. and E.P.A.” She declined to offer further details, explaining, “The way politics is now, if you float a name, that person will be destroyed.”
As the candidate and I talked, the chants outside — “Ber-NIE! Ber-NIE!” — threatened to drown out our conversation. Sanders ended it with a handshake and 10 minutes later took the stage, eventually tugging a generic blue baseball cap over his bald scalp to ward off the California sun.
Pacing and forcefully gesticulating, he delivered an only slightly updated version of the 30-minute speech he has been delivering since 2015, when the political world suffered its first rude awakening to the septuagenarian socialist and his youth-driven insurgent campaign. A great deal had changed since then, but Sanders’s blunt-instrument oratory had not. “The Republican establishment is getting nervous!” he bellowed. “The Democratic establishment is getting nervous! And they’re going a little bit nuts! ‘How can we stop Bernie? How can we stop the movement of millions of people who are standing up for justice?’ So I’ve got news for the Republican establishment, I’ve got news for the Democratic establishment: THEY CAN’T STOP US!”
To the ears of many in the party establishment, such ranting stood as proof that Sanders — belligerently iconoclastic, stoking populist fury over a rigged system and vowing to carry on regardless of what damage it did to other Democratic office seekers — was a left-wing version of Donald Trump: No matter how many voters Sanders brought along with him, his revolution had the edgy makings of what some were calling a hostile takeover.
The next day, Sanders scored a decisive victory in the Nevada caucuses, in large measure because of Latino voters. Having long demonstrated his appeal among the under-40 electorate, Sanders now seemed to have a viable Democratic coalition in his grasp — something that none of his opponents had, to that point, been able to demonstrate. The unthinkable was starting to seem inevitable as the Democratic establishment somberly contemplated the implications of an avowed socialist at the top of the 2020 ticket. Would Sanders cost them the chance to pick up Senate seats in Arizona and Colorado? Would it cost them their House majority?
Fueling their anxieties was an apparently bottomless trove of provocative videos. Sanders in Moscow during the Cold War, praising the Soviet Union’s mass-transit system. Sanders proposing a cap on individual wealth. Sanders expressing admiration for the literacy program introduced by Fidel Castro. When we talked in February, he pointed out to me that most if not all of these statements dated to before he was elected to Congress, back when he was “a reasonably young man.” (In the case of Castro’s literacy program, however, Sanders doubled down on the compliment last month, telling “60 Minutes”: “He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”) I asked if it was fair to say that he had undergone a philosophical evolution since then. “Of course I have,” he said. “Look, what human being doesn’t undergo changes?” He added, “If you’re not a moron, you learn.”
Sanders spoke as if this were a given. At the same time, the man so often described by his campaign ads and senior staff members as “authentic” and “consistent” seemed content to live and die by his reputation for being as immutable as gravity. Nearly all his current and former aides have perfected an impersonation of his thudding Brooklynese. He is understood to be a loner, a constant if not deep thinker with a resting glower and restless hair and an incapacity for niceties. He is an avid nonpresence on the Washington social circuit, has little time for the Beltway media (with its frequent comparisons of Sanders and Trump) and has even less time for the Vermont media (which has offended him by raising questions about his family’s activities, including Jane Sanders’s troubled tenure as president of Burlington College, when her decision to buy waterfront land for the campus sent the institution into financial insolvency).
Sanders the socialist does indeed have three houses: a Washington apartment that one former aide called “ratty”; a Burlington home so modest that in 2015 his presidential campaign advisers wanted to hold an open house so reporters could see for themselves what a skinflint Sanders was; and, yes, a lake house in North Hero, Vt., that Sanders bought with royalties from his memoir but seldom visits because he is not fond of vacationing. Nor is he a fan of sharing personal details. After considerable urging from his staff, Sanders now tells audiences that he is the son of a Polish émigré who arrived in Brooklyn penniless and unable to speak English. But while a Barack Obama or a Marco Rubio might draw from such material an uplifting only-in-America parable, the narrative Sanders quickly shifts to is how America has abjectly failed those of his working-class pedigree.
