Progressive Politics After Bernie

Progressive Politics After Bernie

The Sanders campaign mobilized the largest democratic left the nation has seen in decades. Can its follow-up organization and other liberal groups roll its revolution on?

September 29, 2016

This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Around the time that the Republicans came to Cleveland for their July national convention, a group of Bernie Sanders supporters on the city’s west side resolved to continue organizing. “When we realized Bernie would fall short,” says Steve Holecko, a retired teacher who was a mainstay of the campaign’s office, “we decided to stay together. … Cuyahoga County didn’t have an organization with the word ‘progressive’ in it, so we formed the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus.”

For those who want to see what Sanders termed a revolution continue as an ongoing political force, the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus (CCPC) is doing many things right. It has held a number of events on Cleveland’s east side, the heavily African American part of town, working with the area’s state senator, Sanders supporter Nina Turner, to develop a common civic agenda. Frustrated by the Cleveland City Council’s opposition to raising the minimum wage to $15, the group is working with other organizations to recruit council candidates for next year’s city election, and planning training sessions to equip recruits with political skills. One of CCPC’s partner organizations is the Northshore Labor Federation—that is, the Cleveland AFL-CIO. “We want to be an electoral force in the Cleveland area,” says Holecko.

One of the complications is the lukewarm (and for some, downright cold) view of Hillary Clinton many Sanders militants have. Cleveland’s CCPC, divided on this question, is not coordinating with the Clinton campaign in this critical swing state, despite the fact that by mid-September, Donald Trump was running ahead of Clinton in Ohio polling. To be sure, the group, which mobilized more than a thousand volunteers for the primary, is involved in voter registration efforts in tandem with the Democratic Party, and Holecko anticipates that most of the council candidates it supports next year are likely to be Democrats.

But the only way to keep Cleveland’s Bernie cadres together between now and November, Holecko is convinced, is by steering clear of Clinton (and, for that matter, of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein). The vast majority of Sanders supporters, according to every poll, support Clinton, but when it comes to Cleveland’s hardcore volunteers, Holecko says, “one-third are ‘Bernie or Bust.’ We’ve kept together so far by saying this year we’ll focus on issues and registration.”

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Uneasy Marriage: Interim Democratic chair Donna Brazile and Sanders campaign manager and now Our Revolution president Jeff Weaver at the Democratic Convention. 

The experience of the west-side Sanderistas may be emblematic of the Sanders movement as a whole—portending a future for the American left that could be either promising or self-subverting. The sheer number of people, particularly millennials, who responded to Sanders’s critique of current American capitalism suggests that today’s young people could become a powerful generational force pushing the nation leftward, much as the young people of the 1930s and 1960s did well into their maturity.

Whether this is the destiny with which they’ll fully rendezvous, however, depends heavily on whether the ongoing institutions of the Sanders Left—unions, community-organizing groups, electoral formations such as the Working Families Party, and the Sanders campaign’s own creation, Our Revolution—can keep mobilizing their own ranks and build strong ties to other progressive constituencies. But that task would likely be immeasurably more difficult if the anti-Clinton sentiment of some Sanders supporters and institutions contributes to the election of Donald Trump.

It’s far too early to predict which of these alternative futures Sanders World will create, though time is fast running out for the 2016 election. A number of its leaders—notably Sanders himself—emphatically lay out the catastrophic consequences for both the nation and the left should a large slice of the left be complicit in a Trump victory. Others disagree, though as the polls tightened in mid-September some were beginning to hedge their non-endorsement stances. While many of the national organizations that backed Sanders—the Working Families Party, the Communication Workers of America, People’s Action,—have endorsed Clinton, others, like the digital group People for Bernie (which will soon change its name) and National Nurses United, have declined to do so, though neither are they backing Stein. As the following preliminary survey should indicate, whether the Sanders forces can realize their potential is as yet far from clear.


NO ONE LOOKING AT THE VOTES Sanders amassed during the Democratic primaries can dismiss the potential leftward pressure that his supporters could exert on the nation’s discourse and policy—not least because so much of his support came from millennials, who were the heart and sinew of his campaign. Sanders won 71 percent of primary voters under the age of 30; as one Harvard University survey concluded, it wasn’t a stretch to speak of Generation Sanders in American politics. Of all the nation’s progressive constituencies, however, it’s millennials among whom Clinton has been polling weakest (not that they’re voting for Donald Trump). They are also the progressives with the least affinity for traditional organizational culture—though as both Black Lives Matter and the Dreamers make clear, that hasn’t been an obstacle to forming organizational cultures of their own.

