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The post-convention fate for the Bernie Sanders agenda

How progressives will try to push their agenda forward with less leverage
Published: Aug. 20, 2020 at 9:21 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - He isn’t their preferred candidate, but much of the progressive left is backing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. But, it’s unclear whether that alliance will prove to be a temporary truce or lasting treaty.

”Our campaign ended several months ago,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) declared on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, “but our movement continues and is getting stronger every day.”

Sanders leads a political force of millions inspired by his progressive agenda, disdain for distraction, and willingness to stand up to friend and foe. In 2010, he first came to the attention of many outside of Vermont by filibustering a bipartisan deal brokered by then-Vice President Joe Biden. Sanders held the Senate floor for eight-and-a-half hours that day.

But, the man who campaigned on revolution began preaching compromise months ago, after coronavirus and stinging Super Tuesday losses led him to cut his second consecutive run for the presidency short.

“We must come together, defeat Donald Trump, and elect Joe Biden,” Sanders said, repeating a theme he touched upon several times during his eight-minute remarks Monday.

In that speech to the digital convention, Sanders tried to reassure his supporters that Biden is adopting progressive policies. He listed raising the minimum wage, help for organized labor, support for paid family leave, universal pre-K, affordable childcare, infrastructure investment, addressing climate change, and criminal justice reform.

Most notably, Sanders said, while Biden is not ready to embrace “Medicare for All,” he would expand access to care and cut costs. Sanders characterized that as a step in the right direction.

Earlier in the night though, from the same virtual stage, Republicans backing the Democratic nominee promised moderation and centrism in Biden. “I don’t think he’ll go hard left,” said former Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), the last man to drop out of 2016′s GOP primary, as he addressed the crowds online and on TV.

We requested interviews with Sanders and campaign surrogates, and followed up more than a dozen times over the last couple of weeks. The campaign never made anyone available.

While Sanders asked his supporters to back the Democratic nominee, some aren’t ready to cast a ballot who is unwilling to back Medicare for All, especially, they note, in the midst of a pandemic.

“I can’t pledge my vote to Joe right now,” said Alexa Leister-Frazier, a pledged delegate for Sanders from Virginia.

Vermont’s Bernie delegation elected Noah Detzer as its point person this year. In 2016, he put himself in the middle of a walkout during the Philadelphia convention. He chanted loudly with others from Vermont and across the country, displeased with what they saw as a rigged process.

This year, his concerns are more muted, as his faith in the movement’s staying power grows.

“In a sense, you have to be pragmatic, and you have to pick your battles,” he said, noting he believes the Sanders agenda will move forward. “We don’t have influence in a Trump administration, and it’s possible there could be influence in a Biden administration.”

We did speak with a Vermont delegate who voted against the party platform, because Medicare for All isn’t included. Like Leister-Frazier, the delegates questioned the value of progressive concessions, if they don’t include a pledge to push for single-payer.

The convention’s virtual format may be masking some of the split between Sanders supporters and moderates. Party leaders told its members the platform passed, but has not released the results. Spokespeople for the Democratic National Committee did not respond when we asked why.

Meanwhile, advocates for single-payer said more than 20% of all delegates voted against the platform.

“We’re not as far apart as we seem,” said Reggie Hubbard, a strategist and congressional liaison for MoveOn. He suggested those on his end of the political spectrum secure what they can now, and then start lobbying again for more. “Progress, by definition, requires us to push,” he said.

Hubbard said the progressive, digital advocacy group is well positioned to organize during the pandemic. If they can help deliver the presidency and Democratic majorities in Congress on Nov. 3rd, he said the movement will have more leverage, not less.

If Democrats don’t deliver for progressives, Hubbard said they’ll use the same tools they have during the Women’s March, through impeachment, and in racial justice protests during to the Trump administration.

“You keep the people that you voted for accountable,” he said. “It’s not like, ‘Hey I voted, and I’m out.’ No. You vote, and then you stay engaged.”

The convention comes to a close Thursday night with Biden’s keynote address. Every person interviewed for this story said, while the top of the ballot may be set, they can still influence congressional primaries, as well as state and local races across the country. They view expanding their ranks as critical to sustaining leverage for years and decades to come.

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