The public at large was served with a Bernie Sanders endorsement of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States of America. Initially, there was much dismay among Sanders supporters, with some early responses expressing outrage at his “betrayal”. Most of his backers felt that he should have not endorsed her till at least the convention if he did not get the nomination; others felt that he should have run as an independent candidate or team up with the Green Party’s Jill Stein. After agonizing for months over why in the world Sanders wasn’t interested in the Vice Presidential spot, the corporate-run mainstream media explained that Sanders was backing out as Hillary Clinton had offered him several concessions on policy issues. In the next few days, with the bizarreness of the moment over, a clearer picture emerged.
The endorsement speech Sanders made was nearly identical to his stump speech, only that he attributed all the ideas and promises as Hillary Clinton’s and not just his. He listed off the accomplishments of his campaign in terms of votes, delegates, state victories, political participation and ideological shifts nationally – with Hillary Clinton nodding her head uncomfortably, beside him. Some of the Clinton promises that Sanders listed out were concessions that had not even been agreed to publicly by the Clinton camp yet. After getting over with the aforementioned, Sanders declared that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, and then he pledged to defeat Donald Trump, sharply attacking the presumptive Republican nominee. It took several hours for people to realize that Sanders hadn’t officially conceded – something the mainstream papers and TV news pundits have still not bothered to mention.
While Sanders had endorsed Secretary Clinton and relinquished his Secret Service protections – he has not dropped out of the race or freed his delegates. He will still be going to the Philadelphia convention with his 1900 delegates to continue to push for the issues that his campaign had been about. Sanders is yet to win the platform fight to include indexing to inflation for the minimum wage, a ban on fracking, for single-payer healthcare, to overturn the TransPacific Partnership (TPP), to recognize the plight of the Palestinian people, to get big money out of politics, and to close the revolving door between lobbying and Congress.
The fight is also yet to begin on the Rules Committee for the Convention, through which Sanders will seek to open the primary process to Independents (since primaries are taxpayer funded), to abolish superdelegates (party leaders who have a free vote at the Convention and in deciding the nominee), and to oust the current DNC Chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Further, the multiple massive pro-Sanders protest rallies that were planned for the convention are still on schedule, and Sanders continues to fundraise for his national delegates and for current progressive candidates running for office at the local, state and national level.
After endorsing, Sanders has quickly detached himself from the influence of the Democratic Party and has shown his independent streak and commitment to the issues by setting up the foundation of successor organisations to his campaign – one which will fundraise and organize on policy issues, another which will help progressive candidates run for office, and one that will encourage grassroots participation by ordinary citizens. The discontent with politics as usual will prove these organisations as formidable challengers to centrist Democrats and will empower the Left in the years to come.
The day after he endorsed Hillary, Sanders addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), an immigrants’ rights organization, for 25 minutes and didn’t mention Hillary Clinton even once. Sanders has clearly left the Democratic Party behind, if it seeks to obstruct his agenda. He also seeks to weaken union bosses (some of whom were responsible for the victory of the TPP lobby on the platform committee) and big donor-based think tanks and NGOs.
Celebrated activist and former Presidential candidate Ralph Nader made a sharp observation that by endorsing Hillary while proclaiming her progressive promises, Sanders sets her up for a scenario of political betrayal. Sanders’ endorsement speech sounded very much like his stump speech, only that he attributed the ideas not to himself but to the presumptive nominee – a standard she will now be forced to set herself against from the Presidency, if not from the Convention onwards.
Recent polling shows us that the Sanders endorsement has not had a positive impact on Hillary Clinton’s standing, nationally. Hillary’s lead over Trump in the polls has not expanded as expected after the endorsement, in fact it has decreased, symptomatic of the widespread anti-establishment anger. Clinton and Donald Trump are now neck and neck nationally with 40 points each, in a CBS news poll which had showed Clinton leading by 6 points last month.
She is losing to Donald Trump in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania in a Quinnipiac University poll – despite outspending him 40 to 1. In a Rasmussen poll, she is losing to Trump nationally by 7 points – and this is despite all the self-inflicted injuries he has dealt to his candidacy throughout the year. The American people have known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. It is unlikely that anyone would discover her merits in the coming months. This is all despite the Obama endorsement, despite the endorsement from Vice President Joe Biden, from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the late but wholehearted blessings of progressive maverick Senator Elizabeth Warren, and finally despite the endorsement from Sanders himself. Establishment or even progressive blessings to the establishment candidate do not seem to influence voters one bit.
Trump is scoring better on the economy (52-41 points), foreign trade (47-46 points), is even with Clinton on terrorism and national security (46-46 points), and, unbelievably, is losing on illegal immigration to Clinton (45-48 points), according to NYTimes/CBS. Hillary is the only Democrat that Trump can defeat in the election and Donald Trump is the only Republican that Hillary can defeat. Sanders, on the other hand, has been defeating Donald Trump by double digit landslides up to 20 points since September 2015.
Donald Trump is leading Hillary Clinton 40-28 among Independents (who comprise at least 42% of the electorate), in a NYTimes/CBS poll. According to polling by YikYak, nearly half of Sanders’ millennial supporters (48 percent) are backing a third party option, compared to 39% for Hillary. It is worth noting that these numbers are from after the Sanders endorsement and not before.
Since FBI Director James Comey’s press conference, Hillary’s favorables have fallen to 28% and unfavorables gone up to 56% - the latter exceeding even Donald Trump. After the email scandal, voters just do not trust her. 67% of voters say she is not honest or trustworthy, up from 62% last month, according to a NYTimes/CBS poll.
