The Incredibly Important Lesson Democrats Must Learn from the Bernie Sanders Campaign

Election '16

Every major poll analysis outfit--from Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight, to the Huffington Post's to Real Clear Politics--all show Hillary Clinton to be the favorite to win the Iowa caucuses Monday night. 

If she does indeed win, there will no doubt be a lot of pundits and wags who will use that victory as opportunity to dismiss the Bernie Sanders campaign as ineffective and historically unimportant. The record breaking rally sizes, the three million contributions, the volunteer-based distributed field campaign, the rise from single digits in the polls to become a serious contender--all of that will be, to some, just another George McGovern or Howard Dean-esque failure of liberal, grassroots campaigns that can shout loudly at rallies and in the comments but predictably flame out when real Americans start casting their ballots.

But no matter the outcome in Iowa, there is something that the Sanders campaign has already proven, and it is something that every single Democrat in the country needs to pay attention to and take to heart. 

The lesson is this: A more progressive America is more possible than you believe. And not just in some hypothetical future with demographics and legislative maps very different than those of the present day. A more progressive America than you believe is possible than you believe right now.

This lesson is especially important for those voters, analysts, political professionals and elected Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton primarily because they view her as more electable, and / or her policies as having a more realistic chance of passing into law. Those people who Paul Krugman described as "having an acute sense of the possible."

Bernie Sanders has shown is that more progressive outcomes are possible than you believe because you have left some of your own potential power on the table. Specifically, you have left the grassroots activist power that he has unleashed on the table. 

The three million donations, the record breaking rally sizes, the distributed field campaign with a volunteer backbone--even if that force proves insufficient to win Bernie Sanders the Democratic nomination, to become President of the United States and to enact his proposed policies into law, it is a force strong enough to move the needle on the dial political possibility significantly to the left. But that is only if the Democratic and progressive advocacy elite stop leaving it on the table.

There has never been a contested Democratic presidential primary in history where elected Democrats and leaders of progressive advocacy campaigns have so unanimously thrown their support behind one candidate--a candidate who is actually well loved by Democrats, to boot. And yet even then, the combined power every elected Democrat and progressive advocacy organization has proven insufficient to prevent the bulk of the progressive grassroots from mounting a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton.

Bernie Sanders outflanked political possibility in this campaign. At the start of this campaign, no one at the elite levels of the Democratic Party and progressive advocacy ecosystem thought he could come this far--no one. He did it by tapping into a deep reservoir of grassroots progressive activism that almost everyone else has just flat out left on the table.

The Democratic Party and many progressive advocacy organizations rely on this activist base for small donations, but they don't really engage it. Communication to this activist base is typically outsourced to political consultancies who, more often than not, use superficial methods to turn lists of emails into television commercials. It works well enough to raise a decent amount of campaign cash, but it generates nowhere near the vast resources--both human and monetary--that Sanders has unlocked through his full-throated challenge to moneyed interests. 

The lesson of the Bernie Sanders campaign, win or lose, is that elected Democrats and progressive advocacy organizations are leaving political possibility on the table when they leave engagement with the progressive grassroots on the table. For decades it was widely believed that this was not the case, and that instead you could get more done as a Democrat by accommodating moneyed interests than by partnering with the grassroots left. Well, it is time for Democrats to recalculate.

The liberal-conservative gap in America has never been smaller, and it is only going to keep getting smaller. The liberal grassroots are better organized than ever through the larger than ever, even if no longer hip, constellation of digital-native organizations known as the netroots. They have reformed the filibuster, saved net neutrality, and have managed to give Bernie Sanders as much support you were able to give Hillary Clinton. Both you, and they, can do more when you work with them instead of just using them as an ATM. Together you can change what is politically possible, and in the process change the world.

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