Dear fellow Bernie fans, our candidate lost in 2016. Here’s how we can win in 2020

Living to fight another day.
Living to fight another day.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the presidency is over. He endorsed Hillary Clinton last week, and in a speech at the Democratic National Convention last night, told disappointed supporters in no uncertain terms that “Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States.”

At this point, even the most hardcore #BernieOrBust enthusiast has to know that whatever else happens, Sanders is not going to be the next commander in chief.

For lefty socialists like me, Sanders’ candidacy has been both an inspiration and a disappointment. On the upside, Sanders did far better than anyone thought he would, especially back in April when he threw his hat in the ring to widespread shrugs. Despite overwhelming establishment support for Clinton, Sanders won more than 40% of pledged delegates. Even when he was behind in the delegate count, he contested states all the way through to the convention, and scored a stunning upset victory with his narrow win in Michigan in March.

But despite these achievements, the truth is Sanders that never was close enough to really challenge Clinton. His weakness with African-American voters was particularly devastating; his defeat in the South practically ensured a primary loss as well.

So, while Sanders may have lost, he has also made important political gains. The question for progressives, then, is how to build on Sanders’s successes and avoid his failures? Here are three lessons the left should take from the Sanders campaign for 2020, 2024, and beyond.

Get even more young people to vote

Sanders had unprecedented, stunning success with young voters. He crushed Clinton among voters under 30, earning 2,052,000 votes to her 766,425. He actually won more voters under 30 than Clinton and Trump combined.

There has been a lot of speculation as to why Sanders has done so well with young people. But the most obvious explanation is that he aggressively pursued them. Arguably, Sanders’ most innovative policy proposal was free college—a promise to end the crushing college debt burden. That’s a policy that appeals to young people directly.

The left should continue to support free college tuition, and it’s good that Clinton has taken steps in that direction. But we can do more. In particular, progressives should strongly advocate for lowering the voting age. Currently, with the voting age set at 18, many young people facing important life choices about college, career, and the work force have no political voice. This is unjust. Advocating for lowering the voting age would show commitment to, and faith in, young voters. And, as Sanders demonstrates, when you show faith in young voters, those voters reciprocate.

Don’t lose black voters

As any Sanders supporter will tell you, Sanders’s campaign embraced policies that would have substantially helped many black people—including anti-poverty programs and criminal justice reform. Nonetheless, Sanders lost among black voters by 84% to 16% in South Carolina, and by similarly devastating margins in other Southern states. Black people make up close to 25 % of Democratic voters. A candidate who is uncompetitive with black voters simply can’t win a Democratic primary.

The lesson is clear: Non-establishment candidates need to do better with black voters. Terrell Starr at Fusion has reported that Sanders’ team failed to fund, or take seriously, black voter outreach—a strategic error that future leftist candidates badly need to rectify.

Progressive candidates must also do better at emphasizing places in which economic and civil rights concerns overlap. For example, public defenders offices are badly underfunded, which contributes substantially to mass incarceration and to an unequal and arbitrary criminal justice system.

The left should also clearly prioritize voting rights. Opposition to voter ID laws, which set up barriers to voting for poor and marginalized people, resonates with those who remember the Civil Rights movement. Had Sanders focused on voting rights in the same way he focused on campaign finance reform, his message might have been more successful in the South.

Cultivating black and minority leaders is a no-brainer. Virtually every progressive candidate attempting to unseat the mainstream Democratic candidate in presidential elections—Sanders, Jill Stein, Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, Ralph Nader—has been white. The one arguably insurgent candidate who was successful was Obama. There are lots and lots of differences between Obama and his failed predecessors. But certainly one of the messages of his success is that the left is more likely to defeat people like Hillary Clinton when it appeals strongly to voters of color.

Don’t compromise, until you do

Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton has elicited frustration and even boos from some of his most ardent supporters. But Scott Ashworth, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris school of public policy, argues that it’s actually good strategy. “You find lots of left people saying Hillary Clinton is terrible, just like you find lots of all kinds of people saying Hillary Clinton is terrible; she’s incredibly unpopular,” Ashworth said by phone. “But if you want people who are Bernie Sanders-like to get elected, you probably want Hillary Clinton making decisions about judicial nominees and appointees in other agencies. Because that will affect things like ballot access laws, voter ID laws, campaign finance, all of these kinds of things.”

Ashworth also noted that, despite his much-vaunted outsider status, Sanders actually has standard Democratic qualifications in many ways—he’s been a congressman and a senator, after all. That’s in sharp contrast to, for example, Jill Stein, the 2016 Green Party candidate, who has not held any elected office. Sanders may have attacked the establishment, but he was also part of it. That’s almost certainly going to be the case for any future successful left candidate, too.

Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine as her running mate, and the Wikileaks release of Democratic National Committee documents, has reminded many Sanders supporters of just how frustrated they are with the primary process and how much they dislike Clinton. I myself would have much preferred Sanders. But despite that, this year’s campaign has given me a lot of hope for the future. In both his successes and his failures, Sanders points the way toward a progressive coalition that can win. The primary for 2016 is over. The 2020 and 2024 primaries start now.