Why Bernie Sanders Came Up Short - and How That Lesson Can Fuel Future Progressive Victories


The following is an excerpt from the new book Rules for Revolutionaries by Becky Bond and Zack Exley (Chelsea Green, 2016): 

Revolutions are messy, wonderful, maddening, and joyful all at once. They alternate between inspiring unbelievable elation and taking your heart and crushing it in a vise, sometimes both in the same day.

Revolutions rarely succeed immediately. But when they do achieve their ultimate goal—even when it seems sudden—it’s usually a result of years of accumulated confidence, new tactics, and momentum. All of this is gained through defeats and setbacks that train and galvanize an ever-growing base of people who believe that change is possible if they all stand up and fight for change together.

When Bernie called for a political revolution, his campaign was just taking its place as part of the process of bringing more people into the start of something big. Yes, we failed to win Bernie the Democratic nomination for president, even though we came excruciatingly close to doing so. But in the process, we demonstrated that a real political revolution is possible. A political revolution is something that we must grow together over the long haul. Our next step is to bring what we learned from the Bernie campaign along with all the new people that we met to the struggles you’re fighting right now in your own communities, campaigns, or organizations.

Bernie began the race fairly late in the game, with 3 percent name recognition, no money, and all kinds of baggage that pundits believed would disqualify him out of hand. By the time the Iowa primary came, Bernie was surging in the national polls. He went on to win twenty-two states and received an astonishing 46 percent of the pledged delegates for the nomination.

Rules for Revolutionaries is about a new set of practices and an orientation that helped make all of that possible—and we believe that it can be applied to other struggles that are part of building a political revolution to critical mass, including the ones you are fighting in right now.

On the Bernie campaign, in the later primary states where we worked, we began to unleash hundreds of thousands of volunteers to do meaningful and effective voter contact work. Even though we’re excited about the results we saw, and we believe that massive volunteer voter contact efforts must have contributed in some way to Bernie’s success, we know that the distributed organizing program barely scratched the surface of what Bernie’s supporters were capable of achieving.

One of our greatest failures was that we were not able to win enough trust from the campaign leadership and traditional field organization for the idea of volunteer-led organizing. We failed to secure key resources and authorizations that would have allowed us to build a massive and effectively targeted campaign. That would have included rolling out VAN, the campaign voter database, to all fifty states as early as July of 2015 and giving volunteers the ability to organize their own states well before paid staff would ever land on the ground there. We also could have allowed volunteers to crowdfund and open their own offices. And we could have developed a base of volunteer leaders who then could have formed the core of paid staff when the campaign was ready to start hiring in the later states.

The problem of scaling volunteer-led field programs and integrating volunteers with traditional paid field staff is one that we are confident will be solved. First, the Bernie campaign showed us what was possible and pioneered new ways of mass organizing to make it easier for the next insurgent candidate willing to run on a big message with big organizing behind it. Second, new overtime rules issued by the Obama administration in 2016 may guarantee that it happens sooner rather than later. Paid field organizers generally put in massive amounts of hours, far in excess of the forty-hour workweek, and they do this for low wages. Under the new overtime rules, any employee making less than roughly $60,000 a year will have to be paid overtime. The traditional system we have in place will become even less scalable as the expense of paid labor will far exceed what most issue advocacy groups or political campaigns can afford (or are willing) to pay.

The Bernie campaign inspired the greatest number of volunteers ever seen in a presidential primary. We built a massive volunteer voter contact machine that made over seventy-five million phone calls, sent over eight million peer-to-peer text messages, and held more than one hundred thousand volunteer-led events. It was a start but was nowhere near the massive wave of volunteer voter contact we could have launched had we gone all-in on a grassroots approach.

There’s a growing body of research that shows that television ads—the vast majority of spending in federal elections—have only a slight and fleeting impact on voters. While ads can be important in helping an unknown candidate get name recognition and thus become more viable, they have not been proven to have a substantial impact on voter turnout.

One of the things the campaign got wrong—and in some ways it’s hard to blame anyone because the conventional wisdom favoring massive ad spending seems blindingly ubiquitous—was spending so much money on ads and not shifting more money into organizing. The biggest single expenditure by far of the Bernie campaign, as it is in nearly every electoral campaign at the federal or statewide level, was advertising. Bernie spent more money on advertising than any other presidential candidate in the 2016 primaries. He spent more money than Hillary Clinton, more money than the Republican candidates, and certainly more money than Donald Trump, who could count the mainstream media as a virtual SuperPAC that kept him on the air practically 24/7. Meanwhile, Clinton spent more than twice as much money on staff than our campaign did.

What the volunteers knew all along was that the gold standard in any campaign for changing hearts and minds is a personal conversation between a volunteer and a voter at the door or on the phone. We don’t think of this as just as a missed opportunity—we see this as good news. The science on this continues to pile up on our side. Recent research confirms that deep, engaged conversations between volunteers and voters are not just effective in moving voters to the polls. They can change deeply held attitudes regarding controversial issues such as transgender rights, and those changed attitudes can endure over time. Person-to-person outreach can be used to turn out members to community meetings as well as to the polls, to build public support for racial justice, redistribution of wealth, climate action to achieve 100% energy independence, and other urgent causes. The nonprofit sector spends billions of dollars a year on advertising. Imagine if even just a healthy fraction of that was spent on volunteer-to-community or member-to-member outreach.

