NORTH ADAMS — With the Massachusetts primary coming in two weeks, I've been thinking that the misconception of Hillary Clinton supporters is that Bernie Sanders' success is entirely about Sanders himself.
But Sanders is just the latest chapter in a longer narrative that the Democratic Party mainstream has long dismissed as fringe.
It percolated in 1992, featuring a major flirtation by Americans with viable third party options. Ross Perot was more appealing to conservatives, but there were liberals who did not like Bill Clinton and were not content to hold their nose and vote for him. To them, Perot served as a viable protest vote against the move to the center and in support of legitimate third party bids.
In 1996, the progressive left was able to send a more ideologically aligned protest vote through Ralph Nader, whose central message then is nearly the exact same as Sanders' is currently. Nader functioned as a conduit for the wider goal of building a Green Party. That was followed by the 1999 Seattle protests, the first example of activism as we currently experience it.
In 2000, Nader gained more progressive votes, partly thanks to Al Gore's miserable choice of running mate, Joe Lieberman, and was maligned as a spoiler by mainstream Democrats who still ignore the lessons of that election.
The Bush years continued with similar vigorous activism. With the coming of Obama and the crash of the housing market, everything culminated in Occupy. That was certainly no sudden explosion if you paid attention.
Party within a party
There is a direct line from Occupy to Sanders, though the narrative has switched from third parties to Democratic Party reform. The tea party is a model of this on the right, a party within a party. That seems to me what Sanders is attempting to coalesce.
Sanders is frank that this is only a first step. Follow-up in midterm elections is imperative. His proposals, in the current landscape, aim quite high and should function as motivators for long-term efforts to make the landscape more hospitable. If people are willing to commit to something as simple as getting out for every election and voting for the right people to make the dreams come true, then pie has more of a chance of dropping out of the sky and into our laps.
Sanders is championed by the kids who grew up during this history, when activism and party reform became more mainstream. It's the norm to them, reflected in the current campus activist culture, and Sanders is in the right place at the right time to carry their message.
There's nothing wrong with voting for Clinton. She'll make a fine enough president. She's a qualified stay-the-course candidate that old people love. But Sanders' young supporters don't want to stay the course when they see a fork in the road.
Top of pyramid
Young people know that by framing Sanders' platform as single issue, the mainstream wing of Democrats ignore reality. The economic inequality he harps on is the point on one end of a pyramid from which so many other issues, including racism and sexism, spread out.
A vote for Sanders also qualifies as a message to Clinton, should she win. Sanders has been good for Clinton in this election. He has challenged her, given her a reason to fight. Each vote for Sanders will drive home why that happened.
Vote for whomever you want, but understand that this does not end with Sanders because it did not begin with him. It's a 20-year story.
The narrative will continue whatever happens with this election, maybe with an entirely different central figure. That's what Sanders means when he uses the word "revolution," which is always a movement much bigger than the biggest players involved.