What's Next for Bernie Sanders' Grassroots Army?
The truth is, nobody knows how this story ends. We know what was supposed to â€¨happen: Bernie Sanders was a sideshow act, a relic to entertain the kids. After warming up the crowds and falling amusingly on his face in the primaries, Sanders was supposed to disappear, leaving the audience happy to settle down for four—or eight—more years of grown-up government under the Clintons. Instead, Sanders waged a campaign that stunned both Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment. Raising in excess of $200 million through more than 7.4 million contributions, he proved that candidates no longer need rich donors or corporate money to compete.
Winning in state after state, Sanders refused to triangulate, instead expanding the American political universe to the left, putting the vision of a social democracy whose fruits have long been taken for granted in much of â€¨Europe—state-funded childcare, paid family leave, universal healthcare, free tuition at public colleges and â€¨universities—back on the American agenda. On foreign policy, too, he shattered decades-long taboos, denouncing the legacy of “regime change” from Chile to Iran, and even daring to defy the ban on criticizing Israel.
By the time the last primary votes are cast in California, Sanders will have taken his political revolution further than anyone—including Sanders himself—ever imagined possible. And if he’s had little impact on Clinton’s hawkish stance abroad, on the home front Sanders can claim victories in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and in supporting a $15 minimum wage and even, as of a few weeks ago, Medicaid expansion. Bernie Sanders has won the battle of ideas, hands down.
But he isn’t going to be president. So if Bernie’s Army isn’t marching to the White House, where is it going? Over the past two weeks, I’ve spoken with dozens of Sanders supporters, staffers, and volunteers, in states from Vermont to Florida, California to the Carolinas. I heard both anger and acceptance, but very little agreement—although in all of those interviews, I didn’t find a single person who said they were going to work just as hard for Hillary Clinton. The closest I came was Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, the group founded by Howard Dean after his candidacy imploded in 2004. Although Dean, who is now a superdelegate, backed Clinton, DFA members voted overwhelmingly to endorse Sanders.
“Of the 88 percent that chose Bernie Sanders, 98 percent of them told us to endorse the nominee,” says Chamberlain, who also believes that Sanders should “continue to lead the political revolution. If he needs to set up his own organization to do that, then that’s a smart move.”
So far, though, Sanders has said nothing about his plans. Although all of the activists I spoke with would welcome his involvement, whatever happens after the primaries, four main groups have already begun to form:
• The Occupy Democrats, who see the Democratic Party as ripe for a takeover.
• Brand New Congress, an effort launched last month to elect a Congress in 2018 that will “enact Bernie’s program” regardless of who’s in the White House.
• The Working Families Party, which in many states provided the ground troops for the Sanders campaign and is now benefiting from—and struggling to digest—a huge influx of new recruits.
• The People’s Summit, an alliance of National Nurses United and People for Bernie—the latter a coalition of activists and online groups like Vets for Bernie and Jews for Bernie—that has called a “gathering of the tribes” in Chicago on and represents more of the “movement” elements of the Sanders campaign.
None of these people want Sanders to drop out before the convention or to run with one hand tied behind his back. But the groups do differ—on strategy, tactics, and most of all on their degree of distance from the Democratic Party. Like many divisions on the left, you can also read that as a contest between pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.
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Larry Cohen has long been a paladin in â€¨the party of optimism. The former president of the Communications Workers of America founded Labor for Bernie last July and is a close adviser to Sanders and frequent surrogate on the campaign trail. He predicts that “the campaign will be there in force” at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this July, but he also expects the party to unify behind the nominee. “This isn’t about being in opposition” to Hillary Clinton or anybody else, he said. “It’s about what we stand for.”
At the convention, Cohen wants to see changes in the rules regarding superdelegates. “They need to be eliminated, or at least prevented from voting on nominations.” He also wants changes that limit the role of big money in the nominating process, such as a pledge from all Democratic candidates to reject absolutely the involvement of super PACs in the primaries. In short, Cohen adds, “the party must move toward populism and away from control by the financial elite.”
Cohen also thinks a progressive platform is worth fighting for—an effort bolstered by a recent deal between the campaigns and the party that allowed Sanders to name five out of 15 members of the platform committee. (Sanders chose African-American scholar Cornel West, climate-change activist Bill McKibben, Representative Keith Ellison, Arab American Institute president James Zogby, and Native-American activist Deborah Parker.)
