by Martin Odoni

It is a small detail, but Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in Miami proved that one very important change-for-the-better has happened in the USA in recent years, in amongst all the crudeness, chaos and cruelty of a Donald Trump presidency. That little beacon of positivity is that Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaigns over the last four or five years definitely do count, have made an enormous psychological difference, and have been completely worth every ounce of energy invested in them.

The issues Sanders spoke of during the 2016 Democratic Primaries were largely sneered at and dismissed by most in the US media, and by the Democratic National Committee – similar to how Jeremy Corbyn has been treated by media and Labour Right over here in the UK. But Sanders (and his excellent support base, some of whom are friends of mine) have shown fantastic perseverance, both during that campaign and subsequently. By dogged refusal to be side-tracked, Sanders and his supporters have kept discussions of Climate Change, healthcare that is free-at-the-point-of-delivery, workers’ rights, corporate abuse-of-power, wealth-inequality, public education, women’s rights – especially reproductive rights – and anti-warfare (among others) firmly in the public domain ever since. The genie is out of the bottle, and not only are these topics no longer sneered at, other Democratic candidates are now stepping up to the plate to speak about them, and even daring to propose the odd (relatively) radical solution, from time to time, as demonstrated during the debate by Elizabeth Warren.

Thus, Wednesday demonstrated that the window on real left-of-centre politics, which had been closed in the USA for about 35 years by the time Sanders emerged to challenge Hillary ‘Dollary’ Clinton for the 2016 Democratic Party nomination, is wide open again. With a prolonged and tireless four-year heave, Sanders forced it open, and he has made sure that the media and the corporate elites will not be free just to force it shut once more. These topics simply have to be tackled, regularly and with the fullest of candour, and without any more cheap attempts to distract from them. Way too many lives depend on finding real and lasting solutions to these crises, especially Climate Change, healthcare, and wealth inequality. Instead of looking for ways to get everyone to ‘ignore the problems away’, as has been the habit of the last four decades, there is now a real pressure for them to be properly addressed.

Now, some Democrats are daring to show ambition and no little backbone to speak openly about and pursue what they really believe in. That is Bernie Sanders’ legacy to the USA, and even if it is not as glamorous as, say, Barack Obama’s accession as the first Black President, it is at least as important. Sanders widened the Overton Window to allow in progressive ideas that have been kept silent for a long time, and which the aforementioned Obama would have been reluctant to consider. While Sanders claims to be a democratic socialist, he is in truth merely a social democrat. But as he forces old-style social democracy back into the world of the ‘thinkable’, he has opened the way for other, more radical forms of progressivism to take the American stage.

Even if Sanders never makes it to the White House, and my suspicion is that the DNC, by hook or by crook, will stop him again, his work over the last five years has still been worth every minute. This is because he accomplished something that had frequently looked impossible since Ronald Reagan’s time; Sanders managed to broaden the terms of public debate in a leftwards direction, instead of, as had happened persistently since the early-1980s, towards the ever-more-extreme right. Successfully pushing back against that tide is a supreme accomplishment in itself in an era that has become so right wing that even a television network like CNN is somehow viewed as a ‘progressive’ media outlet.

The accomplishment is more psychological than physical, perhaps, and it remains entirely possible that it will not lead to more progressive policies actually being implemented in the long run. It also may not hold the glory or pageantry of a Presidential Inauguration ceremony for Bernie Sanders. But the political conversation in the USA, normally marked by childish hysteria among Republicans, and cowardly blandness among Democrats, has been much-enrichened by Sanders’ rise to prominence. He has given a voice to those who most need one and who usually lack one, and has given the unreality of US politics a long-overdue anchoring in ordinary wisdom.

Four years of that are as great a gift as any number of years in residence at the White House, and are a tribute worthy of the best of politicians.

And it is quite a reassurance to be reminded that the best of politicians do occasionally exist.