Never mind his biography, he seems to be saying. “You want to know how Bernie Sanders will govern?” Sanders asked me in Bakersfield. “He was elected mayor in 1981. Check out his record. He was elected to Congress in 1990. Check out his record. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006. Check out his record. Now people want to go back and look at something I said or did in the 1970s — fine, it’s there. If you really want to know what I’d do as president, you might want to check on what I did as an elected official.”
It’s indeed a curious fact that those who despise Sanders and those who worship him all tend to base their appraisals almost entirely on his words, past and present, rather than on his deeds — to see him as a bomb-throwing outsider even though he has held elected office for 39 years, about half his life. Then again, Sanders himself says little about his moments of governance, apart from his vote against the Iraq war in 2002.
The early chapters of Sanders’s political evolution are a familiar-enough story by now: the odyssey of the Brooklyn-bred lefty writer and documentary filmmaker who moved to the Vermont-Canada border during the Vietnam draft, ran for U.S. senator and Vermont governor in the 1970s on the socialist Liberty Union party ticket and made national headlines in 1981 as the socialist who beat the incumbent mayor of Burlington by 10 votes. Jane Sanders told me: “Somebody asked him, ‘What do you consider yourself?’ And he said, you know, ‘Democratic socialist.’ And of course then they make a big deal out of it. The New York Times, when he was elected mayor of Burlington, pushed it: ‘Socialist Elected Mayor in Burlington, Vt.’” (The actual headline was “Vermont Socialist Plans Mayoralty With Bias Toward Poor.”) She continued: “They did a bigger story on that than when he announced for president, which they put on A19.” Sanders characterizes his mayoral triumph as a victory for movement politics, noting to me the support he received from “people in the low-income housing projects, women, police unions and neighborhood organizations — a working-class coalition that was very dissatisfied with the status quo.”
But what’s more notable about Sanders’s eight-year tenure as mayor was how ably he governed from the center-left. Though the establishment-minded local paper, The Burlington Free Press, had initially opposed his candidacy, “by the third term, we were endorsing him,” recalled Jim Welch, who was the paper’s executive editor at the time. “And it was justified. It’s true that he talked a lot about Reagan’s policies toward Central America and nuclear arms. But mainly he was focused on things like keeping the streets plowed and supporting the arts scene. He worked closely with the business community to revitalize the waterfront and preserve the downtown pedestrian mall. I think by the end of it, the business leaders found themselves saying, ‘Boy, I think we made that work.”
In 1990, three years after U.S. News & World Report named Sanders one of America’s best mayors, he defeated the Republican incumbent for Vermont’s at-large congressional seat. He found no hero’s welcome in Washington, however. Referring to the centrist Democratic coalition, Jane Sanders recalled, “The Blue Dogs didn’t want Bernie in the caucus: ‘He’s an independent; let him go be an independent.”
Feeling snubbed, Sanders reverted to fringe leftist, a loner who vocally criticized Democrats and Republicans in more or less equal measure and was safely ignorable by both. “We didn’t have much contact with him, either on bills or on votes,” former Representative John Tanner, a Tennessee Democrat who led the Blue Dog caucus during Sanders’s House tenure, told me. A senior House Democrat (who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as stoking intraparty tensions) unfavorably compared Sanders’s 16-year legacy with that of one of his most vigorous supporters today, Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington State: “She’s equally liberal, and she’s made a very big impression in her first three years in Congress. That was not Bernie.”
In 2005, Jim Jeffords, the Republican-turned-independent senator from Vermont, announced his retirement. Within days, Sanders declared his intention to run for the seat. Recognizing that Sanders was probably popular enough to beat any Democratic candidate, the party’s Senate leaders, Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer (who attended the same Brooklyn high school as Sanders), opted instead to pre-emptively welcome him to their caucus with open arms. “It was night and day,” Jane Sanders recalled. “Harry asked Bernie, ‘What do you want?’ And he got five committee assignments.”