“Platform planks don’t just exist on the platform,” Cohen points out. “They can send a clear message to Obama and Congress: ‘No TPP’—we can stop that slipping through in a lame-duck session. ‘We need a living wage of $15 an hour.’”
And though the nomination may be beyond Sanders’s grasp, Cohen thinks the Vermont senator is entitled to a considerable say over the direction of the party. “In some states, the Sanders forces already are the dominant structure, and we need to claim it. That’s probably going to be true for at least 20 states.” Instead of acting as ballot fodder while the party takes its cue from corporate donors, progressives “need to act like the majority. Because we are the majority,” Cohen adds—especially if you factor in voters who resisted Sanders’ candidacy but respond positively to his message.
Chris Covert, who ran the Sanders campaign in South Carolina, points to the appointment of Christale Spain, the campaign’s state political director, as executive director of the state party as an example of the way “Bernie-crats” are already making an impact. “Our people are very organized, very determined,” says Covert. “We’re going to see a lot of young people running â€¨for office.”
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Stacey Hopkins started pushing back â€¨against the claim that Sanders couldn’t connect with black voters last summer. A mainstay of Atlanta for Bernie Sanders, Hopkins tells me: “I refuse to sit back and watch this incredible energy go dormant once again.” Her focus, however, isn’t on Philadelphia this July, but on 2018. “As far as the Democratic Party is concerned, I had an epiphany: It’s their party, and they can do what they want to. But I don’t have to attend.”
She’s decided her activism can be put to better use working for Brand New Congress. “When we talk about parties—especially when we talk about African Americans—there’s a machine that will protect their candidates.” Doing battle with that machine in Georgia—where Clinton pulled over 70 percent of the vote, and 85 percent of the black vote—gave Hopkins a respect for the machine’s strength. But it also showed her a way in: through the widening gap between the interests of the party’s corporate funders and its base among working people and the poor.
“We are seeing the rift that the Democratic Party has denied for so long crack wide open,” Hopkins says. “At the moment, we don’t really have a choice. Their strategy now is ‘Vote for us—because look at the other side!’ People are getting tired of being told, ‘We’ll get to you in a minute.’”
Brand New Congress aims to give people a choice—in every district in the country. “Let’s run one campaign to replace Congress all at once (except those already on board) that whips up the same enthusiasm, volunteerism and money as Bernie’s presidential campaign,” says the group’s website. Zack Exley, who was the Wikimedia Foundation’s chief revenue officer before he started traveling the country to lead “Bernie Barnstorms” that trained thousands of volunteers for the Sanders campaign, is one of the group’s founders. They’re targeting the 2018 midterms because, Exley told me, “it takes a while to build the infrastructure to win elections—especially against entrenched incumbents.” The plan is to “recruit a full slate of candidates from people who are not politicians. People who never considered running for office. The majority will be women. A disproportionate number will be people of color. These will be people who are really good at what they do—nurses, engineers, teachers. People who have chances to sell out—but didn’t.”
That prompts lots of questions, beginning with how Brand New Congress can possibly win with progressive candidates in deep-red districts. Exley says the strategy is still up for discussion. And while the group may have set a hugely ambitious goal, I’ve met too many accomplished Sanders organizers in too many states who told me their only contact with campaign headquarters was “a visit from this guy Zack Exley” to dismiss the effort out of hand.
Ramon Ryan, a former organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who’s been working for Sanders in Nashville, said the campaign taught him “how effective we can be organizing ourselves in our own communities.” Tennessee was another tough environment for Sanders supporters, and after the primary “a lot of us have been struggling to figure out where we fit in,” Ryan says. For him, Brand New Congress—which aims to build on the Sanders network, letting local campaigns run their own show while giving them access to a unified national campaign and national online fund-raising—offers an alternative to surrender or a return to marginality. “We’ve seen how the nature of presidential campaigns has changed from Dean to Obama to Sanders,” Ryan tells me. “We want to take this model and apply it to Congress. I love the simplicity of being able to use one campaign to effect so much change.”
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When I last spoke with Billie McFadden, she was “on the road for Bernie,” changing a tire somewhere in California. Before that she was a volunteer shepherding the Sanders delegation at the now-infamous Nevada Democratic Convention, where Sanders supporters became enraged after some of their delegation were excluded and their motions dismissed by Nevada Democratic chairwoman Roberta Lange, who later became the target of sexist abuse. “I’m still confident that this man will be our next president,” McFadden told me in mid-May. But that hasn’t prevented her and others in the Nevada Sanders campaign from also starting a branch of the Working Families Party.
