I write this the day before the Iowa caucuses. Whoever wins, the post-Iowa reportage will make what’s come before it seem profound in comparison. We’ll be in for weeks or months of obsessed, breathless, and painfully shallow discussions of polls, candidate gaffs, quotes from campaign staffers, etc. So before all that noise begins, here are some things I think we’ve learned from Bernie’s campaign so far.
1) Much more is possible in electoral politics than almost anybody thought. Forget Hillary, just consider Bernie’s standing in the polls compared to Martin O’Malley, who at the start of the race was considered by every political insider to define the left-most edge of the electable political spectrum. The entire staff of the NYT and an overwhelming majority of sitting Democrats have been forced to admit they were wrong about Bernie’s chances. Hereafter, insider claims like “that will never happen” are mere astrology. Statements like “he can’t win” just can not be trusted. If Bernie goes down for defeat, there will be choruses of “I told you so” from all over the political spectrum; this is exactly the wrong conclusion to be drawn. He has already proven the common wisdom wrong on so many fronts — “democratic socialism,” refusal to triangulate, bad hair, age, and more.
2) Especially the common wisdom about big money: big money is still a huge force, of course, but Bernie has proven that it is not insurmountable. The math is simple: there are just many, many more people who can give $30 than there are that can give hundreds of thousands, so even in a post-Citizens United environment, all is not lost.
3) Also, you do not have to cower before the mainstream media to succeed nationally. Bernie has systematically treated shallow questions from reporters with clear refusals to play the game, and managed to make it clear to millions that he shares their distrust of most reporters while also offering something different and more substantive. His refusal to go negative on Hillary, to take seriously the email scandal or the behaviors of Bill, his dogged effort to stick to his core principles and goals — all this has worked positively for his campaign and his standing in the polls. There is a model to be followed there.
Even if Bernie goes on to victory, progressives still need to be thinking hard about electoral strategies, about down ballot races, about policy initiatives, about campaigns far into the future. Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, I hope we can hang on to the lessons of the last year and put them to good use.