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Why It’s Time for Bernie Sanders to Support Hillary Clinton

April 30, 2016, 1:00 PM UTC
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders take their increasingly acrimonious battle for the Democratic White House nomination to a debate stage in Brooklyn ahead of the key New York primary. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Jewel Samad AFP/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has achieved astonishing things in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. He has single-handedly resurrected socialism in American political discourse. He has moved Clinton to the left on virtually every issue. Most importantly, he has brought millions of young people into politics. According to CIRCLE, more youth have voted for Sanders than for Clinton and Trump combined.

But Bernie Sanders is not going to be the Democratic nominee for president. He isn’t going to quit or suspend his campaign. But barring the impossible, he is going to lose.

What Sanders does between now and the end of the Philadelphia convention this summer will largely determine whether he is able to consolidate all his achievements. In fact, these next few weeks will decide whether his message and movement will continue to impact American politics.

Even after Tuesday’s massive defeat in a string on Northeast states, Sanders insisted that “we are in this campaign to win.” But he also gave his first hint of a different agenda. He said that he is out to “win every delegate we can,” so that he can “fight for a progressive party platform” at the Convention in July. Sanders could score some real victories here, including commitments to a $15 an hour U.S. minimum wage, universal health care, and tougher regulations for Wall Street.

But while party platforms seem crucial during the convention, with delegates fighting over every word, they lose their significance immediately thereafter.

The more important question is whether he will be given the opportunity to speak.

The “unity” convention speech by the runner up is always a high risk/high reward moment for the party and its nominee. Edward Kennedy’s speech at the 1980 convention barely mentioned Jimmy Carter, and it was embarrassingly clear that he did not think much of the party’s nominee. It is one reason why Carter’s campaign against Ronald Reagan failed so badly. On the other hand, a unity speech really can unify. At the 2008 convention, Hillary Clinton herself declared that “Barack Obama is my candidate and he must be our president.” The campaign between her and Obama was at least as rough as the current Democratic contest, but Clinton’s full-throated endorsement made it much easier for her supporters to get behind Obama and secure his victory.

Of course, the party is under no obligation to offer Sanders such an opportunity. And if they have reason to fear that Sanders’ speech would be more like Kennedy’s and less like Clinton’s, they won’t.

But the smart money says that he will speak and will offer his strong support for Hillary Clinton. Why? Because every party to that decision wants it to happen.

Clinton wants him to speak because it is the best way to get Sanders’ disappointed supporters to recommit themselves to her. Clinton needs all those votes that went to Sanders. But young people don’t just vote, they do much of the leg work for a campaign; they sleep on couches and work for peanuts. Clinton also needs their passion and energy. But without Sanders’ blessing, she won’t get them.

For its part, the Democratic Party is worried about demographics. Even now, millennials outnumber baby boomers. Their vote is already critical and it will only become more so. And second, while young people are far less partisan than their parents, once they have voted the same way two or three times they still tend to identify with a party in practice (if not in name). Party leaders therefore know that they have a golden opportunity to capture a sizeable chunk of the electorate for decades. Moreover, for all its structural advantages in presidential elections, the Democratic Party is awful at mobilizing its constituents for off year elections, not to mention down ticket and local races. This is especially true of young people. Sanders could encourage them to stay invested. But if Sanders chooses not to do so, the Party will continue to underperform, and it might even lose this group for good.

But the speech is just as important for Sanders himself.

First, Sanders knows that a Trump presidency would spell disaster for everything he believes in. And he has every reason to remind his followers of that fact. He also knows that the party would blame him if he did not endorse Clinton and Donald Trump were somehow to win.

But more importantly, he wants his revolution to live on and grow. To do that, he and his followers must work within the Democratic Party. His followers may not yet believe this. They may believe that a revolution could only happen outside a corrupt two-party system. But Sanders himself does. That is why, after all, he ran as a Democrat; he formerly identified himself as an Independent. Working outside the system is to embrace irrelevancy.

Working within the party means undertaking the hard work of building a sustainable infrastructure. It means identifying potential candidates and helping them move up the ladder of elected office. But it also means committing to the party and those who represent it—up and down the ticket. None of this can be achieved solely by a speech, of course, but it cannot be achieved without one. Sanders must tell his followers that for the sake of their common commitments, they need to commit to the party. Most immediately, that means that his followers need to fall in behind Clinton’s nomination.

Sanders has run an extremely good campaign. A convention speech is his opportunity to cement his reputation and cultivate his movement. If he does it right, he will do both, even as he helps to secure Clinton’s election in November.

Christopher Beem is Managing Director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at the Pennsylvania State University. His latest book is Democratic Humility.