It may be painful to admit, but Donald Trump deserved to be named Time’s Person of the Year for 2016. Who else defined the year? During the Republican primary, he laid bare the hopeless splintering and dissatisfaction of his party. He dominated the media during the general election with his never-ending quest to lower our collective standards for public behavior. And then, he won.
When we look back at Trump’s rise to power 10 years from now, hopefully we won’t remember it as the beginning of an era of a dominant oligarch, but rather as the year a real, meaningful opposition solidified and got to work. This is why I hope that when we look back on 2016, we remember Bernie Sanders as the person of the year.
Bernie Sanders is likely never going to be President of the United States. Barring an unusual dispensation from Father Time and an uncharacteristic change of heart from the center of the party still angry over the hard-fought primary, Bernie wouldn’t make the best 2020 candidate. But, that doesn’t really matter.
Bernie Sanders awakened millions of young people to a political movement this year. He drew jaded people from all walks of life who didn’t see themselves represented anywhere in mainstream politics back into the fight. While President Obama filled the country with hope in him with his 2008 victory, Bernie Sanders filled a generation with renewed hope in themselves. As Bernie said during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, “Election days come and go, but the struggle of the people to create a government which represents all of us and not just the one percent, a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial, and environmental justice, that struggle continues.”
Senator Sanders ran on a policy platform that was unlike anything Democratic voters have seen in decades. A move towards free college, free healthcare, rebuilding unions, and a $15 minimum wage was deemed impossible according to the previous Democratic party line. Bernie challenged Democratic orthodoxy that bureaucratic compromise is the path to change. He tirelessly traveled the country telling anyone who would listen that the real path to change is grassroots revolution. He is still making that case all over the country today, talking to the very voters that elected Donald Trump president.
Bernie’s campaign, which began largely on a single issue, grew with his unexpected popularity. He has been able to shine a light on national issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline, equal pay, and Black Lives Matter, creating a movement that is meaningfully intersectional. Proudly standing with the people at Standing Rock was impossible for almost every establishment politician, but Bernie spoke out.
It isn’t just the issues that Sanders brought to the attention of the American people that make him the person of the year. Bernie Sanders has inspired a generation of young politicians and activists who see his political career as a model for their own. By running for Senate as an Independent, running for president subsisting almost entirely on small donations (totaling eight million donations averaging just $27), and eschewing politics as usual, Sanders laid out a blueprint for a grassroots movement. He has shown the way forward for a political movement that is not beholden to corporate interests, big banks, and lobbyists. For a generation of people disaffected by the corporate control of American life, America’s never-ending military adventures abroad, and a Democratic Party whose first move is always to compromise, Bernie Sanders has offered another path.
In 2008, Barack Obama gave hope to a generation by winning the presidency. In 2016, Bernie Sanders gave hope to a generation while losing the presidency. When you hear young people talk about Bernie Sanders, it is reminiscent of the way that the people whose political life was shaped in the late ’60s talk about Robert F. Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy was never president because he was cut down while on the path there by an assassin’s bullet. Even though his dreams were cut short, a generation of left-wing activists trace their political awakening to Kennedy. Many on the Left view 1968 as the last great moment of resistance from the Left. Maybe 2016 will be remembered as the beginning of a new era of resistance.
Many across the political spectrum accuse Bernie Sanders’ supporters of propping him up as some kind of messiah. In a perfect world, Sanders’ long-term impact will be more like John the Baptist. It is going to take more than one person to save us from the creeping fascism engulfing the Western World. The ideal result would be a movement that fights for the people, whether it be the creation of the kind of Labor Party that offers real resistance in Europe, the growth of the Democratic Socialists into a powerful political movement, or a realization that a Democratic Party that lives in the center will always be weak. If such a movement lives on beyond 2016, beyond the partisan infighting that has predominated after Hillary’s loss, beyond what is hopefully Trump’s only term, it will have begun with the man whom I believe was the person of the year: Bernie Sanders.