Every country has its own foundational myths, but it’s hard to imagine that any are more pernicious than those of the United States of America. How can a nation built on genocide, slavery, and rapacious capitalism still promote itself as the land of opportunity? But perhaps the most insidious tenet of American exceptionalism is the prioritization of the individual over the masses, the mandate that the only person anyone needs to look out for is themselves. It’s an attitude that leads to everything from hoarding toilet paper in the midst of a crisis to protesting the election of a monstrous bigot with a sign that says, “I should be having brunch right now.” And it’s the exact opposite of the ethos of Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign for president, which is best summed up in its simple three-word slogan: “Not Me. Us.”
On April 8, Sanders announced he was suspending his campaign, supporting the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden, and continuing to push for the progressive agenda that has long been his hallmark, and that has lately become embraced by a wider and wider number of Americans. Since launching his first presidential bid in 2015, Sanders has gone from being an iconoclastic, if mostly regionally known senator from Vermont to a leading figure on the national stage, an inspiration to legions of young voters, and a bellwether on issues like Medicare for All, a universal $15/hour minimum wage, forgiveness for student loan debts, and free public higher education. He has also been one of the few leading political figures willing to acknowledge America’s dark past and present, to make clear just what — and who — had to be sacrificed for the lucky few to achieve their wealth and glory.
It’s no wonder, then, that Sanders is disliked by the Democratic establishment. Even as some of his ideas have been adopted by other prominent figures, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, and been integrated into the platforms of a new generation of politicians, like representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, Sanders remained a polarizing figure within a Democratic Party that has grown increasingly more enamored not only with its financially elite base, but also with a mythology of its own: an individual’s poverty is the responsibility of the individual and no one else — and America? It was never not great.
It’s unsurprising, then, that a certain class of Democrats would revile Sanders, who had no qualms about criticizing the last two Democratic presidencies, both of whom maintain high levels of popularity among the Democratic base. It’s unsurprising but unfortunate — not least because both Clinton and Obama ran and won on platforms predicated on radical change and hope. Though neither administration delivered as promised, that doesn’t mean that their initial campaigns were conceptually flawed. On the contrary, Democrats have recently only lost in their bids for presidency when campaigning on a pledge to keep everything the same, or return it to “normal.” Which is why Sanders’ critiques of the Clinton and Obama administrations are so important to hear — he is right in pointing out that their respective maintenance of the status quo was not enough. Instead, we must demand that our politicians promise more to us than just mere survival — particularly when the 1 percent has ascended to unprecedented heights of wealth and power.
Of course, even something as basic as survival is in question right now. Sanders understood that long before the coronavirus pandemic, Americans faced an almost incomprehensible crisis of inequality, and that working to fix it was an existential necessity. But now, as we endure week after week of quarantine, an incomprehensibly uncertain economic future, and skyrocketing unemployment, it becomes more and more clear that there will be no return to “normal,” and that, with every passing day, our perception of what the world should look like is cracking and shifting. It is up to us to mold it into something new.
This is no small task, and for Sanders’ supporters, it is a massive blow to come to terms with the fact that he will not be the leader who is shaping our new reality. It is also hard to accept how many Democratic voters — overwhelmingly older and wealthier voters, including those who already benefit from Medicare — don’t care about a new reality, and long for a past that they found comfortable, or at least bearable.
That past, though, can not be revisited. For many, this is a cause of despair. This is understandable. A secure future feels less and less tenable; the coronavirus pandemic feels like a nightmarish dress rehearsal for the predicted forthcoming environmental catastrophes. And, when people are scared, they become small; they turn inward, they prioritize themselves and their immediate circle. This is what American exceptionalism has always been about, the fear that if we don’t exclusively promote our own interests, someone else will triumph at our expense. It’s a fear of failure, and it leads to a type of cynical compromise that has plagued us as a society and is pervasive in our politics — except when it comes to Bernie Sanders.
Throughout this campaign cycle, Sanders was derided by centrist Democrats for being an idealist, for being “unliked” in the Senate, and for taking once-unpopular, now widely accepted moral stands against things like the Iraq War or the Wall Street bailout. Among Sanders supporters, his decades-long unwavering principles were the foundation of his appeal, and his dissonance with his colleagues and failure to get them to do what was moral and right were examples of his virtue. But, the lesson here is not that there is something noble in failure, or that it is enough to be righteous as the world suffers. Rather it is that, like Sanders, we should not be afraid to fail as we fight for more than just survival, but rather for the right to thrive, to have access to healthcare, to be unsaddled by debt, to be able to provide for ourselves and our families without working multiple jobs and 80-hour weeks.
Sanders has taught us that what looks like failure to some — conceding defeat in a primary election — is not humbling at all, because the electoral loss of one person can not stop the movement he helped foment. Sanders knows that victory and defeat are not a simple binary, and that the process of bringing equality to all Americans is a struggle that has already lasted hundreds of years and is sure to continue longer still. His is a movement populated by more than just one man, a movement driven by millions of people who know that there is something more important to do than autopsy a political loss. Instead, we must fight for more than survival, we must fight for a future that we want to inhabit, a future not just for me or you, but for us.