Four years ago, at the Democrats’ national convention, the hostility from Bernie Sanders’ supporters was palpable from the event’s opening moments until the last piece of confetti was swept from the floor.
Sanders and Hillary Clinton simply couldn’t fake it.
The nominee stood awkwardly by his side as Sanders spent the first few minutes of his speech endorsing her for president, thanking the 13 million Americans who voted for him during the Democratic primaries and the 2.5 million donors he credited with fueling his political revolution with small-dollar contributions.
The lingering resentment between the two rivals for the nomination and suspicions from Sanders’ supporters that Clinton and Democratic Party officials had rigged the election against their candidate never dissipated. A chance at redemption fueled hopes among Sanders’ legions of loyalists that the progressive war horse would have another shot at the ring this year.
Electoral victory has now eluded Sanders for a second time, but he still managed to pull off an important achievement: moving the party farther left than at any time since Franklin Roosevelt. Joe Biden, who owes his victory to black voters in South Carolina who turned out for him in part to stop the Sanders’ socialist momentum, decided his 2020 rival’s early primary wins and willingness to drop out in the spring and support him had earned a big concession.
The former vice president then bridged the party’s ideological divides and adopted many of the Vermont senator’s policy proposals. Justice Democrats’ Waleed Shahid last month described the 2020 platform as the most progressive of any Democratic nominee in the modern history of the party.
Monday night it was Sanders’ turn to celebrate that achievement but also to make the case for voter pragmatism and Democratic unity — at one point even pledging to work with moderates and “yes, with conservatives, to preserve our American democracy.”
“Many of the ideas we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered radical, are now mainstream. But let us be clear, if Donald Trump is reelected, all that progress we have made will be in jeopardy,” he told the national audience watching the virtual convention.
Speaking from his home in Burlington, Vt., against the rustic backdrop of stacked firewood, Sanders exhorted all Democratic voters to come together to defeat Trump, whom he cast as an existential threat to the country and democracy itself.
“My friends,” Sanders said, “I say to you, to everyone who supported other candidates in the primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake. … The price of failure is just too great to imagine.”
Trump, he said, is leading America “down the path of authoritarianism,” asserting that the president has deployed “the military and federal agents against peaceful protesters” without mentioning the violent unrest that has swept across the country amid the Black Lives Matter movement’s targeting of police brutality.
The pandemic and the national reckoning over racial injustice, he said, are two reasons the youth-driven progressive movement he helped fuel must continue to grow. “In response to the unprecedented crises we face, we need an unprecedented response – a movement, like never before, of people who are prepared to stand up and fight for democracy and decency – and against greed, oligarchy and bigotry.”
Sanders then tried to stir fears that Trump would not leave office if he loses.
“This is not normal, and we should never treat it like it is,” he argued.
Sanders laid into the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, decrying Trump’s criticism of “doctors and scientists trying to protect us” and broadly claiming that Trump had spent months “refusing to take strong action to produce the masks, gowns and gloves our health care workers desperately need.”
In perhaps his most powerful gift to his longtime Senate colleague, Sanders offered his seal of approval to Biden’s pledge to advance his progressive priorities. Still, he didn’t let the nominee off the hook when it comes to his failure to embrace Sanders’ signature policy proposal, “Medicare for All.” Sanders acknowledged that he and Biden “disagree on the best path to get universal coverage” but gave him credit for having a plan that “will greatly expand health care and cut the cost of prescription drugs.”
“The truth is,” he continued, “that even before Trump’s negligent response to the pandemic, too many hardworking families have been caught on an economic treadmill with no hope of ever going ahead.” To stop the cycle, Sanders said, Biden has embraced a litany of liberal causes that his own campaign advanced, including the Green New Deal, universal pre-K, paid family leave, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and student-loan forgiveness.
“Together we must build a nation that is more equitable, more compassionate and more inclusive,” he said. “I know that Joe Biden will begin that fight on day one.”