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Situation Room: What Should Bernie Sanders Do Next?

MTV staffers debate how the candidate can best leverage all the energy he's generated

When events warrant, the MTV News team gathers together in our virtual secure bunker to discuss the political news of the day. Monday's topic: It's the end of the beginning of the Bernie Sanders movement. What should he do next? How should he best harness all this momentum and youthful energy to further progressive causes? What should he AVOID doing at all costs?

Here today: Jane Coaston, Jaime Fuller, Ana Marie Cox, Meredith Graves, Kaleb Horton, and Jamil Smith. Let's argue.

Coaston: I think he should further progressive causes. I don’t think he will, because for his fan base, that would be a massive failure.

Fuller: The real coup for what Bernie Sanders is trying to achieve platform-wise would be to get the young people who care so passionately about his campaign to start voting in midterms and local elections. (I know I talk about this a lot, but it’s important! Young people aren’t having their voices heard in most elections, because they think that voting during presidential years is enough! It’s not!) Even if Sanders became president, he wouldn’t have the kind of influence or power to enact most of the changes he’s mentioned in his rally laundry lists. He’s going to need a lot more help to get those kinds of things legislated, which means populating bureaucracy and state legislatures with a lot of baby Bernies, or part-time Bernies.

That’s a hard thing to make happen because (1) convincing ANYONE to vote in an election that doesn’t have a sexy presidential race is notoriously difficult, and (2) forcing changes in local governments dominated by one party usually entails voting in closed primaries — and Bernie voters don’t seem to want to have anything to do with political parties. To make change happen in a post-Bernie political realm, Sanders would also have to convince his supporters that starting a political “revolution” doesn’t require faith in a single individual; it requires a more holistic look at the entire system, and a realization that there are many actors who have to work in tandem to make change happen. Unfortunately, most young people have lost all faith in the ability of government to do any good in the world. They believe in Bernie.

But Bernie also doesn't seem to have much faith that there are other avenues for making progressive changes in government that don't involve Bernie, so I'm not sure how any efforts he took to harness that energy and direct it elsewhere would work. It's also so terribly hard to keep people excited about a policy platform without an election to wrap around it.

In short, I have no idea what he should do, but whatever it is, oh god, it's going to be so hard.

Graves: Does anyone still believe he could get the VP nomination? It seems like the conversation about Hillary’s possible running mate is as speculative as the conversation around whom Trump might corral — does Bernie have a chance?

Coaston: Meredith, I have a better chance at a VP nod than Bernie does. And jeez. “They believe in Bernie” IS NOT GOOD.

Fuller: No, it is not. Has there ever been a president who HASN’T disappointed their most ardent fans? Even if you look at this bewilderingly long list of fictional presidents on Wikipedia, it is easy to come up with reasons that each of these idealistic, alien-fightin', one-liner-filled, smirkin' leaders was THE WORST.

Coaston: I have a think piece titled "I blame The West Wing for this" that will never see the light of day. But anyway — how can Bernie lead a movement forward when he IS the movement?

Graves: I could see a percentage of his legitimately concerned acolytes stanning for Elizabeth Warren for a VP nomination (I don't know why I’m so obsessed with vice-presidents today; forgive me) or, looking ahead, for the next election cycle — but I also worry big-time about the "Bernie Bros" who are wrapped up in Sanders as a person and figurehead. There isn't another Bernie for them to latch onto, and I'm afraid that might lead people back into ambivalence.

Cox: It probably needs to be pointed out that Bernie's cult of personality is maybe more idea-driven than the "Bernie Bro" mythology has it. His personal style is quirky and charming, sure, but I don't think that's what's animating people; he latched onto discontent that already existed. It should also be pointed out that while there might be "Bernie Bros," statistically, they (young men) are not anywhere near the majority of his supporters. Young women prefer Bernie, too, which I take as good news since I don't think the Bernie movement (which will need a new name! Thoughts?) is going to get very far if it is the bro-out it's caricatured as.

My gut-level response to the idea of "what Sanders should do next" was "become a Democrat" — which might say more about me and my nostalgia for a Democratic Party that never was than what's actually smart for him. Though his party I.D. never bothered me in the primaries, and I don't think it's that meaningful, I'd take that as a sign of his being willing to expand the existing infrastructure as far as the future of the movement goes, rather than continuing to stubbornly insist that everything needs to be done from the outside. I'd also take that as a sign that socialists are welcome in the Democratic Party, or at least that we can exist within it! This would be a nice rebuke to the original Clinton-era shibboleth that the Democratic Party can't be too liberal.

But maybe the most effective move for Bernie would be to take all that muscle and money and put it into something like a "liberal ALEC" — ALEC, of course, is American Legislative Council, the Koch Brother–connected conservative legislation factory that turned out prewritten cookie-cutter laws for local pols to push through their governments. ALEC had a socially and fiscally conservative agenda ("Stand Your Ground" laws spread thanks to ALEC, as did laws limiting localities' ability to protect workers' rights) and lots of corporate money — that part let's not copy. But developing standardized legislation for local governments to use as they see fit is an idea worth stealing! "You say you want make sure your school board policies are trans-inclusive? We have just the outline for you!" or "Here are 15 cities with ‘sick and safe' laws and our scoring on how they've worked out."