“We’re not abandoning the Democratic Party,” says Shirley Schludecker, another Las Vegas Sanderista who’s joined the WFP. I ask Shirley’s partner, Tazo Schafer, whether the unruly state convention would keep Sanders voters home on Election Day. “Most people are not going to give up on the possible for the ideal,” Schafer replies. “But we will want to hold people accountable.”
That yearning for accountability is a key part of the WFP’s appeal. “We’ve attracted a lot of new members in the fallout from the Nevada convention,” Schafer says. The idea is to create a vehicle—one both inside and outside the Democratic Party—to wrest power from the hands of the party establishment. In New York, the WFP has been both helped and hindered by its dependence on fusion laws that give it a line on the ballot, but also make its members ineligible to vote in the Democratic primary. Nevada doesn’t allow fusion voting, so the WFP is piloting a new strategy aimed at building a large membership base. Without a ballot line, the Nevada WFP functions more like a faction—or a caucus—than a party.
Why build a separate organization? The danger with an inside-only strategy, say WFP leaders, is that without a distinct identity, progressives will get shut out of power—or coopted. The WFP’s national director, Dan Cantor, once told me: “You can’t occupy the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party will end by occupying you.” Or as Waleed Shahid, a talented young organizer I met on the Sanders campaign in Philadelphia, put it: “The biggest lesson to be learned from the Tea Party’s playbook is that they don’t work for the Republicansâ€Š; they make the Republicans work for them.”
Bill Lipton, the WFP’s state director in New York, warns “there’s a lot of danger now for the left in a Clinton candidacy.” Reflecting on the New York primary, which saw most white progressives backing Sanders while Clinton took a heavy majority of the black vote, Lipton urges: “Let’s not rush into something—and replicate that racial fault line.” He’s also doubtful about Brand New Congress’ reliance on social media. “We’ve been working on this for almost 20 years,” he says. “You need a party—rooted in ideology, with an organic connection to a social base, and with a desire over the long term to systematically recruit people to run for office to contest state power.”
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Charles Lenchner is also wary of quick â€¨fixes. Back in 2013, he helped to start Ready for Warren, less as a vehicle for the Massachusetts senator and more as “a left power-building project,” he says. When Sanders announced, Lenchner cofounded People for Bernie. He argues that “the digital era has created a new basis for politics.”
“We used to need political parties to organize ideas—and they, in turn, would sponsor newspapers as a way of spreading their ideas. Now there are alternative methods to make a candidate viable, whether that’s through leveraging reality-TV celebrity, as Trump did, or through social media,” Lenchner says. “People for Bernie has had 2.5 billion interactions—shares, posts, comments, Facebook likes. There’s something out there. My prediction is it will continue.”
In a sense, the People’s Summit is a holding action. Not because the people involved are waiting for a signal from on high—“Bernie is not really an organization builder,” Lenchner notes—but because there is no shortcut to the hard work of building a genuinely diverse movement. “You have to understand that the early adopters for any effort are going to be a relatively privileged cohort,” Lenchner says. “That’s who can put in the time. So you have to always ask yourself, ‘Who are the leaders we want to have? And how is that different from who is in the room right now?’”
“We like Bernie,” said Leslie Lee III, the writer who, fed up with way “people used identity politics to keep the left and minorities apart,” came up with the Twitter hashtag #BernieMadeMeWhite. “But we don’t likelike Bernie… we respect him. And we do understand the limitations of Bernie as a politician.” For Lee and other millennial activists, the Sanders campaign was a vehicle, not a destination.
Lenchner says he has no idea whether a dozen different groups will show up in Chicago—or a thousand. “The question is: How many will still exist in a year or two? For now our role is to support these groups wherever they are. Whatever position they take on Hillary—or whatever.”
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Sanders himself has pledged to support â€¨the Democratic nominee—and though he may not do so as fast or as fulsomely as Clinton’s supporters would like, he has never shown any desire to play the spoiler. Especially when the alternative is Donald Trump, a candidate he describes as “a pathological liar” who “has promoted hatred and division against Latinos, Muslims, women, and people with disabilities.” How quickly, and enthusiastically, Sanders fulfills his pledge will indeed be a test of leadership—for both him and Clinton.
