Sanders calls for party unity to prevent 'authoritarianism'

In this image from video, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (Democratic National Convention via AP) (Uncredited)

WILMINGTON, Del. – Sen. Bernie Sanders is imploring his supporters to vote for Joe Biden, suggesting that without a unified Democratic Party, years of gains by the progressive movement could be lost and that the country may not even survive four more years of President Donald Trump.

“At its most basic, this election is about preserving our democracy," the Vermont senator said Monday night, in his opening night speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention. "During this president’s term, the unthinkable has become normal.”

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Sanders said Trump "has tried to prevent people from voting, undermined the U.S. Postal Service, deployed the military and federal agents against peaceful protesters, threatened to delay the election and suggested that he will not leave office if he loses.”

Sanders twice finished as runner-up in his party's presidential party, but was perhaps at the height of his power as he addressed the convention. He was the last primary challenger standing against Biden and retains the party’s largest cohesive constituency in a progressive base unwavering in its support. His signature ideas on single-payer health care, tuition-free college and remaking the economy to combat climate change have become part of the mainstream debate.

Sanders used his speech to acknowledge that, telling supporters, “Together we have moved this country in a bold new direction.”

“Our movement continues and is getting stronger every day,” he said. "But, let us be clear, if Donald Trump is reelected, all the progress we have made will be in jeopardy.”

While the opening night's other headline speaker, Michelle Obama, mentioned Trump by name just once, Sanders blistered the president nearly a dozen times and said, “Under this administration authoritarianism has taken root in our country."

Trump has repeatedly dismissed Sanders as “Crazy Bernie,” but Sanders even conjured images of his own Jewish heritage and Nazi Germany in saying of the president, “I, and my family — and many of yours — know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency and humanity.”

“By rejecting science, he has put our lives and health in jeopardy,” Sanders added of the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak. “Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Trump golfs.”

The only solution, Sanders said, was to unify around Biden, even though some of his own supporters aren't enamored with the former vice president's mostly centrist views.

“To everyone who supported other candidates in the primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake,” he said. “The price of failure is just too great to imagine.”

The 78-year-old Sanders almost certainly won't mount another White House bid. But he's solidifying a legacy as he helps Biden build ties with the left to prevent the type of internal divisions that helped Trump win in 2016. And he's basking in victories that progressives have recently notched in Democratic congressional primaries around the country.

“Electorally we are doing very well,” Sanders said in an interview before the convention. “Most importantly, young people in this country, whether they’re Black or white or Latino, Native American, Asian American, young people strongly support the progressive agenda.”

The progressive movement is still far from the driving force of the Democratic Party. Biden won the primary relying heavily on his decades of experience working within the Washington system — not promising to tear it down. His vice presidential pick, California Sen. Kamala Harris, is similarly aligned with the Democrats' traditional establishment.

“They are going to get a seat at the table, but Joe Biden is very much a creature of Washington,” said Colin Strother, a Democratic strategist who works with Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Texas Democrat who in March narrowly defeated a primary challenger from the left who had been endorsed by Sanders. “They want a revolution. That’s not how Washington works.”

Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, conceded that the former vice president “is not a progressive.”

“But the conditions have been set by progressives and, even though progressives did not prevail in the presidency, our issues and our movement surely have,” said Mitchell, whose group initially endorsed Elizabeth Warren before siding with Sanders and eventually backing Biden last week.

Indeed, Biden's campaign has spent recent months working closely with top Sanders supporters and advisers to devise a joint collection of policy goals and promote party unity. Though Biden has remained opposed to fully government-funded health care under Sanders’ signature “Medicare for All” plan, the senator struck a conciliatory tone Monday, saying the former vice president's proposals “will greatly expand” coverage and cut prescription drug costs.

That doesn't mean Sanders is ready to concede on progressive ideals, though. He used his vast contact list to send 350,000 texts and raise more than $730,000 for like-minded congressional and local candidates who competed in Aug. 4 primaries. That included more than $100,000 for Cori Bush, a racial justice activist who unseated longtime Missouri Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay, who was endorsed by Harris.

Those close to Sanders also credit him with persuading activists and others who might not have run for office to become candidates, effectively “lowering the drawbridge” that had barred access to electoral politics for many.

One example is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will help nominate Sanders at the convention and is widely seen as his successor in leading progressives. The New York congresswoman easily won her primary and further demonstrated her power by helping former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman take out long-serving Rep. Eliot Engel in New York's primary.

Similarly, Ocasio-Cortez's close allies, and proud fellow members of “the Squad,” Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, bested primary challenges from more centrist Democrats. Their message in Congress often overlaps with protests against institutional racism that spread around the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody.

“You can’t really have one without the other,” Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action, which works to empower low-income people, especially those of color, said of progressive values and the push for racial and social justice.

That's a part of a larger fight that could dominate future presidential races Sanders won't run in. He said during the interview that it is “very unlikely” that he's a 2024 presidential candidate, but also refused to speculate on who might succeed him as the movement's next White House hopeful.

“They want to know who's running in 2092," Sanders joked. "In 2092, there was a baby that was born yesterday that announced her candidacy.”

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