A New National Progressive Movement Is Emerging in the Shadows of the Sanders Campaign
The sun was hot. The shade was sparse. Yet they kept coming. For three-plus hours on Wednesday morning, several thousand Bernie Sanders believers of every stripe—college students cutting class, older retirees and labor activists, parents with teenage kids—wearing every imaginable Bernie pin, T-shirt and baseball cap packed the dusty field at the Santa Clara fairground near San Jose, Calif.
“He’s the best candidate ever,” one man blurted out. “Feel the Bern! Feel the Bern!” people spontaneously chanted. The sound system played Bob Marley, Neil Young, John Lennon and Steve Earle, who growled “The revolution starts now.” As they waited, 1960s folk superstar Joan Baez took the stage and sang, “The opposition candidate is stirring up a fuss. She’s got the billionaires, he’s got us.”
Behind the bleachers stood a young man from nearby Santa Cruz, Jonathon Lachlan-Hache, handing out postcard-size flyers. “This is a new tool for local organizing,” he said. The postcards publicized a website he created, Bernforce.com, which lets activists put in locations and find and post campaign-related events, discussions, and organizing, including for other progressive candidates. “I am absolutely determined” to keep the campaign’s energy going, he said. “The nomination happens at the convention. This is a close race still.”
Lachlan-Hache handed out 1,200 postcards. As he pulled out his smartphone to show some Sanders volunteers how to use his website, the campaign’s advance men were handing out orange wristbands to the most exuberant supporters so they could fill the bleachers behind the podium. Nobody associated with the campaign wanted to talk about anything other than the necessary steps to win big in California on June 7, where 475 delegates are at stake.
But at every Sanders event large and small—such as voter registration drives on university campuses—there are people looking past the 2016 primaries and focusing on building a progressive movement. In some ways it’s an awkward moment for them, because Sanders and his disciplined team are telling supporters they can win, even if media, academics, Democratic loyalists and others all say the odds are not there. He told the San Jose crowd he’s beaten expectations all along, he’s the best candidate to take on Trump, and he can take California, “the most important primary in the whole nominating process.”
But that hasn’t stopped many people from not asking the obvious question—where does the progressive movement go from here?—and taking new steps and actions even while the presidential drama unfolds. At every California Sanders event attended by AlterNet, there have been people like Lachlan-Hache who are doing what they believe is needed to build a new and sustainable movement, as they continue to support the ongoing Sanders campaign.
Some are acting on their own, while others are part of online networks with dozens of volunteers and thousands of followers. Some are recently laid off Sanders campaign staffers who are trying to create national stages and tools for progressives to take back Congress. Some are planting the seeds for what they hope will be a new political party that will quickly become bigger than the Green Party. These are not the well-known public intellectuals of the progressive firmament who also are convening a People’s Summit in mid-June to discuss what’s next.
“We’re basically proposing a way to fix Congress in one fell swoop,” said Saikat Chakrabarti, a former Sanders staffer and Brand New Congress co-founder. “A big reason people don’t vote in midterms is that it currently feels very futile—at best, you get one or two progressive candidates to win, but those people won’t be able to do much in a Congress that is largely run by the current establishment. We are instead presenting a plan to put in a whole slate of progressive candidates at once, so voters will have a real option for big change.”
“We think for the first time in 100 years, and not because we’re special or smarter, but because of the situation with the Bernie movement, the United Progressive Party could be the first third party going from minor party status to major party status,” said UPP founder Justin Renquist. “We could see 30 to 50 percent of the Democratic Party, progressives, be so disgusted with this whole process and just leave… We are a populist leftist reformist movement that needs to come together. Let’s be the big-tent party that the Democrats said they were, but are not.”
From the Bottom Up
Sanders and his most ardent followers have repeatedly said that change only comes when the people demand it. Ironically, the campaign itself is a traditional top-down institution, with the messaging tightly scripted and the millions raised tightly held. The campaign has not endorsed many candidates running for federal office and has mostly told volunteers to cover the costs of creating their campaign materials. On one hand, they are very disciplined—almost no one affiliated with the campaign or volunteering says they are free to talk to reporters. But their fiscal stinginess has also unleashed a remarkable army of self-starters whose efforts are creating a new foundation for an emerging and growing progressive movement.
The campaign, of course, believes that anyone under age 30 they register to vote will likely support them. So late last week, they set up a San Francisco Bay Area voter registration tour of surrogate speakers led by young hip Hollywood actors that stopped at the major campuses. Like many campaign events, the first to appear were not these insiders, but the outside activists. That was the case at Stanford University, where Jay Blas Jacob Cabrera, who is also running for state assembly, appeared with a variety of handouts: cards telling people how to register, voting options and endorsements of other local progressive candidates.