In return, Reid got the Burlington-mayor version of Bernie Sanders. As a senator, he worked to move whatever legislation was in front of him to the left: expanding Social Security benefits, restricting loopholes for pharmaceutical companies, demanding that the bank-reform bill include an audit of the Federal Reserve. But he also voted reliably with the Democratic caucus. He worked successfully with some Republicans, including John McCain, on a 2014 bill to improve medical access for military veterans. In 2018, he worked with Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, on a war-powers resolution seeking to end America’s role in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen (which Trump subsequently vetoed).
Sanders was no more immune to pork-barrel politics than any other senator, setting aside his dovish proclivities to support basing F-35 jets at the Vermont Air National Guard base in Burlington. And he could be diplomatic in his pursuit of his big-picture ambitions. When Reid asked for his support for the Affordable Care Act in late 2009, Sanders agreed in exchange for two concessions: a $10 billion addition in the bill for community health centers and a floor vote on Sanders’s preferred health care measure, a single-payer system. Reid agreed to both. When Republicans tried a parliamentary measure on the single-payer-amendment vote that would delay and perhaps scuttle the A.C.A. altogether, Sanders, rather than standing on principle, withdrew the amendment.
Sanders even attended a few Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee events with wealthy donors as a favor to Schumer — a fact that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign would use against him, leaking a photo of Sanders sunbathing at a committee retreat. Tad Devine, Sanders’s strategist in 2016, who had worked for Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns, recalls Sanders’s telling him during the campaign, “Tad, you’re my link to the Democratic establishment.” Somewhat taken aback, Devine replied: “Bernie, you’re a U.S. senator. What’s more establishment than that?”
By allying himself with the Democratic Party in the Senate instead of heckling from the fringe, Sanders did sporadically succeed at pushing the party to the left. And his decision to mount a Democratic primary campaign in the 2016 presidential election, instead of a third-party one, had profound consequences for him and for the party. In March 2015, according to Gallup, 76 percent of Americans had either not heard of or had no opinion of Sanders. By the end of 2016, he was one of the most famous politicians in the country, with a higher favorability rating than either Hillary Clinton or Trump. As he won enough early primaries to forestall Clinton’s easy victory, she was forced to move left on Social Security and trade agreements; practically overnight, Sanders’s pet issues like Medicare for All and universal higher education went from fringe positions to the center of Democratic policy debates.
Even before Sanders quit the race early in the summer of 2016, the river of bad blood between his insurgent campaign and the Democratic establishment seemed impossible to bridge. When Devine advised his client to voice his support for Hillary Clinton, Devine recalls Sanders’s replying: “Listen, Tad, you don’t know what it’s like to go in front of 20,000 people. As soon as I mention her name, they’ll scream. I’m going to bring them along; it’s going to have to be a process. Let’s start with the Democratic platform.”
An ugly platform fight then ensued, beginning with squabbles over which members of Sanders’s camp would be allowed on the platform committee and extending into fights over language about fracking, health care and Israel. And though Sanders made more than 30 campaign stops for Clinton during the final weeks of the campaign, an internal analysis of Cooperative Congressional Election Study data conducted by the Sanders pollster Ben Tulchin found that a distinct cohort of Sanders’s electorate had migrated into Trump’s column.
Still, Sanders and the Democratic establishment were not quite finished with each other. Schumer created a Senate leadership post for Sanders, putting him in charge of “outreach” — that is to say, developing grass-roots support for the party on key issues. The party had come to recognize, however grudgingly, that Sanders had proved himself as more than just an agitator. He had galvanized young voters in a way no candidate from either party had done since Obama, building a millions-strong grass-roots army and small-donor database at a time when the party — cast entirely out of power in Washington, fighting the dismantling of Obama’s policy legacy and looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections — needed all the help it could get.
As Sanders began staffing up for his 2020 presidential campaign, he recruited three alumni of Reid’s staff: Josh Orton became his national policy director, Faiz Shakir joined as his campaign manager and Ari Rabin-Havt was named Shakir’s deputy. In an unusual move, Sanders also hired Hillary Clinton’s former opposition researcher, Tyson Brody, who had spent several months in the previous cycle digging up dirt on the man who would now be his boss. The 2020 campaign would outraise the competition by a two-to-one margin in the first three contests and deploy superior technological tools — among them peer-to-peer texting, the Bern app (which proved to be a key organizing resource for the Sanders operation in Iowa) and the live-streaming of every single campaign event. It also advertised heavily in Latino communities on Sanders’s economic message, steadily gaining support from that group in early states like Nevada and California while Biden’s Latino numbers remained static, as entrance and exit polls in those states would later reveal.