Public opinion surveys in the years leading up to the 2016 campaign, and any examination of the economic lives of the young, pointed to their potential as a progressive force. Weighed down by student debt and an economy that disproportionately created non-standard, low-paying jobs, a higher percentage of people in their 20s and 30s were still living with their parents, one Stanford study concluded, than at any time since 1940. Other polls registered their substantial disenchantment not just with the economy but the economic balance of power; in several polls, millennials responded more positively to socialism than to capitalism.

Yet while young people in both the 1930s and 1960s had formed or flocked to groups and movements that embodied their distinctive brands of radicalism and reform, the young people who turned out in such high numbers for Sanders in 2016 had not formed a broad movement of their own. That was one reason why the political world was so stunned by their level of Sanders support. The failure of Occupy Wall Street to build any organizations save a few tiny study and agitation groups, even as the polling showed so many millennials continuing to support its perspectives, was emblematic of Generation Sanders’s approach to organized politics—until the Sanders campaign came along.

For hundreds of thousands of the young, then, that campaign marked their first immersion into the actual practice of politics. Two youth organizations profited directly from this immersion by seeing boomlets in their membership: the Young Democratic Socialists and Young Progressives Demanding Action. Both groups have declined to endorse Clinton, even though mid-September polling showed Clinton’s lead over Trump dwindling particularly among millennials, many of whom are moving away from the former secretary of state to Stein and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. (As a tax-deductible organization, the Young Democratic Socialists don't formally endorse, but their stand-offish position also reflects the stance of their parent organization, the Democratic Socialists of America.)

Pi.1415926535/Wikimedia Commons

This September, Our Revolution played a key role in enabling Massachusetts State Senator Patricia Jehlen to defeat a conservative challenger backed by wealthy charter school advocates in the state’s Democratic primary.

To what degree Clinton’s weakness among young voters is the result of those voters’ leftism—more precisely, in this instance, their infantile leftism—and to what degree it reflects their susceptibility to the media- and GOP-driven narrative that she’s as or more devious than Trump, we cannot say. At minimum, these groups could work on turning young voters away not just from Trump but from Johnson, to whom the polls show they’re flocking in far greater numbers than to Stein. The positions of both Trump and Johnson on environmental issues alone—the former denies the existence of global warming, the latter would abolish environmental regulations—should suffice to bring many young voters into Clinton’s camp. The ongoing neutrality of these and other such groups in November’s election, on the other hand, would surely undermine their growth and credibility—and pose larger threats to democracy itself—should Trump prevail.


THE ORGANIZATION BEST POSITIONED to keep activating Sanders campaign workers was the one that emerged most directly from that campaign.

True to his socialist heritage, Sanders had made sure to tell his backers in every stump speech he delivered that in joining his cause, they were only beginning their participation in a long-term effort to revolutionize the relationships of power. Just as Sanders’s hero, five-time Socialist Party presidential standard-bearer Eugene V. Debs, had asked his supporters not just to vote Socialist but to join the party, so Sanders pledged to establish some permanent entity through which the faithful could roll the revolution on.

This August, Sanders unveiled that entity—Our Revolution. The organization began life with one asset of a size and scope no other left or center-left group active in electoral politics could match: access to the list of Sanders campaign donors, volunteers, and supporters, which may include as many as five million names. It also began life with one daunting challenge: No presidential campaign—indeed, hardly any American political campaign—had ever created in its aftermath an ongoing organization that had a sustained, significant effect on politics.

The organization created in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 victory, Obama for America, never really proposed actions that engaged the imagination or involvement of the millions of activists who’d campaigned for him. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was tied too closely to the political needs of its founder—the shoals on which other such organizations had run aground. Were this not challenge enough, Sanders and his comrades understood they had to build a political organization that holds and renews the enthusiasm of young people for battles less world-historic than a presidential contest. Having fired up the better part of a generation, they readily admit that they don’t have a magic formula to keep that fire burning.