Back in February, I asked Amos Miers, an Occupy Tampa veteran organizing in St. Petersburg, what would happen if Sanders didn’t win the nomination. “A third of our people will vote for Hillary, no problem,” he said. “Another third will never vote for her. And a third will do whatever Bernie says to do.”
At the time, I thought his estimate of the Bernie-or-Busters was far too high. But listen to Wendy Sejour, a former secretary of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party still on the board of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida: “I have always believed in the values of the Democratic Party. FDR is one of my heroes. But what’s happening now breaks my heart. I am not—not—â€¨supporting Hillary Clinton in any shape or form.” Sejour, too, has signed up for Brand New Congress.
“The folks I know will vote Green,” says Hugh Espey, executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “I’m sick and tired of the lesser of two evils. I’m a registered Democrat, but they screwed us too many times.” He’s going to the People’s Summit.
Not even the specter of Donald Trump scares David Fredrick, who cofounded Grassroots for Sanders back in 2013. “We didn’t decide to support Bernie because we thought that Bernie was going to come in and save the day,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to get people away from Bernie Sanders and into going out and doing things. If Trump becomes president, I see a lot of anger; if Hillary wins, I see a lot of people sliding back to apathy.” And while Fredrick, a furniture designer from San Jose, might possibly be described as a “bro,” that label hardly applies to Espey, who is too old, or to Sejour, an African-American woman.
Nor is it so easy to dismiss Daniela Perdoma, the tech entrepreneur who created FeeltheBern.org. “If the DNC are smart, they’ll realize the future is in the Sanders-â€¨Warren wing,” she says. “But I’m not sure they are, frankly. Though I am hopeful that at the convention they’ll finally [recognize] that no matter who the candidate is, the party’s platform has to look more like Bernie’s than Hillary’s in order to win the White House.”
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This doesn’t have to all end in tragedy. But it â€¨might. Because even if America could survive a Trump presidency—a doubtful proposition—we simply can’t afford to throw away the energy, the idealism, the thirst for justice that the Sanders campaign has revealed and revived. In the long run, that probably matters even more than who sits in the Oval Office.
For the Democrats, the road to reconciliation is not obscure. Sanders is right to rail at our rigged system—but if the Democrats win in November thanks in part to his ideas and his voters, he’ll be positioned to do something about it, fighting in the Senate alongside Elizabeth Warren and still the leader of a political movement that was always about more than winning the presidency.
If by some miracle he ends up with more votes and more pledged delegates than Clinton, she’ll need to step aside gracefully. More likely that will be Sanders’ role. Clinton can—and should—do a lot to make that easier, by remembering what it felt like when she came up short in 2008 and dropping the campaign to pre-position Sanders supporters for blame if she loses in November. Heartbreak doesn’t have to be fatal.
“If he doesn’t want to spend the fall saying nice things about Hillary, he can do issue events instead,” says Steve Cobble, â€¨cofounder of Progressive Democrats of America. “Besides, he doesn’t have to say Hillary is a goddess to point out that Donald Trump is a fraud.”
Sanders could also make good on his slogan “Not Me. US.” by supporting the wave of Berniecrats that his campaign has inspired to run for office—people like Dimitri Cherny, a former CEO turned truck driver running against Mark Sanford in South Carolina, or Jamie Raskin (who’s also joined Brand New Congress) in Maryland. Indeed, the Sanders campaign has already endorsed and raised money for Pramila Jayapal in Washington, Lucy Flores in Nevada, and Zephyr Teachout in New York, as well as for a slate of eight statehouse candidates from South Carolina to California. (Though a welcome move, Sanders’ recent endorsement of Tim Canova in Florida had a strong element of payback for DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s latest scolding.)
What Sanders himself decides to do with the power he has acquired is enormously important. Ultimately, though, what his people—Bernie’s Army—do with their power is even more important. And that might take some time to figure out.
“Movements are messy,” Larry Cohen points out. “That’s a good thing about movements: People have to try different things to figure out what works.”
“We have to be connected and stay in touch with each other,” says Leslie Lee III. Like everyone else I interviewed, Lee has no intention of giving up the fight—or the power he’s discovered these past few months. “Liberals were afraid of using their power. We have to get over that.” But he, too, understands that real change takes time—and is seldom smooth.
“Everybody might have to stay in their lanes for a while, fight their fights,” he says. “And it does not come together like a Voltron at the end. It’s not going to come together neatly.