In the meantime, Sanders decided early in the race — against the advice of several of his top aides — to go easy on the front-runner Biden, an establishment figure who had always treated him with kindness and respect. It’s difficult to imagine what else the party would have wanted out of a top-tier campaign — except to have someone besides Sanders at the head of it.
The high point of the Sanders campaign occurred on Feb. 22, the date of the Nevada caucuses. No team was better prepared for that event. Sanders had a paid staff of more than 200 in Nevada, an astonishing commitment that reflected a strategic determination to dominate the early states. From the moment I entered the East Las Vegas Community Center, a caucus site serving a densely Latino part of the city, it was apparent who was going to win that day. Sanders regalia dominated the panorama, his volunteers outnumbering those for all the other candidates combined — Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer — by perhaps three to one. The volunteers were well prepared and, in almost all cases, unfailingly courteous to the others in attendance.
But then I happened to notice a lanky, bearded young man in a burgundy cap that read “Bernie.” He was tailing Julián Castro, the former housing secretary and presidential candidate now stumping for Warren at this site — walking inches behind Castro and asking mocking questions about his tenure in the Obama administration that the secretary studiously ignored. Then off to my left, I heard a male voice shout: “That’s an absolute lie! You’re a liar! Show me your studies!” It was a stocky young white man in a blue T-shirt that identified him as a “captain” among Sanders’s Nevada volunteers. He was yelling at a black man who had been telling another caucusgoer that Sanders’s Medicare for All plan would double his taxes.
A middle-aged white woman who was a more senior volunteer than the captain rushed over. Apologizing to the black man, she said: “We all come from the same place. We all want a future for our children.” Pulling the captain aside, I could hear her quietly admonish him as his face reddened: “When you start yelling at someone instead of trying to persuade them, do you know what happens? They call you a Bernie Bro.”
Over and over, Sanders insisted that his coalition amounted to a “unity campaign.” An early sign that Democratic voters did not necessarily see it that way, however, was visible in the Iowa caucuses. The caucus rules allow voters whose preferred candidates fall short on the first ballot to switch their support to another candidate on the second. But while Sanders performed strongly on the first ballot, he attracted notably few additional caucusgoers on the second and came up just short of Buttigieg, who won, in the final delegate tally.
When it came to broadening its coalition, the Sanders campaign offered few gestures of conciliation: no intimations that he would govern as he did in Burlington and in the Senate; no across-the-board denunciations of Bernie Bro harassment; no evocation of an America under a Sanders presidency in which it was possible to see anything other than round-the-clock class warfare.
“What separates Bernie’s team,” said Brian Fallon, the press secretary for the 2016 Clinton campaign and a veteran of Democratic politics, “is that they’re movement people. A lot of people in the operative class who do this for a living are highly skilled but also a little bit functionary: They move from one cycle to the next, very malleable with platforms and agendas.” He went on: “The people Bernie attracts, and I mean this as a compliment, are people who wouldn’t sign up for just anything. If they weren’t with him, they’d be grinding away at an advocacy organization or laboring with a House primary challenger. They’re driven by the cause.” Indeed, many of the campaign’s most important state directors — among them Misty Rebik in Iowa and Rafael Navar in California — were veteran progressive activists, not barnacled campaign itinerants. They were believers recruiting other believers from a universe that in many cases had become alienated from the Democratic Party.
