September 8, 2021 - 7:00am

Senator Bernie Sanders turns 80 today, and boasts what historians might describe as a mixed legacy. Did he, among the oldest living Left-wing baby boomer politicians, survive to see his ideas vindicated and his cause prevail? Or did he merely excel at “taking one for the team,” appearing to win as he was robbed by the powers that be?

It is in the latter phase of his career that Sanders achieved his greatest celebrity, and where postmortems most focus their attention.

As a mayor, Sanders had proven surprisingly effective, and in both the House of Representatives and Senate he had compensated for a lack of Lyndon Johnson-style pragmatic leadership and legislative output with a willingness to wax poetic about various Leftist-first principles. But until his run in 2016, I saw him as indistinguishable from similarly admirable anti-war Democrats such as Ohio Congressperson Dennis Kucinich and erstwhile presidential candidate John Edwards. Freddie deBoer — a grad student turned Leftist hot-take pundit — summarised the unease of many hesitant Sanders supporters in a Politico article in which he characterised Bernie as a “SINO,” a “socialist in name only.”

Sanders lost in 2016 under two different delegate-assigning systems, each conceivably “rigged” against him, and lost in an even more spectacular fashion in 2020 after the delegate system had been modified in an attempt to make proceedings more fair towards the Bernie campaign. But in another important sense, Sanders won big. His 2016 and 2020 campaigns raised $440 million dollars from a broad base of donors, continuing to generate significant revenue during both of those campaign cycles long after his chances of victory had dimmed.

Although this was not his direct doing, he epitomised an era of “New Leftism” in popular culture. This rising tide of Leftism failed to crown a new American king, but it enabled a number of thirty-something operators and pundits, from Sean McElwee to the Chapo Trap House podcasters, to cultivate minor fiefdoms. New York Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other fair-weather supporters of Sanders’ doomed insurgencies can still avail themselves of Sanders’ imprimatur in the coming decades.

At 80, Sanders’ days on the national scene may be numbered. He has dealt with some medical issues in recent years, and longevity vouchsafed to the likes of Senators Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond is a rare thing. Sanders will probably be remembered most fondly by those who knocked doors and made recurring payments on his behalf. They can content themselves with impossible-to-verify claims about how Sanders forced Joe Biden to the Left on issues such as direct stimulus payments and the total withdrawal of troops from the Afghanistan (even if the latter appears to have been something Biden decided sua sponte).

But they must also reckon with the fact that Sanders’ long career amounted to far less, in terms of practical policy achievements, than those of the recently deceased AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka or the two-term, centre-Left Democratic President Bill Clinton.  

Bernie Sanders, like so many Boomer utopians before him, will remain a nice idea, a memorably insubstantial John Lennon lyric of a politician whose campaign donations cost yours truly far more than the collected discographies of every member of the Beatles. 

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work