I just heard about Bernie Sanders dropping out of the race. I have many friends who are Bernie Sanders supporters and I offer my condolences. I felt the same way a few weeks ago when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race. Though I’m not the fervent Bernie supporter that many of my friends are, I appreciate how Bernie Sanders has eloquently spoken out for progressive ideas and helped persuade many Americans to accept those ideas.
If we look at American history, a candidate doesn’t have to win in order for his or her ideas to win over vast numbers of people. In the Republican side, one can look at the example of Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 but whose ideas eventually came to dominate the Republican Party.
For progressives, there are several past progressive candidacies that have influenced the general public to accept progressive ideas. The Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 and 1984 campaigns. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 campaign. George McGovern’s 1972 campaign. Robert F. Kennedy’s and Eugene McCarthy’s campaigns in 1968. Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign. Teddy Roosevelt’s and Eugene Debs 1912 campaigns.
Even though these progressive candidates did not win, they were able to persuade the general public to accept progressive ideas that had before been considered too radical. The 8 hour work day. Ending child labor. Women’s suffrage. Social Security and Medicare for the elderly. Civil rights for African Americans and for all minorities. Dismantling segregation laws in the South. Opposing unjust wars. The direct election of Senators. Campaign finance laws. LGBTQ equality. Equal pay for equal work for women. Equal opportunties for those with disabilities. Workplace safety laws. The right to collective bargaining.
In 2012 C-Span had a documentary series called “The Contenders” that presented key figures who ran for president and lost, but changed political history nevertheless. One of the episodes focused on Eugene Debs,
Eugene Victor Debs was an American union leader, one of the founding members of the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and ran as the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920.
Though Debs lost, many of his ideas eventually won broad acceptance by later Americans. Among the ideas in Debs’ 1912 platform that won wider acceptance: the use of government public works programs to give jobs to the unemployed during economic downturns; the 8 hour work day and weekends off of work; forbidding child labor for those under 16; the minimum wage; social security for the elderly and unemployment insurance during economic downturns; employer provided insurance for their workers in case of industrial accidents or death; a graduated income tax and the extension of inheritance taxes; women’s suffrage; the creation of a federal bureau of health, of education and of labor.