At times, Sanders’s top staff members appeared to wear alienation as a badge of honor. Jeff Weaver, the campaign’s chief strategist, who began his association with Sanders as his campaign driver in 1986, informed reporters in the spin room after the Feb. 26 debate that the very idea of Sanders as the Democratic nominee accepting the billion dollars that Mike Bloomberg has pledged to defeat Trump was “a hard no.” When I asked Rabin-Havt, the deputy campaign manager, whether Bernie’s Democratic detractors simply feared that a socialist was unelectable, he replied: “I think they have laughed at us and ignored us for two years now. And I would link the establishment forces, in a broad sense, to the media, the people who attend cocktail parties and give $2,800 to candidates while eating canapés, the people who were at the Alfalfa Club after-party at Jeff Bezos’s house. I was talking to someone from that set the other day. They said: ‘Just who are your donors? I don’t think I’ve ever met a Bernie donor.’ Exactly! Our world is your server at Starbucks, the guy who packs and sends your books from Amazon. That is our world.”
That sense of embattlement has bred solidarity within the Sanders ranks, but also a view that every conceivable force is arrayed against them. Sanders aides privately expressed to me their belief that the party deliberately chose not to schedule a debate between Super Tuesday and the Michigan primary so as to disadvantage Sanders; that leading data analysts like Nate Silver, Nate Cohn and David Wasserman were willfully “anti-Bernie”; that news organizations, including this one, had a conscious bias against Sanders. The candidate himself wondered aloud to reporters whether The Washington Post, which is owned by the megabillionaire Jeff Bezos, had possibly conspired with intelligence officials to leak a classified briefing in which Sanders was told that President Vladimir Putin of Russia was trying to aid his candidacy.
Above all, they resent the charge that Sanders is an “all or nothing” absolutist. One top Sanders aide reminded me that it was, after all, Sanders, the supposed Medicare for All zealot, who in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration headed rallies in an effort to save Obama’s imperiled Affordable Care Act. “The fundamental point of the attack,” the aide then said, “is to show that Bernie really doesn’t care about the people he’s fighting for and cares more about the purity of his ideology. That’s [expletive] and has been disproven by what he’s done.”
So why wouldn’t Sanders make these points? Why wouldn’t the aide say them on the record? “We didn’t come into politics yesterday,” he replied dryly. “So, no, especially in a primary campaign, you’re not going to see us compromise with ourselves on the trademark issues.”
The case for Sanders as the superior Democratic nominee was simple and not without logic. As the party’s pre-eminent progressive, he could assemble a solid liberal coalition: young voters, as he had already demonstrated in 2016; Latinos, who had not been particularly animated by Clinton’s immigration-centric appeals; and, as the fruit of relentless lobbying since his disappointing performance the previous cycle, a sizable following of African-Americans. Sanders also maintained that he alone could appeal to the blue-collar workers who, going back to his days governing Burlington, had been his original base.
“I was born into the white working class, all right?” Sanders told me. “And one of the very sad things that has happened, and this has been statistically demonstrated, is, unbelievably, that the Democratic Party has become the party of the more affluent people, while the Republican Party has become the party of the white working class.”
But Sanders wasn’t simply a bystander to those shifting allegiances. During his time as mayor, demonstrators threatened to shut down Burlington’s G.E. plant, which manufactured Gatling-style guns being shipped by the U.S. to fight leftists in Central America. But the plant also employed hundreds of union workers. Sanders sided with the workers. Today, Sanders was calling for a ban on fracking as a crucial plank in his Green New Deal. Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost — many of which happened to be in the western part of Pennsylvania, a swing state that was vital for a Democratic victory in November.
“Anytime you’re honest and have to make difficult decisions, you’re going to lose some support,” he said. “I understand that. But on the issue of climate change, it’s totally irresponsible for any candidate to deny the reality of what we’re facing.” Sanders added that he had seven grandchildren and that workers in the fossil-fuel industry had kids, too. Besides, he maintained, the union workers knew full well that they “are not my enemy” — and that by providing them with five years of paid retraining, as well as free education and health care, “we’ll protect them.”
But the conundrum Sanders now found himself in with blue-collar voters was of his own making. In 2016, he attracted many of them with a relentless message of economic reform. For this cycle, the candidate chose to run on an all-encompassing “movement” platform with key components — gun control, liberalization of immigration policy and that ban on fracking — that risked raising questions among the white working class as to whether Sanders would, in fact, “protect them.”
