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Sanders legacy: 'liberal' no longer a four-letter word?

Patterns of thought

Bernie Sanders remains focused on now-dwindling hopes for the presidential nomination. But followers say his popularity reveals energy on the political left that will endure. 

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    Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Anaheim, Calif., on May 24.
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Greg Haddock is a peripatetic, globe-trotting Millennial who this year has become an outspoken online leader in the #BernieOrBust movement.

But as the presidential primary season winds down in the next few weeks, Mr. Haddock, host of the Majority Villain podcast, recognizes that the boisterous supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders now stand at a kind of crossroads – both in terms of their personal consciences and the nitty gritty realities of politics.

“We’ve got a great thing going, but now comes the real challenge,” says Haddock, a Colorado native now studying political science as a graduate student in Germany – who likes to tease his friends about the tuition-free education he’s getting.

How he and others respond to this challenge – the likely ascendency of Hillary Clinton to the Democratic nomination – could determine whether the “political revolution” Senator Sanders espouses becomes a 2016 footnote or an ongoing and even growing force on America's political left.

Still #NeverHillary

Haddock is still a #NeverHillary guy. More than anything, he believes the nation’s political system, an “oligarchy” of moneyed interests and political insiders, must change. Whatever happens to the Sanders revolution this year, he believes this much is clear: A new force of liberalism, dormant in American politics for at least the past 40 years, is not going away.

“Without Bernie Sanders, maybe we wouldn’t have a face on it, but that energy, and that sort of rage against the system is very real,” he says. “Organizing it is going to be the real test of our time. And that is difficult.”

Indeed, the surprising presidential run of the Vermont democratic socialist this year has put an exclamation point on a trend that began with the Occupy Wall Street movement and propelled politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to the Capitol. “Liberal” is no longer a dirty word in American politics.

“The fact that Sanders has won as many caucuses and primaries and garnered as many votes as he has is quite significant in itself,” says Sean Foreman, a political scientist at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., via e-mail. “This has to be viewed as the beginning of a political movement rather than the end of the Sanders' campaign.”

“And the pendulum is probably going to swing even further in favor of progressives in the coming decades as the US witnesses a historic demographic shift, and as more and more people lose faith and confidence in traditional institutions like government, corporations, and media outlets,” Professor Foreman predicts.

Buttressing this trend is the fact that Americans have become more liberal on many social issues – and more liberal in general, according to a Gallup survey last May.

But whether or not the Sanders movement itself can upend the Democratic establishment in ways the tea party and Donald Trump have roiled the Republican party is still an open question.

For all the talk of a political revolution, former Secretary of State Clinton's candidacy has proven remarkably resilient, say many long-time political observers.

Despite being an emblem of ultimate insider politics with ongoing negative ratings, she has garnered more votes than any candidate this season – and has outpolled Sanders with numbers greater than Barack Obama’s over her in 2008.

“It is tempting to say that if Trump is heir to the tea party, Sanders is heir to Occupy and the fallout from the banking-financial crisis that is still unfolding,” says Shaun Bowler, distinguished professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside.

But it remains unclear whether Sanders supporters’ loud concerns – college debt, a dearth of well-paying jobs, and a feeling that the global economy has created a “lost generation,” – can be merged with other causes to build a broader coalition, Professor Bowler notes.

“On the basis of current evidence, [Sanders] just doesn't seem interested in building them,” he continues. “He doesn't seem to talk that way or campaign that way. In his rhetoric and stump speeches he seems more interested in expressing the anger and in finger pointing than in pointing a way forward. That would suggest some pessimism about Sanders's ability to build a coalition with others.”

Indeed, his support for down-ticket races has been minimal. He has shared his e-mail lists with a few progressive congressional candidates. And in efforts reminiscent of the tea party in the Republican Party, he has thrown his full support toward law professor Tim Canova, now challenging establishment titan Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who chairs the Democratic National Committee.

For now at least, despite the enormous odds against his candidacy, Sanders has been pouring his efforts into a seeming quixotic attempt to win the nomination, continuing to attack Clinton and the “rigged” Democratic primary process.

American liberalism overstated?

And even concerted efforts to build a lasting movement would run up against a general conservatism in the fabric of American culture, some scholars say.

“I don't think the fact that Sanders has survived this long in the race says much about American liberalism,” says David O'Connell, professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., and the author of "God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion." “There is little appetite for liberal policy solutions in this country. For decades substantially more Americans have chosen to identify as conservative rather than liberal, and a lot of Sanders's ideas go against deeply ingrained American values of individualism and private property.”

Professor O’Connell notes how the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out, while “on the right, still about 20 percent of the public identifies as a tea party supporter.”  

Haddock, the young Sanders booster, admits that Occupy Wall Street lacked clear, concise goals. “And to talk about Bernie Sanders as some kind of savior is nonsense as well,” Haddock says. “Bernie Sanders, while being the face of this movement, belongs to it. I like to think of him as just just another part in a big wave, and we’re all in that big wave together.”

Earlier this month, a group of former Sanders campaign workers and volunteers came close to criticizing their beloved candidate, putting together a strategic plan for the movement after Clinton claims the nomination.

They urged him to focus his newfound clout on building a lasting liberal organization, independent of both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party.

“Does Bernie Sanders and his campaign facilitate the growing voice of a new generation of activists?” his former workers wrote, according to The New York Times. “Or does he raise hell at a party convention and leave the remains of his organization to be picked over by groups on the left that, to date, have been mostly marginal to the broad majority of Americans and Sanders supporters alike?”

Haddock calls himself a “radical optimist.”

“No matter what happens, that energy is not going to be wasted,” he says. “It’s going to be funneled into something, and eventually it will catch up to the people who are stealing this democracy.”

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