Smith: I’ve long opposed the idea of a Warren VP pick — or someone of her ilk, like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio — for two reasons: It makes the VP pick all about appeasing the Sanders fans rather than about her picking the best partner for governance, and Democrats need Warren and Brown in the Senate (and not replaced by Republican governors in their states). That said, I’d be shocked if Warren isn’t already coordinating these incisive attacks on Trump with the Clinton campaign. And she seems to have cracked the code for getting under his skin.

Sanders should endorse Clinton as soon as possible. That's not even about swaying his supporters to the priority of stopping Trump or stopping his attacks on her so much as it's about him pivoting toward doing something a lot more productive. If he wants to use his newfound political capital to become Big Man on Capitol Hill and influence current Democratic bills, that's on him. But I think he'd be better served taking this moment of elevated press attention to start building the infrastructure for a sustained movement. Why he hasn't been doing so for a while now is utterly baffling to me. If this "political revolution" is ever going to start, he and his campaign must grasp the reality that the primary contest is over, stop filling his supporters' heads with nonsensical scenarios about how he'll get the nomination, and establish the infrastructure of an organization that will channel this energy productively. Ideally, considering Republican success outside of Washington, Sanders can get his supporters working on both activism and legislation on the local and state levels.

I stand by my stance that I don't care whether Sanders himself is a Democrat or not. He doesn't need to be one to influence progressive legislation. But his followers need to be encouraged to engage with the party to change it ​from within. I doubt he'd ever let his liberal OFA or ALEC be controlled by the Democrats, but there should be partnership between it and the party from the beginning.

This is a course of action best suited to Sanders's strength: ideas and inspiration. But who knows if that's even his goal? Sanders hasn't planted the seeds for a political movement so much as built a cult of personality. It enables him to look like a selfless champion of the people all while he grasps for political power that he alone will enjoy. And in the process, his supporters come to see him as more than a partner or a leader in the fight for the changes we need in our politics. They see him as a savior. This is a mistake many made eight years ago when voters gave Barack Obama messianic status. Disappointment was inevitable.

Coaston: The issue I have with the Bernie campaign — and with Trump, but in a different way — is that it's not a plea for progressivism. It's a plea for Bernie Sanders. Why would people lambast Elizabeth Warren for not immediately coming out in support for him? Why are people angrily calling liberal state officeholders and yelling obscenities at them for not supporting Bernie Sanders? Why would anyone be "Bernie or Bust" in an election against Donald "chicken salad sandwich" Trump — or even consider voting for that chicken salad sandwich to "spite" us? That's not progressivism, that's a cult of personality. (My favorite part is that the "Bernie or Bust" people believe that Bernie would heal the seas and end war as president but Trump wouldn't "have that kind of power" in the same goddamn position.)

How would Bernie raising money make the situation any better — especially since he’s complained so much about "money in politics"? How would Bernie be able to say, "Actually, you should elect those people" after spending nearly a year telling his followers that it's his way or the highway?

Horton: Well, sure, there’s a huge cult-of-personality component. He just needs to make sure he takes that momentum and uses it to continue spreading his message. It's a damn tough thing to do, and he needs to start working on a road map to make that happen. The lecture circuit won't do it, and being a talking head on cable news won’t do it. That's all I know.

Cox: I'm going to insist that the Bernie movement isn't really about personality. I don't see it as a function of Sanders's incredible magnetism. (He's been hanging out in D.C. for decades without many young people noticing!) Maybe I'm wrong! Certainly, without a focused goal and leader, the movement will lose momentum, and that's the key to Bernie turning this into something bigger than himself: starting to collect some other faces to put on it, and some other, specific goals.

Smith: I think it's about Sanders's actual personality in a few key respects. First, he is perceived as an honest politician, which to many seemed like an oxymoron before he announced his run. That’s hyperbolic, of course. But he has used the campaign to narrow the view of what honesty in politics means. Not only is he an honest politician, but honest politicians can only be like him. Secondly, I think he appeals to a certain male demographic, in particular, who enjoy his brusqueness. We cringed at certain moments during the debates when he’d interrupt or treat Clinton rudely in ways that many viewed as gendered in nature. But that pattern of behavior was a common thread, from Sanders to his campaign representatives to the worst of his supporters.

As much as all that may have enhanced his popularity during the presidential race, I'm unsure that it’s helpful to movement-building. As much talk as there is about Clinton needing to win over his supporters, she's been making efforts to do so for some time now — sometimes awkwardly, or even patronizingly, but she's trying. On the other hand, he isn't doing a damned thing to win over her backers to whatever "revolution" he (presumably) still wants to start after this primary ends. He's taken the "if you’re not with us, you’re against us" pose to comical lengths. I mean, he just branded Jerry Brown, California's enormously popular governor and the Bernie Sanders of 1992, as the "establishment" because he endorsed Clinton. He did the same to Planned Parenthood months ago, and clearly learned nothing from the fallout from that. The rigidity of the Sanders ethos will severely limit the audience for his ideas and the capacity for those seeking to grow a sustainable movement out of this campaign.