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Why Bernie Sanders should stay in the Democratic primary fight

So should Sanders give up and go home? No, he needs to keep up the fight.

Sanders has never been running just to win. He’s also running to drag the Democratic Party to the left, to forcefully confront the party establishment about its failures to address working people’s issues, and to raise people’s awareness about the possibilities for progressive social change. Staying in the race allows him to continue doing these things and more.

Even though Sanders lost back in 2016, in an important way he still won. The party realized that Sanders voters represented a substantial portion of the electorate, and because Hillary Clinton needed their support in November, Clinton’s wing of the party was forced to the negotiating table. As Jeff Stein noted in Vox, Sanders “won a string of concessions on the Democratic Party platform, pulling the party to the left on the minimum wage, environmental regulation, marijuana legalization, and the war on drugs.” The party’s official platform changed directly as a result of Sanders’s success, with once-radical policies such as a $15 minimum wage becoming part of the Democratic agenda.

In 2020, Sanders might be able to do the same with his signature policy, Medicare-for-all. Even in states that Sanders has been losing badly, single-payer health insurance has been popular among the majority of Democratic voters — thanks in part to Sanders’s years-long effort to build support for overhauling the insurance industry. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the catastrophic failings of the U.S. health-care system and the social safety net. Staying in the race gives Sanders the opportunity to explain how progressive social policy can mitigate these disasters.

In 2016, Sanders succeeded at bringing the Democratic Party around on crucial issues because he posed a threat to those who hold power within it. The more strength Sanders and his supporters show at the polls in 2020, the less tenable a moderate Democratic position will be. After all, if Biden is to have any hope of beating President Trump in November, he will need to get Sanders’s voters to support him — and that’s not going to be easy. A show of strength from the Sanders base of young progressives and independents could push Biden to make serious concessions: commit to passing signature progressive policies such as Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal, free universal college tuition, and paid family and sick leave.

Critics say Sanders staying in the race will weaken Biden in a general election, and that Democrats need to unify immediately against Trump. But the more Sanders can put pressure on Biden to accommodate progressives, the more “unity” will ultimately be achieved. We all want to beat Trump. But if Sanders supporters are left bitter because Biden disregards their agenda, they are unlikely to pull together to “vote blue no matter who.”

This is another reason to stay in the fight. Sanders needs to amass as many votes as possible to make clear the number of people who might stay home in November unless the Democratic Party shows it cares about them. If voters simply line up behind Biden in the remaining states, there will be no reason for Biden to endorse progressive policies. And all voters deserve a choice: It shouldn’t just be those in early states who have the option of stating their desire for a social democratic agenda. Everyone deserves a chance to weigh in, which they won’t get if Sanders quits and leaves the race.

But finally, and most importantly, Sanders should stay in as much for principle as for pragmatism. He needs to keep fighting as long as he can because others have fought for him as long as they could.

There was Al Johnson, who made hundreds of calls for Sanders while dying in his hospital bed, and there is James Williams, who spends “every breath I have left” working for Sanders, because he wants to make sure others have the kind of low-cost, high-quality health care that he himself never had. Millions of people have devoted themselves to Bernie because they feel seen by him in a way they have never felt seen by a politician before. They have put their faith in him, and he has made them believe that a better and fairer world is possible. He would be letting them down if he didn’t keep up that fight until the end.

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