This proved to be the first crack to appear in what Sanders saw as his wall. In Iowa, the rural counties went for Buttigieg. The low overall turnout in that overwhelmingly white state was, as Shakir put it, “worrisome for the entire field” — but especially so for Sanders, who had vowed that young people would turn out in “unprecedented” numbers. A week later in New Hampshire, the voting tallies were more reassuring, but Sanders could not credibly boast that he was chiefly responsible for them, because he won by a little more than one percentage point. Even in Nevada, where Sanders took 53 percent of the Latino vote, there was reason to question whether history really was being made by his campaign: Overall Democratic turnout reached 100,000 with the help of a new early-voting provision that did not exist in the Obama-Clinton face-off of 2008, when turnout nonetheless hit 116,000.
Sanders allowed that he had failed to connect with voters of color in 2016. “My state has a very small African-American community,” he told me in Bakersfield. “We have a very small Latino population in Vermont. So, you learn.” In fact, the Sanders campaign learned very little about how to win over black voters in South Carolina. His team would insist that they had never expected to win there — too conservative, too small a youth population — but early on, they believed they could cut into Biden’s margin. Doing so, however, would have required a yearlong effort to recast Biden as an antibusing and pro-incarceration senator who had previously advocated cuts in Social Security — and to target this message to African-Americans who might not be aware of the vice president’s record. But Sanders, ever skeptical of pollsters and reluctant to go on the attack, would not approve a research budget for such an effort.
One of Sanders’s black surrogates in South Carolina, Ivory Thigpen, a pastor and state representative, told me 10 days after the primary that Biden had vulnerabilities. “I remember having conversations with many of my congregants who would say, ‘I don’t know, the vice president seems kind of shaky,” Thigpen said. But, he added, the Sanders campaign did not exploit those concerns with ads focusing on Biden’s record on, for example, Social Security. “I don’t think that was ever a topic of discussion,” he said. “I do think it could’ve moved the needle some.”
Instead, African-American voters were left to focus on Sanders’s sweeping agenda. “One of the things you have to take into consideration with the older generation is that they don’t want things to change,” Thigpen said. “I remember one individual who literally said to me: ‘My Medicare isn’t for all. I worked for it; it’s mine. And now you want to give it away to someone else who hadn’t earned it.”
Biden took 61 percent of South Carolina’s black vote, won in a landslide and seized the momentum from Sanders. Over the next two days, Buttigieg and Klobuchar — nearly out of cash, with no support of their own from voters of color and now seeing Biden as a viable moderate for the first time — quit the race and threw their support to him on the eve of Super Tuesday. Their withdrawal from the campaign exposed Sanders’s underlying weakness: His electoral floor and his ceiling were essentially one and the same. As a result, he could prosper only in a field that was overcrowded with moderate candidates. “Had they not dropped out,” Ben Tulchin, his pollster, told me, “we would’ve continued to win with a 30 percent share of the vote. We would’ve won Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts and probably Texas. That’s seven primaries we would’ve taken. The story would have been totally different.”
Instead, the story of Super Tuesday was that the party was rallying around Biden as the likeliest Democrat to defeat Trump. Many of his victories on March 3 occurred with far less ad spending and field organizing than Sanders had devoted. For Sanders, the problem wasn’t a mismatch in resources owing to the dark-hearted connivances of the 1 percent. The problem was the 99 percent. A majority of them had turned away from their leftmost option, just as they did in the 2018 midterms, when a wave of Democratic voters rejected progressives running in battleground districts. Replacing Trump, it seemed, was all the revolution most Democrats wanted.
Just after Klobuchar and Buttigieg suspended their presidential campaigns and, along with the former candidate Beto O’Rourke, announced their support of Biden in early March, Shakir valiantly spun the news to me as a sign of Sanders’s strength. “Quite frankly, I see fear and panic in the establishment,” the campaign manager said. “They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t think Bernie Sanders was on a path to winning the nomination and in fact the presidency. And I think those who are accustomed to having and enjoying power might see this as a threat to them.”
