From the very beginning of his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders has assailed the undue political influence of millionaires and billionaires, who he says have rigged the system in their favor through profligate contributions to super PACs and political campaigns. Yet the remarkable success of his unconventional candidacy has proven quite the opposite: that a democratic, grassroots political campaign can thrive without the helping hand of big money donors.
When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy in April of last year, he was not considered a serious player in the national political scene. His polling average had not yet ventured beyond single digits, and nearly half of Democrats did not know enough about him to respond to poll questions mentioning his name. But his anti-establishment message resonated with voters almost immediately. In the 24 hours following his entry into the presidential race, he raised $1.5 million, outpacing better-known politicians like Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and earning nearly every dime from small-dollar donations.
It was not long before Mr. Sanders became a real competitor, nearly winning the Iowa caucuses and dealing a crushing 22-point defeat to Hillary Clinton, the chosen candidate of the political establishment, in New Hampshire’s primary election. He out-raised and out-spent Mrs. Clinton throughout the first four months of 2016, the critical stretch during which nearly three-quarters of all Democratic pledged delegates were allocated. To date, Mr. Sanders has raised over $200 million in campaign contributions, with about three-fifths of that number coming from donations of $200 or less.
By every traditional metric, despite shunning the support of progressive super PACs, Bernie Sanders’s political campaign was an unmitigated financial success. His most ardent supporters, however, miss the irony of this accomplishment. If the campaign finance system were rigged—if it were in fact designed to suppress the voice of the people and to channel the influence of millionaires and billionaires—Mr. Sanders would have failed.
But he did not. Rising from virtual political anonymity, Bernie Sanders fiercely challenged the Democratic frontrunner and singlehandedly pushed his message about income inequality and political corruption to the forefront of the national consciousness. And it is not as if Mr. Sanders had no opportunity to win his party’s nomination. As the Washington Post reported, close advisers to the Sanders campaign—as well as the Vermont senator himself—have chalked up his loss not to a rigged campaign finance system or the corrupt political elite but to “missed opportunities, a failure to connect with key constituencies and stubborn strategy decisions.”
Bernie Sanders is evidence enough that our campaign finance system is functioning just as it should. It rewards candidates like Mr. Sanders, who bring a message and personality which resonate with voters across the country, and punishes those who cannot build enough support to survive. Strict limits on contributions made directly to political campaigns ensure that floundering candidates are unable to lean on wealthy benefactors to keep them afloat, and the law already carries serious penalties for coordination between political campaigns and super PACs, which may raise unlimited sums of money in support of a candidate only if they maintain complete independence.
Bernie Sanders has proven that the campaign finance system works. And in so doing, though his sharp criticism of independent expenditure groups was central to his candidacy, Mr. Sanders may have saved the very campaign finance institutions he so passionately condemned.
A version of this article appeared in the Claremont Independent, an independent journal of political thought and campus affairs serving the colleges of the Claremont Consortium.