“I am working every day to build the movement,” he said. “It is a movement. It is a thing in and of itself. If you listen to the people and listen to Bernie, it is getting government back to the people. The Bernie campaign is a subset of the people’s movement. It has been going on for decades. It is Occupy. It is Black Lives Matter. It is getting greedy corporations and oppressive systems out of people’s lives… We’re calling it the Bernie movement and trying to build a Bernie party.”
Cabrera is energetic, deeply committed and typical of the people often drawn to campaigns—very single-minded. But the resources he has marshaled are remarkable. He described himself as a builder of networks. Beyond the website he created calling for a new political party in Sanders’ name, BernieParty.net, or being endorsed in his long-shot legislative race by other like-minded groups not officially affiliated with the campaign, he has assembled online lists of progressives running for office across the country that rival what’s on established websites like Democracy for America or Bold Progressives, both nationally known campaign organizations.
It can be dizzying to hear him reel off websites, Facebook pages and other resources that he is working with and tapping to nurture a larger network. There are BernieThinkers, Berniecrats, SandersDemocrats, Expats for Bernie, SandersForPresident on Reddit (which Lachlan-Hache is part of), an offshoot called Grassroots Select that’s trying to help 2016 candidates, and more. These groups and others are all doing what they think is needed to create a lasting movement, even if their efforts can be similar, overlap or exist in small bubbles.
Cabrera’s optimism is punctuated by fears that people might give up if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination. He’s discovered it can be lonely on the campaign trail as he runs for the Assembly. And he is a bit frustrated that the movement and networks he deeply wants to see emerge are sidelined as Sanders keeps pushing for a big California win on June 7. “The only reason I am involved in this is [because] Bernie talked about a movement. No other mainstream candidate has said that,” he said, saying that he ran as an Occupy candidate for Congress in 2014. “But now he is not supporting a movement. He is supporting his campaign.”
But unlike past presidential years, social media and the internet have drawn people like Cabrera into larger virtual communities. One such effort is called Grassroots Select and began through Reddit. Ian Boyd, its executive director, who lives in Kansas City, said his group has 21,000 followers and a core of several dozen to 100 active volunteers. The niche they wanted to fill was helping down-ballot candidates. Others groups, such as SandersDemocrats.org, asked for help in grading and assessing progressive candidates, he said, to ensure they were adhering to Sanders’ agenda and values and not inauthentically riding on his coattails. “That is why we like them a lot,” Boyd said. That led to creating teams for research, writing, outreach and more. Where they are now is focusing on a handful of ongoing 2016 congressional primaries.
“There are these wonderful candidates that still need all this help,” he said, pointing to Alex Law, a 25-year-old running for New Jersey’s first House district with a June 7 primary, and Tim Canova, running against Democratic National Committee chairwoman and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida’s August primary. “Alex, who is 25 years old, is running an amazing campaign,” he said. “We’re trying to get donations, awareness, volunteers. We are trying to use Alex Law as this pure grassroots candidate that can stop corruption… There also is so much excitement about getting Debbie Wasserman Schultz out.”
Boyd said the progressive movement-building front is a bit splintered right now. He cited his co-director who was running VoteforBernie.org and was “very busy” with Oregon and California. The movement-building role of the online community “has been filling out the narrative of what the Bernie campaign is,” he said, but added that many activists are waiting to see what unfolds with the nomination. “A lot of groups are trying to plan based on the results that happen. That narrative will change based on what will happen in Philadelphia.”
Grassroots Select didn't want to do that, Boyd said. “We didn’t attach ourselves to Bernie’s campaign because we didn’t want to get hung up by the waiting that a lot of people are doing. We recognize Bernie’s accomplishments. We are not officially a Bernie group, but all of us are huge Bernie supporters.”
Brand New Congress?
Many of the activists now shifting their focus to building an enduring progressive movement were buried in the day-to-day, week-to-week, state-to-state Bernie campaign. That changed abruptly in late April when, after losing the New York primary, the campaign laid off scores of paid staffers, who in turn had to decide what they could do to keep working on a cause they deeply believe in. One of the first and most impressive efforts to arise is Brand New Congress, a new federal political action committee created just weeks ago that raised more than $40,000 from nearly 3,500 donors. Their goal is to garner support for hundeds of progressives running for the U.S. House and Senate in 2018 in a campaign that feels like Sanders’ campaign, co-founder Saikat Chakrabarti said.
“Our plan is to actually recruit these candidates (who will largely not already be politicians) and have them run under one plan and as a single unified campaign that looks a lot like a presidential campaign,” he explained by email. “So we're talking here about recruiting and running over 400 candidates, creating a campaign infrastructure of probably at least a thousand volunteers and staff, building out a platform, creating grassroots offices in every congressional district, and creating a massive voter contact program (much like the one we saw on Bernie's campaign) to try to contact every voter in every district that we are primarying.”
