Are Bernie or Busters Becoming the Tea Party of the Left?

Protesters with Democracy Spring, which is trying to change the way superdelegates affect the electoral process, block the entrance to the Wells Fargo Center during the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

The crowd of hundreds assembled next to Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building was hot, sweaty, and fired up.

These were the Bernie or Busters who have paraded, chanted, booed, cried, roll called, walked off, and jeered all week. They held signs that read “Hillary Murdered Harambe,” “Never Killary,” “Boycott the Democratic Party,” and “When the RNC Is Racist and the DNC Is Orwellian, We Are Morally Obligated to Vote 3rd Party.” The most popular sign was the word “Oligarchy” with a no symbol on top of it, a sign clearly targeting Hillary Clinton. “How can we vote for her?” a 23-year-old protester named Ana Maria told me. “What would we be voting for?”

The Bernie movement might be small here in Philadelphia, but it is live and it is loud. And the broader question now is whether this is its beginning or its end.

You could, of course, argue that it is the end: Sanders’s campaign is over, and he has urged his supporters to get behind Clinton. “This election is not about, and has never been about, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders or any of the other candidates who sought the presidency,” Sanders said on the main stage on Monday night. “This election is about — and must be about — the needs of the American people and the kind of future we create for our children and grandchildren.” Clinton, for her part, has moved markedly to the left during the primary, with even the Sanders campaign now lauding the Democratic platform as being the most progressive ever.

Perhaps these are signs that the Bernie movement will die through co-option. Clinton is now winning over about 90 percent of Bernie voters, after all. And perhaps it will die through splintering, given the number of Bernie or Busters I met who were promising to throw their votes to Jill Stein, thus throwing their votes away.

But at the convention, I got the sense that the end of the Bernie campaign might not mean the end of the Bernie movement. The Bernie flank might sustain its energy or even grow stronger during the Clinton years.

For one, Sanders has started building institutions to harness his movement now that his campaign is gone. “It would be a terrible, terrible shame if we do not figure out a way to capture that energy, to capture that idealism, to capture that love of this country,” Sanders told reporters this week. “And that’s kind of what I want to do.” He is launching the Sanders Institute, an educational institution to raise awareness of inequality and other issues, and has launched the Our Revolution “social welfare” organization to “help recruit, train and fund progressive candidates’ campaigns.” He also is promising to throw his weight behind as many as 100 progressive candidates this cycle.

New campaigns will carry the Sanders imprimatur, in other words, and might harness some of that Sanders support. And formal institutions will be there to push Sanders’ ideas and to receive his supporters’ energies.

Granted, other defeated candidates have launched similar efforts to sway the political process, to little end. There’s Dennis Kucinich’s Progressive Democrats, and Howard Dean’s Democracy for America. But Sanders did far better than either Kucinich or Dean did in 2004. And he remains a senator — one with considerable sway and a galvanized and national base of supporters. Once the campaign is over and Hillary has won the White House, once there’s no need for party unity in the face of Donald Trump, he will be able to return to pressing her to move to the left and campaigning for change.

His critique of Clinton and her party remains, after all. Sanderistas see the Democratic Party and its elite as corporatist, with the nominee on Goldman Sachs’ payroll and big business funding her campaign. They see inequality and a rigged system as being at the heart of the malaise that many Americans feel. And Sanders and his supporters have long pushed for radical change — the kind of radical change that Hillary is not proposing, even as her policies have gotten more progressive.

Does this mean that the Democrats could have a tea party on their hands in a few months? That too seems unlikely: Unlike Republicans, Democrats’ trust in government has remained stable. And Republicans seem like a much more pressing enemy than the one within. “It’s easy to boo,” Sanders said this week. “But it is harder to look your kids in the face who will be living under a Donald Trump presidency.”

But there’s a way forward for the Sanders movement, and I get the feeling Clinton might be feeling that pressure from the left for years to come.

Are Bernie or Busters the Tea Party of the Left?