We don’t know the effect that the over $90 million the campaign spent on television advertising had in states we needed to win but lost. What we do know (and what volunteers have told us repeatedly) is that in almost every state, Bernie had far more than enough volunteers mobilized early enough to build the biggest, most effective voter contact program in history. No matter what our organizing challenge—whether it’s an election or a massive grassroots lobbying mission—we can change outcomes by investing early in building effective and massive person-to-person outreach campaigns. The Bernie campaign proved this was possible. Now we just need to go out and make it happen.

Imagine what would happen:

  • If a huge campaign for change that tackles all the issues, with race as part of the core message to everyone, is started early enough to allow for the lead time that’s required to set up an effective national grassroots organization.
  • If volunteer leaders—starting at the very beginning of the campaign, not the end—are given a clear and objective way to demonstrate contributions to a centralized plan to win and are empowered by access to top-notch voter contact tools and data.
  • If volunteer leaders are given the green light to run grassroots headquarters out of their homes and raise money to open public offices in their communities.
  • If mass organizing barnstorms are held as weekly volunteer activation sessions in every neighborhood in every state.
  • If there is a management system that allows proven volunteers to have a defined place in the organizational hierarchy, with the same oversight and accountability as staff.
  • If the massive scale of the organization and the ample lead time in each state allows the campaign to rely less on targeting and instead reach out to all the people, not just swing and base voters, but also unregistered voters, young people, and independents.
  • If the campaign becomes a truly national conversation about our collective fate—a conversation held on the porch or the telephone of virtually every American.
  • If tens of millions of dollars less are spent on television ads and instead those dollars are put into distributed organizing to unleash the power of the people.

So much is at stake. Every day we do not achieve radical change, we slide further toward a point of no return for our vulnerable world: wars of choice, climate change, structural racism, our out of control injustice system, poverty, addiction, the implosion of our health care system, and our inhumane immigration system. The status quo is killing people and dragging the world toward chaos.

It is with all of this on the line that we must take on the work of building and growing our political revolution. Revolutions are people’s movements. People’s movements are by nature big. With so many people involved and so much at stake, there’s inevitably chaos. And when you go breaking all the old rules—like we’re saying you should do!—it gets even more chaotic.

Bernie broke a lot of rules. He was unapologetic about the socialist aspects of his vision for America and the world. He called for an actual political revolution. The people who answered his call—from the campaign’s official staff to volunteer organizers—broke a lot of rules, too. We all saw what Bernie saw. If we kept playing by the old rules, we were going to keep getting the same results. And the status quo was literally killing people, tearing families apart, and making rampant inequality worse.

You might think that throwing out all the rules would result in anarchy. It didn’t because, together with all of the volunteers, the Bernie campaign helped forge a new set of rules—rules that would help the campaign grow larger and more powerful than most of us thought possible. Rules that can now propel our movements for change to greater success faster than we would have earlier imagined.

And so even though we lost, something amazing happened. Together, we helped test, iterate, and define a new set of rules that have the power to catapult us out of the pit of incrementalism we found ourselves trapped in. We all felt the power unleashed by these new ways of doing things. That’s why so many of us came out of this campaign inspired and ready to continue to take on the establishment, with all their money and their power. Because we not only know that it’s possible to win, but we also learned some new ways to go about doing so.

The big vision, big goals, and big organizing that these revolutionary new rules enable, that is what this book is about. If we can put these new rules into action, and keep rewriting our rules to meet the obstacles that stand between the people and the change they want to see, then we can start to win the radical changes necessary to address the pressing issues of our time.

When you are rewriting the rules, you have to fail some of the time. That’s how you learn what truly works. This is how we win.

Over the course of the Bernie campaign, we learned many things that worked better or in totally different ways than the conventional wisdom or organizing orthodoxy suggested we should do things. One of those things never failed us—volunteers who showed up with the talent, time, experience, and passion to win a big fight.

So now it’s your turn. Maybe you’re a volunteer who is new to activism or a professional organizer who wants to apply big organizing in your work. Take these rules. Build huge and powerful movements. Pick a lot of fights, including lots of big ones! Propose the solutions we need but the politicians say are impossible to win. Along the way you will most certainly need to improve these rules. Some of them you may need to throw out. And, of course, we look forward to seeing the new rules you write!

We want to close with a thank you from the bottom of our hearts to the leaders we worked with across hundreds of communities. There was never a discussion about who this book should be dedicated to. This book was inspired by and written for all the people who are leading in ways big and small to build the political revolution. Bernie wasn’t the leader we’ve been waiting for. You all were.

For more on Becky Bond and Zack Exley, check out AlterNet's recent interview with them.

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