Though the Sanders list of supporters alone is enough to make Our Revolution a potential powerhouse in American politics, it is still very much feeling its way. Its challenges were compounded during its birth pangs when a number of young staffers, in a widely publicized move, left the group to protest some of its early decisions—in particular, to make Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager and longtime aide, the organization’s president; and to make the group a 501(c)(4), able to take large donations but unable to donate directly to candidates’ campaigns, rather than a political action committee that could, in the spirit of the Sanders campaign, only take smaller donations but be able to donate directly to candidates. Another limiting factor of 501(c)(4)s is that federal elected officials—a category that includes one Senator Bernie Sanders—can’t have dealings with them. Critics nonetheless fear, however, that “Bernie people,” including Bernie himself, will make choices—such as the decision to form as a 501(c)(4)—that other progressives find bewildering.

Some of these anxieties have been allayed by the composition of the group’s 11-member board, which includes such progressive stalwarts as former NAACP president Ben Jealous, radio commentator Jim Hightower, and Ohio State Senator Turner, and is chaired by Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America and founder of Labor for Bernie, who is widely regarded as a tireless and independent-minded organizer. At its first meeting, the board pledged to report all sizable contributions—which, for a 501(c)(4), is not legally required.

American Rights at Work / Ellie Van Houtte/Creative Commons

Larry Cohen, now chair of the Our Revolution board of directors, acknowledges that the organization is still in its shakedown cruise period, and that in direct proportion to the historic novelty of its mission, its current structure is experimental and provisional. Here Cohen, then head of the Communication Workers of America, speaks in 2011.  

Cohen acknowledges that the organization is still in its shakedown cruise period, and that in direct proportion to the historic novelty of its mission, its current structure is experimental and provisional. “We need a big dose of humility,” he says. For now, at least, Our Revolution conceives its role as something of a switchboard: It endorses candidates—this year, state and local candidates—on its website, provides links so Sanderistas can volunteer or contribute to those campaigns, and messages Bernie-backers in the districts where those candidates are running. Besides candidates, it is also urging supporters to help out in a handful of ballot measure campaigns this November—chiefly, for a California initiative that will put a ceiling on drug prices, and one in Colorado that would establish a single-payer health system.

Our Revolution’s staff vets the candidates the group endorses, and Cohen is frank that most of those candidates are recommended by groups that played a role in Sanders’s campaign, like the Working Families Party, Friends of the Earth, or National Nurses United, or by Sanders campaign leaders in the various states. In initially opting for its “switchboard” model, the organization seems to be following, if at a distance, the model of some digital organizing groups, focused chiefly on millennials not easily reachable through more traditional organizational structures. “Young people can optimize their organizing campaigns with digital tools,” says Winnie Wong, the co-founder of People for Bernie, an online organization that preceded, was independent of, and now has outlived the Sanders presidential campaign. “So much of the Bernie Revolution was organized online.”

Still, most volunteers whose first contact with Sanders was digital eventually found their way to brick-and-mortar campaign offices. For now, Our Revolution is steering clear of that kind of organizing: Cohen says it has no plans to open offices around the country, nor to hire staff to coordinate local activities. Some left activists think this ultra-light footprint is a mistake. “They think you can do things at the local level just with volunteers, without any structure or staff of their own,” says one. “You can’t build a left that way.”

AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

While many of the national organizations that backed Sanders have endorsed Clinton, others, like National Nurses United, have declined to do so. Here, Sanders reaches out to greet union members during a visit to the National Nurses United office in Oakland, California. 

Sanders backers have taken some heat for funneling large sums of money into this summer’s failed primary campaign of Tim Canova against former Democratic National Committee chair and full-time Sanders nemesis Debbie Wasserman Schultz for her Florida congressional seat. This September, however, Our Revolution played a key role in enabling Massachusetts State Senator Patricia Jehlen to defeat a conservative challenger backed by wealthy charter school advocates in the state’s Democratic primary, while also enabling progressive Assembly candidate Mike Connolly to narrowly upset a more conservative longtime incumbent in a district partially overlapping Jehlen’s. Alerted by Our Revolution, Sanders backers provided the districts—both in Cambridge—with precinct walkers and donations.

As Our Revolution directs its energy into more state and local races, Sanders supporters may encounter challenges they didn’t run across in the senator’s presidential campaign. “When it comes to funding, among other things, Bernie’s campaign experience will not be easily replicated at the local level,” says Bob Master, the co-chair of New York’s Working Families Party and the political director of the northeastern region of the Communications Workers of America, the largest union to have endorsed Sanders. “There’s a unique level of hope and expectation in a presidential [election], not to mention the avalanche of media attention, that virtually never occurs in local races. Translating the Bernie energy and excitement to local races in the future will pose a real challenge.”