Shakir did not seem to think these developments represented honest concerns about having a democratic socialist at the top of the ticket. Like his boss, the campaign manager believed that this was solely about the establishment’s determination to install a protector of the status quo. He insisted to me that Team Bernie was in fact delighted to see it come down to their boss versus Biden — “a perfect foil,” he maintained. “Because they lived through the same moments together, saw the same information, saw the Iraq war, the bankruptcy bill, the balanced-budget bill that tried to cut Social Security, the same trade deals. And one person voted the right side of history and the other the wrong side. And when you vote, judgment is the most important factor.”
But now the Sanders campaign was confronting the judgment of voters: Biden had a center-left coalition (including the allegiance of the party’s crucial black constituency) that seemed capable of prevailing in a general election, while the Sanders movement relied on young voters who weren’t coming out all that abundantly in February and March and therefore couldn’t be counted on to produce a record turnout in November. Precisely because he had come so far — from “Who the hell is Bernie?” to “How the hell do we stop Bernie?”— the gale force of the post-Super Tuesday “Stop Bernie” movement felt, to Bernie and Jane Sanders, far more brutal than it did during the previous cycle. This was not really about wanting to unseat Trump, in the Sanderses’ view. This was about shutting down Sanders’s anti-establishment critique. Little seemed to have changed since the spring of 2015, when Hillary Clinton’s upstart challenger was told by his aides that he might not be able to get on the ballot for the New Hampshire primary because of an obscure provision stating that only registered party members could do so. His muttered reply to a campaign aide then could apply now: “[Expletive] Democrats.”
“The only reason Bernie’s in this race,” Jane Sanders told me in early February, “is because we think he’s the best chance to defeat Trump.” Sanders himself acknowledged this foremost priority the day after his electoral firewall collapsed in Michigan — and then added, with a degree of candor that was remarkable even for him, that millions of Democratic voters across the nation happened to disagree that he represented the best chance of doing so.
Sanders concluded his brief remarks to the press that Wednesday afternoon by enumerating questions he intended to ask “my friend Joe Biden” at their first and only one-on-one debate four days later. It was a signal that Sanders intended for his legacy to be not a kamikaze mission but instead something more fruitful for the party that was never his. In 2016, Sanders proved he could energize a new generation of voters. During this cycle, he found a way to organize and communicate effectively with Latinos — evidenced not only in Nevada and California but also along the border in Texas, where his delegate share came to just nine shy of Biden’s. That accomplishment is no cheap trick. Should Biden, the probable nominee, combine his gains in the Dallas and Houston suburbs with his former rival’s organizational superiority near the Mexican border, Texas could flip to the Democrats for the first time since 1976.
In defeat, Sanders has prompted a reckoning within the Democratic Party. He has forced upon it an airing of ideological differences, compelling progressives and moderates to choose their leader and then make the case in public. Since the rise of the Tea Party, self-described “principled conservatives” like Senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton have claimed that they, too, yearn for such a debate with the Republican Party’s center-right establishment, only to opt for Trumpism instead. Even as the two-man race has taken a more pugilistic turn while the economy reels and a pandemic sweeps the globe, Sanders has remained steadfast in his willingness to let the Democratic voters judge him by his democratic-socialist vision of what America should be. And so, it would seem, they have.
“It’s never been about only winning the election,” Jane Sanders told me in February, back when victory was a distinct possibility. “I mean, if you won just because you were the one with the superior campaign strategies, that would not be terribly satisfying in the end. It’s much more satisfying to pick up the paper, go online or watch TV and see town halls of people questioning their senators about Medicare for All from a more informed point of view, using facts rather than vitriol. That’s been so moving to see, really. So gratifying.”
The notion that political change and electoral victory were often two different things — that the former could and did occur without the latter — has been an essential tenet of Sanders’s underdog career. On the day after Elizabeth Warren announced that she was suspending her campaign, the Vermont senator held a news conference. He wore his navy blazer and a matching tie, an implicit show of respect for the vanquished; and though he took handwritten notes to the lectern, he barely glanced at them, instead gazing reflectively at no one in particular. He observed that many politicians “fade away” as their losing campaigns do. This would not be Warren’s fate, he said. Then he explained why: “She has changed political consciousness in America — which, at the end of the day, is the most important thing that any candidate could do.”