Green Party candidate Jill Stein has seen a triple digit percent increase in social media following since Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton. The same has been the case with her donations. A large number of the donations are in sums of $27, indicating the role of Sanders supporters. Major Sanders backers such as the superstar intellectual Cornel West have chosen to publicly throw their support behind Stein rather than Clinton, given the urgency of the climate, racial and economic crises America is facing today.
One must note the mass educational role Sanders has had in politicizing the American population on the real issues – climate change, poverty, the criminal justice system, the pharma lobby, the military industrial complex, the fossil fuel lobby, campaign finance reform, universal healthcare, free college tuition, infrastructure spending, evenhandedness on Israel-Palestine, against military adventurism, and on the role of Wall street in the rigged economy.
For nearly a year, he schooled his supporters to back ideas, not people – to devalue endorsements. His opponent was endorsed by nearly every Democratic mayor, governor, representative and senator and yet Sanders won 23 states running against the entire establishment. I would argue that there is not a single Sanders supporter who got swayed by his endorsement speech, who would not have anyway come round to voting for Hillary in November - endorsement or not. The Sanders supporters who had decided to vote for Jill Stein or Donald Trump continue to do so – because their support for Sanders was in itself a rejection of Hillary Clinton and establishment politicians. The Sanders movement is not about a leader – Sanders himself is important as a candidate who never sold out, as a vessel for progressive change – but not the endgame for progressives. Sanders has taught the electorate to expect more from the Democratic Party than the crumbs they had been offered for decades. For example, Obama ran to the left of Clinton on guns, but Clinton ran to the left of him on healthcare, in 2008. One aimed to be the first African American President, the other aimed to be the first female President. That is where the differences ended. Sanders, on the other hand, stood for an altogether different type of politics, qualitatively (the vision and issues) and quantitatively (millions of small donors, independent volunteers, huge rallies and grassroots support).
It is also worth acknowledging that the likelihood of Sanders supporters switching to Clinton was also entirely dependent on their perception of the primary process as fair – the Democratic National Committee really bungled that. From limiting the debates to just 6 (Obama-Clinton had 22 in 2008), blocking Sanders’ access to his own campaign data, voter suppression and state convention steamrolling in Nevada (among other things) wounded party unity immensely. Recent news - that Sanders was under immense pressure to unconditionally endorse Hillary Clinton, and that he was booed by House Democrats (Congressmen) for not dropping out - further alienated voters who see Sanders as the only issue-oriented politician not compromised by the corrupting influence of corporate money. According to an Economist/YouGov poll, Hillary Clinton is enjoying the support of 12% fewer Sanders supporters as of last month (down from 53% to 41%).
The policy gains made by Sanders in the Democratic platform ($15/hr minimum wage, abolition of the death penalty, breaking up the big banks, reinstating a modern Glass-Steagall Act), and the planks recently taken up by Clinton (free tuition in college for some categories of people, and the public option in health insurance) can be seen as victories, but they do not go far enough in tackling the needs of poor and working people. These “concessions” do not seem to have moved Clinton’s poll numbers upwards either. Historically, the Democratic platform has remained what it is – a piece of paper - with most Presidents choosing to govern pragmatically in the post-FDR era. This shows that most voters don’t trust Hillary Clinton on her promises but do trust Sanders on his.
Having won 46% of the Democratic electorate running against the establishment, the Sanders bloc is possibly the most powerful intra-party insurgent bloc in the Democratic Party (perhaps stronger than the factions that oversaw the divides over prohibition and over the Civil Rights Act) in history. The battle at the 1968 convention battle between Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy involved a battle between state party insiders and national leaders at a time when most states did not vote in the presidential primary. Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson both reneged on their promises and joined the very wars they had vowed to not enter (WWI and Vietnam, respectively).
Any sort of grassroots insurgency that involves more that 15% of the base should worry any political party and make it drastically change its ways. Sanders winning 30% of the delegates should still have been more significant than if Obama had as the underdog beaten Clinton 80-20 in 2008 (he didn’t, they were neck and neck), because both were establishment candidates. But Sanders won 46% without the help of the party and against its interests – this does not include the Independents who back him 70-30 against either Clinton or Trump, or the voters who were unable to register in time for the primaries, or the rigging and voter suppression in various states such as New York, California, the South, Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada.
Ultimately, what the Sanders endorsement has proved is what the candidate was arguing from the beginning – that it was not Sanders and his campaign that was holding Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers back. Given common sense, the Democratic Party and its leaders ought to realize that their presumptive nominee is damaged goods and a weak candidate. According to a recent report in The Hill titled “Democrats ‘Freaked Out’ About Polls In Meeting With Clinton”, the message seems to have gotten home.
The media whitewashing and underplaying may deny but cannot disprove the reality of a mass movement within and outside the party that is refusing to die down. By ceasing to lobby for the nomination and supporting Hillary Clinton, with terrible poll numbers for the former Secretary of State, and the pressure of a Green Party upsurge, Bernie Sanders has made his case for the Democratic candidacy even stronger.
The ball is now in the court of the Democratic Party leadership: would they rather nominate Hillary Clinton, stay in the grip of big donors and stand a chance of losing to Trump under a wave of anti-establishment anger; or would they rather go left, embrace the ordinary people and win the election with Sanders? He has effectively handed them a time bomb, one that will lead to either a progressive takeover of the party in the near future, or a mass exodus – depending on when it explodes. Sanders will fight for progressive change regardless – as a Senator, or an activist, an organizer, or even as a President. It’s still not too late.
The author is a research scholar in modern history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.