“Building local and state-based organizations that can be pragmatic and achieve concrete legislative victories,” Master continues, “is much harder than the magic of a presidential campaign. It takes organization and consistency and even compromise sometimes. I feel confident that the Bernie generation will stay involved in politics, and push American politics to the left, but it will take time and hard work to figure out how to make the transition to the less glamorous work of state and local elections.”

Another test for Our Revolution, and the entire Sanders left, is whether it can become an effective progressive pressure group on the Clinton administration should she prevail in November. Our Revolution is already organizing a national campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) should it come to a vote in Congress in the closing months of the Obama administration or the opening months of its successor. The group has alerted its massive list to upcoming anti-TPP activities and is keeping it abreast of ongoing developments.

There is broad agreement not only on the Sanders left but also among a number of center-left organizations that the failure of liberal groups to pressure the Obama administration in its opening months for more progressive policies—most certainly, on reducing the number of home foreclosures—was a serious mistake that should be avoided if and when Clinton takes office. With Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as their congressional point persons, the left is already opposing the appointment of advisers adhering to a Wall Street perspective to top administration positions, and working to ensure that the progressive commitments of the Democratic platform—for a new Glass-Steagall Act, for instance—are followed through on by Clinton and congressional Democrats. (How much those Democrats can do, however, will largely depend on who controls the House and Senate.)

A clear focus not just of Our Revolution but also of such groups as the Working Families Party and People’s Action is to mount primary challenges, beginning in 2018, against congressional Democrats who oppose such reforms as a new Glass-Steagall. Planning for such campaigns is already under way. This strategy is plainly informed by the success that the Tea Party has had among Republicans: By ousting incumbents who’ve dismayed Tea Party members, the GOP right-wingers have found a way to move the majority of the remaining legislators in their direction. As Democrats deal with issues like financial reforms and employee rights, the party’s left seeks to make a comparable example of those legislators whose allegiance is more to the corporate sector than to consumers and workers.

One further challenge Our Revolution will face in coming years—a challenge some supporters may view as a compromise—is whether to endorse candidates who didn’t support Sanders this year. To date, the organization has endorsed only office-seekers who supported Sanders. Cohen, however, says this can’t be a deciding criterion as Our Revolution moves forward. “We can’t build a movement looking at the rearview mirror,” he says. In the future, their candidates and allies “won’t be limited to Bernie people.”


WHILE IT'S TOO EARLY TO KNOW whether Our Revolution can carry the revolution forward, the Sanders campaign unmistakably energized a broad range of other progressive groups in the nation. Policies they’d advocated and ideas they’d floated for decades with limited success suddenly were winning the backing of millions of voters. With the limits of the possible suddenly less constricting (unless, of course, Trump is elected), many groups on the liberal-left are considering what and how they must change to better mobilize the progressives whom Sanders brought out of the woodwork.

People’s Action, which employs 600 organizers in working-class communities in 29 states, focusing on issues of economic justice, has intensified its electoral work—not just for Clinton, but in tandem with the Working Families Party, focusing on congressional challanges in the 2018 elections. “We bring a large base of voters; they bring a long history of building political formations,” says George Goehl, People’s Action’s co-executive director. “I’m most encouraged about the number of people doing grown-up politics, preparing serious efforts to primary corporate Democrats.”

For its part, the Working Families Party—the union- and progressive-backed electoral operation that, name withstanding, works chiefly within the Democratic Party and has elected more anti-corporate Democrats than any other group in decades—is investigating whether its methodical organization-building can be supplemented by the kinds of organizing that sprung up around the Sanders campaign. “We’ve taken to heart the notion that there’s a much bigger appetite for the kinds of things we believe than anyone knew,” says Dan Cantor, the party’s executive director. “We’re not abandoning what’s worked for us, but we’re experimenting with new kinds of organizing as well. Every week, half a dozen people contact us and say they want to build a Working Families Party where they live. We want to give them the tools to do precisely that, and that requires rules, responsibilities and realism. We’re looking for that sweet spot in mass political organizing where natural creativity can flourish alongside a focused, strategic plan.”

