If there was any doubt what Bernie Sanders would say in his live online address on Thursday night, he quickly resolved it by making clear that this was no concession speech, but rather a rallying cry for his supporters, and a road map for a future that extends well beyond Tuesday, November 8th. “Election days come and go,” Sanders began. “But political and social revolutions that attempt to transform our society never end. They continue every day, every week, and every month in the fight to create a nation of social and economic justice.”
For the first ten minutes or so of the twenty-one-minute address, which Sanders delivered standing in front of a blue backdrop, he didn’t mention Hillary Clinton at all. Instead, he recalled how many commentators had initially regarded his campaign as a “fringe” phenomenon, and how he had gone on to attract more than twelve million votes and win twenty-two states. “Our vision for the future of this country is not some kind of fringe idea,” he said. “It is not a radical idea. It is mainstream. It is what millions of Americans believe in and want to see happen.”
Sanders had a point. As I’ve noted before, he has expanded the political space and put issues like inequality and political capture front and center. He isn’t just another Democratic politician—he is the tribune of a progressive movement that emerged from the antiwar demonstrations, the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, the nationwide effort to boost the minimum wage, the outrage over the Citizens United ruling, and the general disenchantment with money politics. When Elizabeth Warren declined to enter the Presidential race, Sanders stepped in, running an insurgent campaign that conveyed a clear message and relied on small donations—more than eight million of them. “We showed the world that we could run a strong national campaign without being dependent on the big-money interests whose greed has done so much to damage our country,” Sanders pointed out.
Even establishment Democrats concede that Sanders ran an impressive campaign, forcing Clinton to move left on issues like trade, Social Security, and the Keystone pipeline. But what now? The primary season ended last week. Clinton won fifty-six per cent of the popular vote and fifty-five per cent of the elected delegates. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki pointed out the other night, this primary contest wasn’t a squeaker in the tradition of Walter Mondale’s victory over Gary Hart, in 1984, or Barack Obama’s win over Clinton, in 2008. It was a solid win, like Jimmy Carter’s over Ted Kennedy, in 1980, or Bill Clinton’s over Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas, in 1992.
When Sanders did turn to the general election in his speech on Thursday, he began not with Clinton but with her opponent. “The major political task that we face in the next five months is to make certain that Donald Trump is defeated, and defeated badly,” Sanders said. “And I personally intend to begin my role in that process in a very short period of time.” This suggested that Sanders would pretty soon begin campaigning for Clinton. But what he said next gave a different impression. “Defeating Donald Trump cannot be our only goal,” Sanders went on. “We must continue our grass-roots efforts to create the America that we know we can become. And we must take that energy into the Democratic National Convention on July 25th, in Philadelphia, where we will have more than a thousand and nine hundred delegates.”
Finally, Sanders brought up Clinton—but not to concede defeat or congratulate her. Referring to his meeting with Clinton at the Capital Hilton, in Washington, on Tuesday night, Sanders said the two of them had discussed important issues facing the country and the Party. “It is no secret that Secretary Clinton and I have strong disagreements on some very important issues,” he said. “It is also true that our views are quite close on others. I look forward, in the coming weeks, to continued discussions between the two campaigns to make certain that your voices are heard and that the Democratic Party passes the most progressive platform in its history and that Democrats actually fight for that agenda. I also look forward to working with Secretary Clinton to transform the Democratic Party so that it becomes a party of working people and young people, and not just wealthy campaign contributors.”
This was fighting talk, and Sanders followed it up with a long series of policy demands, several of which Clinton has so far resisted despite her recent moves to the left. Sanders reiterated his calls for free tuition at public universities and colleges, a federal ban on fracking, a tax on carbon, and “modern-day Glass-Steagall legislation” to break up the big banks. While the Clinton campaign has indicated that it is willing to make some concessions on the Party platform, it seems unlikely that it would be willing to go as far as Sanders wants on these issues.
The Sanders campaign is also pushing to reform the primary process. Sanders wants to get rid of superdelegates, end closed primaries, and allow same-day voter registration. Sanders didn’t spell out this agenda in his remarks. But, without mentioning any names, he still took the Democratic Party leadership to task, saying that it “has turned its back on dozens of states in this country and has allowed right-wing politicians to win elections in some states with virtually no opposition—including some of the poorest states in America.”
Sanders continued, “The Democratic Party needs leadership which is prepared to open its doors and welcome into its ranks working people and young people.” Only by doing this, he argued, could the Party hope to reverse the big losses it has sustained at the local level over the past decade. “State and local governments make enormously important decisions, and we cannot allow right-wing Republicans to increasingly control them,” he said. “I hope very much that many of you listening tonight are prepared to engage at that level.”
By this point in the speech, it was clear that Sanders wasn’t going to make any concessions himself. This wasn’t intended as a coming-together moment, or a finale. It was a strident re-declaration of the message that Sanders has been delivering for the past year and a half, and it ended on a note of optimism. “We have begun the long and arduous process of transforming America, a fight that will continue tomorrow, next week, next year, and into the future,” Sanders said. “My hope is that, when future historians look back and describe how our country moved forward into reversing the drift toward oligarchy, and created a government which represents all the people and not just the few, they will note that, to a significant degree, that effort began with the political revolution of 2016.”
The instant reaction to the speech was divided along predictable lines. Using the hashtag #OurRevolution, Sanders supporters celebrated his defiance and his ambition. “Loved tone of @BernieSanders speech,” Cenk Uygur, the host of The Young Turks online news show, tweeted. “We’re not fighting this campaign as much as fighting for #OurRevolution. A revolution can’t be suspended.” (Deleted Amanda Marcotte crap.)
The Sanders-Clinton story is an ongoing one. The Democratic Convention isn’t for another five weeks, and the negotiations over the Party platform are only beginning. Perhaps Sanders is holding off on an endorsement to maximize his leverage. Perhaps, as some observers have suggested, he is overplaying his hand. But, in any case, he isn’t going quietly. Appearing on “Morning Joe” on Friday, Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, was asked whether Sanders was still an active candidate. He replied, “He is an active candidate for President, yes.”