After Hillary Clinton’s latest wave of victories in the Democratic presidential race, there’s a growing chorus calling for Sen. Bernie Sanders to end his campaign. But that call seeks to shortchange democracy. Sanders should keep running — but lengthen his perspective about the true nature of his “political revolution.”
Absent an implosion by Clinton due to health or scandal, we know Sanders won’t win a majority of pledged delegates. But students of delegate math have known he’s had virtually no chance since losing big on “Super Tuesday” on March 1. The Democratic contest essentially operates as an unfolding national primary because all states allocate delegates by proportional representation. That makes it very difficult to catch up without a sweeping change in public opinion.
But having no chance to win is no reason to give up. We rightly admire athletes for giving 100 percent even when their cause is hopeless. It’s even more important in politics because of the deeper meaning of democracy.
If candidates should quit once they know they can’t win, then Walter Mondale should have thrown in the towel after the debates in his 1984 general election against Ronald Reagan. All congressional challengers today should drop out if daring to run in one of the 85 percent of congressional races where we already know the winner. Third parties and independents should forget working to earn ballot access.
Fortunately, representative democracy is about more than winning and losing. It’s fundamentally about candidates engaging with their fellow Americans about their community and its needs. Every vote has meaning to the person casting it, and respect for that vote goes beyond calculating whether its recipient has a chance to win.
Sanders wouldn’t be the first candidate to keep contesting primaries after defeat was inevitable. Ron Paul finished the 2008 primary season, as did Jesse Jackson in 1988. More recently, Hillary Clinton battled Barack Obama to the primaries’ finish line in 2008 despite her certain defeat in pledged delegates.
But it’s wise to adjust one’s tactics in the face of political reality. Sanders should explain that his political revolution was never going to be a sprint. His backers must do more than give online gifts, make phone calls to help him win the next primary and expect rapid change on the national level.
Sanders in fact can tell a remarkable story that is far more complex than his standard campaign stump speech. His unusual political success as an independent rests on thousands of people moving into Vermont in the 1960s and 1970s to work and engage in low-income communities. They helped ordinary people with day-to-day problems like getting dental care and harvesting hay before it rains. Collectively, they built relationships that earned trust that was critically important for a socialist from Brooklyn to ultimately win their votes.
Building and sustaining new political movements will also take electoral changes that go far beyond easy rhetoric about Citizens United and the “billionaire class” buying elections. The fundamental electoral barrier to citizens politically engaging with one another is winner-take-all elections. When 49 percent of the vote wins you nothing and 40 percent makes your cause hopeless, our democracy turns into a series of mostly gated communities where dissenting views are unwelcome, unheard and unrepresented. Changes like proportional representation and ranked choice voting — which he supports, but does not discuss — must earn their place in his vision of a democracy for all.
Sanders also should try to find and support allies to run, from Congress to school boards. He never was going to win his promised changes alone — and can be much clearer in the coming weeks that he seeks candidates ready to embrace his vision, whether they’re running for Congress this year or school board in 2017.
Sanders has built a remarkable campaign, including support from an overwhelming share of millennials at the polls. What he does in the coming weeks will tell us much about what this election year ultimately may mean for winning change.
Hillary Clinton will want his endorsement and likely will ultimately get it, but Sanders need not suggest that her victory is sufficient.
Just as his counterparts on the political right and in its middle who seek their own transformations of our country and its democracy, Sanders should keep giving 100 percent. Ultimately, we need all their energy and ideas to address the daunting challenges that await us.