“The challenge,” Cantor continues, “ is how to combine the experience and intelligence of the organized left with the energy and vitality of younger and less-experienced but very smart people. We’re proud that the Working Families Party has electoral muscles, so to speak, and inside clout. But what Bernie and Black Lives Matter have shown is that an outside strategy works by changing the narrative. The WFP began in an era of very little social ferment. Now there’s energy in the air and it’s our job to channel some of it into politics. A party is not a social movement, but a party like this should express those movements in the contest for governing power.”

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Generation Sanders: Millennials are the most left-leaning generation since the 1930s. But can they bring their pro-Bernie zeal into more humdrum local campaigns?

National Nurses United, by contrast, sees its role more as nurturing that social movement. The organization whose support for Sanders and opposition to Clinton was the most visible and voluble of any left group, the Oakland-based union “sees electoral work chiefly as a tactic for organizing movement campaigns, not as the main focus of our activity,” says NNU’s political director Michael Lighty. The union doesn’t shy from those political campaigns it supports: It’s the main backer of the California initiative that would limit the price of prescription drugs, and is also supporting the congressional and state legislative campaigns of Sanders supporters around the nation.

Lighty hopes that the organizing potential of two pro-Bernie groups—People’s Action, with its working-class activists, and People for Bernie, with its largely young social-media activists—could, separately or together, “create something more powerful” than the current left. Wong notes that People for Bernie’s  Facebook page is getting even more views now—despite the fact that Bernie is no longer running—than it did during some crucial stretches in the spring primaries. What the pages present to readers (many, if not most, being Sanderistas) are curated reports and comments from progressive perspectives on a host of issues, events, and public figures—but not Clinton, and not Jill Stein.

By mid-September, Trump’s rising prospects and the corresponding anxiety they produced across the left were prompting some movement toward Clinton within the Bernie-or-Bust universe—“and it’s not due to anything Hillary has done,” says a leader of one sit-it-out group. Organizations that haven’t endorsed Clinton include the Democratic Socialists of America and Progressive Democrats of America. Most of these—like NNU, the two largely campus-based youth organizations (Young Democratic Socialists and Young Progressives Demanding Action), the CCPC, and People for Bernie—feel that endorsing Clinton is too divisive, or too painful, or both.


WHAT COULD REALLY SHATTER Sanders World, however, and most certainly limit its ability to build a more powerful progressive force, would be its enabling a Trump victory by the refusal of some of its leading organizations to back Clinton. Not only would key constituencies and the organizations that represent them—racial and religious minorities, immigrants, workers, the poor—suffer most if Trump were to prevail; they would be unlikely to join in coalition with those organizations that couldn’t bring themselves to mobilize against the first quasi-fascist to win a major-party nomination. Nor would young people who now resist voting for Clinton necessarily look back on that refusal fondly once a Republican-dominated Supreme Court further suppressed minority voting and curtailed reproductive choice.

There comes a time in the life of all revolutions when circumstance erodes solidarity, when cracks, splits, and factions emerge. The circumstance that most erodes solidarity is qualified success, which brings with it some power and some compromise. By winning 45 percent of the vote in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders both exercised and won power. As a direct consequence of his campaign, Clinton and the Democratic Party platform now call for an expansion, not a reduction, to Social Security, for free tuition at public colleges and universities, for a new version of Glass-Steagall, and for a rejection (or, in the case of the platform, a rejection of the key provisions) of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To experienced political activists, these were clear victories. To many political novices, they were compromises that, taken alongside Sanders’s endorsement of Clinton, signaled a betrayal of the revolution. And Sanders’s army was comprised disproportionately of novices—not just because so many young people responded to his attacks on the plutocratization of American life, but also because so many progressive groups, assuming the nomination was hers for the asking, backed Clinton, thus leaving experienced progressives largely missing from the Sanders campaign, and from his delegations to the party’s national convention.

If the Sanders revolution is to realize its transformative potential, its adherents will have to recognize that its radical program can advance only if it wins the backing of the broader progressive universe—not just the Sanders-faithful arrayed in the rearview mirror. Its ability to move forward depends on its own strategic decisions and on the political space that a Clinton victory would create for the left, or, conversely, that a Trump victory would close off. “We can’t win the political revolution from a bunker,” says Goehl of People’s Action, “and that’s where we’ll be if Trump wins. We can be engaged in both defeating Trump and building a movement at the same time. We have to be.”

This story has been updated. 

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