“It's a fairly large undertaking,” Chakrabarti said. “It's too late to do something this big for 2016 (many of the primaries for 2016 are already done and we don't have enough time to build up such a large organization). In fact, we are already working quite a bit to get things set up for 2018 and recruit our candidates by early 2017. However, a lot of us will be working with existing groups focused on 2016 and we totally support efforts to back progressive candidates running this year.”
In an approach that’s not dissimilar from Grassroots Select, he said the project will not just rely on small donors, but that they hope to provide campaign infrastructure elements so “our candidates will actually be able to spend all their time on the campaign talking to people and about the issues. Also, once elected, they won't have to spend half their time fundraising like congresspeople do currently since they will have been funded entirely by small dollar contributions on the web, just like Bernie Sanders.”
United Progressive Party
All of these movement-focused activists that AlterNet met, spoke to or emailed in the past week after attending several of Sanders’ events were in their 20s or 30s. It is remarkable that the Sanders campaign has become an epicenter for so many people who are dedicated to recasting the structures that underlie the political system. It may well be that Sanders will win California on the same day that Hillary Clinton wins in New Jersey and declares herself the nominee. But even if that happens, Sanders will head to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with many more delegates than any Democratic challenger in a generation—far more than Jerry Brown in 1992 and Jesse Jackson in 1986.
In contrast to these youthful enterprises on the campaign trail, the steering committee of the United Progressive Party and its 12,000 members nationwide have been working for years on various progressive campaigns. They say they are quietly laying the legal and organizational foundation to launch a new national party that can be a non-dogmatic big tent that can quickly emerge after Philadelphia. Founder Justin Renquist, 50, said it appears that Sanders’ bid to reshape the Democratic Party from the inside doesn’t look like it is going to work, as evidenced by the growing demands from party stalwarts backing Hillary Clinton to stop campaigning now.
Renquist said UPP has to respect the voters who haven’t cast ballots in primaries yet and the Sanders campaign’s effort to finish the nominating season, which means waiting until after Philadelphia to step forward. He says they have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers ready to create chapters in many states. But beyond those nuts and bolts, he paints an intriguing picture of the need for a broad and inclusive new progressive party to emerge. In sum, he believes the Democrats would never let Sanders and his wing take over the party.
That tension was behind the brusque treatment of Sanders delegates in Nevada’s ongoing nominating process last weekend. Even Sanders, in his speech in San Jose on Wednesday, when listing the establishment structures his campaign had taken on, said, “In every state that we have run in, we have taken on the Democratic establishment. And in state after state, the people have stayed up and helped defeat the establishment.”
So where will Sanders’ voters go? In 2014, Renquist said the nation had 190 million registered voters: roughly 47 percent were independents, 30 percent Democrats, 23 percent Republicans. He said the leading progressive alternative to the Democrats, the Green Party, is far too uncompromising, while other third parties like the Justice Party are too narrowly focused.
“The idea is to get the fractured left onto one big umbrella and get people to set aside arguments that you are not purist enough,” he said. "That independent portion of the 190 million could become larger than the Republican and Democratic voters put together. That creates a compelling case for a viable third party.”
A Growing Progressive Movement
Renquist’s reading of Sanders’ achievements, a shifting electorate, the Democratic Party’s internal dynamics and shortcomings of other third-party efforts could prove to be true, no matter which progressive organization grabs the mantle of creating a new party. Even the Green Party this week sent out a release saying they would welcome Sanders’ supporters.
But back on the ground at Sanders events, it seems that the people who had the clearest view of the future of building a sustainable progressive movement were the young and accomplished activists who have been deeply involved in the campaign for the past year. They weren’t following the older templates and models for running campaigns, waiting for permission, endorsements and directions. They were creating new tools, new networks, new fundraising models and forging ahead fortified by their experience and knowledge from the campaign.
As Bernforce.com creator Jonathon Lachlan-Hache said while handing out his flyers, the quick launch of Brand New Congress was “really impressive.” He especially liked their “one campaign, one plan, 535 candidates” focus. “The simplicity of their message is fabulous,” he said. “They have done a really good job of doing that, running a whole collection of local campaigns but having a presidential feel to it. And that’s how they explained it to me.”
His determination, like the passion of many others—individual networkers like Jay Cabrera, new group leaders like Grassroots Select’s Ian Boyd and Brand New Congress’ Saikat Chakrabarti, or would-be political party founders like Justin Renquist—all suggest a historic new progressive movement is emerging. “Waiting to be born—that’s a very good way to put it,” said Renquist.