The last five years have seen the much-heralded reemergence of the American left. But beyond this period’s big marches and rallies, recent social movements have not been especially welcoming to those not already at least loosely connected to activist networks.
Events like the People’s Climate March and the large Occupy mobilizations brought out hundreds of thousands. But these movements struggled to retain many of the ordinary people who joined them at the peak of their popularity.
Following the Left’s post-Bush-era resurgence, the Sanders campaign has offered an unlikely antidote. Bringing longtime organizers together with new democratic-socialist converts, it has combined its impressive grassroots strategy with a left project that wants to contest for the highest levels of power.
With fifty-five thousand volunteers in California alone, the campaign expanded well beyond the reach of the last decade’s biggest popular uprisings with one weird trick: giving people something to do.
Electoral campaigns are especially suited for this, arming anyone who comes in with a clipboard of names to canvass or phone bank. It’s not an inventive strategy so much as a time-tested one.
Fused with Sanders’s populist zeitgeist and a tech-savvy small-donor fundraising apparatus, the campaign trained its recruits in something that looks an awful lot like revolution.
It wasn’t political serendipity but grassroots organizing — and the groundswell of twenty-seven-dollar donations that paid for it — that packed stadiums and polling stations nationwide. And there’s no reason that should end with Sanders’s hopes for the Oval Office.
Hopefully, the movement that picks up Sanders’s steam will look very different from today’s left. But the challenge today isn’t to define that movement, hashing out how exactly it should govern, who will be at its helm, or what Sanders’s own role will be.
It’s to ensure that movement is allowed to mature before descending into despair or irrelevancy.
These are not the “bitter last days of Bernie’s revolution,” as Politico swooned. Instead, they represent an opportunity for his supporters to plot its next phase, to Philadelphia’s Democratic Convention and beyond.
A Coalition of the Busy
Garnering ten million votes, the political revolution won support outside social movements’ usual suspects. And that’s exactly where it should remain. It would be a mistake for the Left to turn inward following Sanders’s likely defeat, and attempt to cobble together a coalition of people already stretched thin fighting for immigrant rights, racial justice, a livable climate, and other worthy causes: a coalition of the busy. Not only are these activists already over-committed; they represent a small sliver of the population.
Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias warned that such an approach limits movements and electoral efforts alike, and plays into enemy and establishment hands.
“In a context of total ideological defeat . . . the Left needs to stop being a religion, and it needs to become a tool for the people,” he thundered. “It’s about reaching people who would otherwise consider us Martians.”
If the task ahead is to mobilize the broad public — and not just the already existing left — the questions raised above can be replaced by simpler ones: What happens on July 28 when Clinton wins the nomination, leaving those who support a democratic socialist to choose between a hawkish corporate democrat and a far-right xenophobe? How can Sanders staffers and volunteers keep giving the people inspired by his message something to do and to believe in?
To accept defeat and withdraw from electoral politics would be disastrous. It goes without saying that movements should never commit all their energy to electoral work, long understood — and with good reason — as a graveyard for popular insurgency. But the Sanders campaign has started to erode the half-century-long divide between activists and the halls of power.
This hasn’t always been easy. “We will have had to compromise, water down, rank, and involve ourselves with strange bedfellows,” the Brooklyn based collective Not An Alternative wrote back in February. “The dilemma of left politics is that we appear stuck between beautiful souls and dirty hands.”
The coming months will provide plenty of opportunities for the Left to dirty its hands without tarnishing its souls in the Clinton campaign.
Voter registration and turnout campaigns offer the political revolution a chance to flex its organizational muscles. A recent Pew poll found that two-thirds of the ten million newly eligible voters are racial and ethnic minorities.
Also, millennial voters — the majority of whom now question capitalism and have flocked to Sanders — now account for as big a share of the American electorate as Baby Boomers, comprising 31 percent of eligible voters. However, while millennials have led the last decade’s most dynamic social movements, voter turnout among them has declined since 2008.
New and old barriers stand in these voters’ way. As Ari Berman points out, seventeen states have rolled out new voting restrictions this year. “Young, first-time, and African-American voters” will feel these measures’ chilling effects the most, he notes, driving down turnout among those least likely to vote for Donald Trump by as much as 2 or 3 percent.
Aside from aiding the anti-Trump cause in the short term, upping voter turnout can ensure a more progressive voter turnout in cycles to come. Especially if these drives take place within broader political education efforts, registering new voters can also plug them into a wider-reaching program.
Scotland’s independence referendum demonstrates this kind of campaign’s power. Registration efforts in the lead-up to the vote added three hundred thousand voters to Scotland’s rolls. Turnout verged on 90 percent nationwide.
Former Sanders staff and volunteers are already turning their energies to a slate of down-ballot fights. For example, longtime Brooklyn housing activist and avowed democratic socialist Debbie Medina tapped talent from the Sanders campaign to run her state senate campaign’s field operations.
Florida’s Tim Canova recruited Sanders staffers, too, who are now giving Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz a run for her money. And the Sanders campaign has endorsed nearly a dozen other challengers. These elections show that the “Sanders Democrat” is a brand with staying power.
Add a shared logo and a few common talking points, and these candidates’ similarities can move out from under a loose umbrella of progressive policies and into the outline of a concerted realignment—whether candidates run inside or out of the Democratic Party.
As with voter registration, door-knocking, and phone-banking, down-ticket races and ballot-measure mobilizations can bring out new voters and train them in the basics of grassroots organizing.
Another movement that backed a socialist septuagenarian and long-time back-bencher might teach us how this could work. When Jeremy Corbyn won the UK Labour Party’s leadership election last August, the loose but fierce movement that supported him — including some seventeen thousand volunteers — pivoted to form an organization called Momentum.
Now, former campaign organizers are pushing to completely overhaul the Labour Party from the bottom up. Promising to “transform Labour into a more open, member-led party, with socialist policies and the collective will to implement them in government,” campaigners have sought out ways to channel the energy Corbyn sparked into something permanent, extending beyond the trade unions and the social movements that fueled his run for leadership.
“The question of who leads one of the country’s two traditional parties of government is a consequential one, affecting people’s lives in a way that, say, a plan to unite various far-left factions in an electoral front typically does not,” Andy Murray, Chief of Staff to Britain’s largest union, wrote in February. “And Labour made it relatively easy to get involved, while offering a range of allies.”
Just after Corbyn’s victory, Momentum embarked on a month-long voter-turnout effort called Democracy SOS to reinstate the more than two million Labour voters who had been dropped from the rolls.
Kicking off with a national day of action, the campaign set ordinary citizens up to run registration drives in their own backyards. They also devoted resources to Labour candidates in key races.
They began by encouraging the formation of local chapters — now totaling over 130 — then opened up membership to anyone eager to affiliate, using a sliding-scale dues structure that starts at just one pound per month.
Well-attended political education programs, hosted by local groups, invite economists like Anne Pettifor and journalists like Owen Jones to speak to largely working-class audiences about topics from Brexit to austerity to the war in Syria.
As they register voters and support candidates, local Momentum chapters also run issue-based campaigns for fair housing and against brutal cuts to the National Health Service.
Situated between reformist tendencies and the radical left, Momentum has its share of internal tensions. As organizer James Schneider told me in April,
There are bits that if you’re used to more traditional movement things — you might find bureaucratic or compromising. But that’s because it is linked to actually existing labor struggles, which necessarily have degrees of political compromise within them. And it is linked to a political party whose organizational form is still very bureaucratic and twentieth century in its political technology.
Momentum is not a perfect case study. There was an ongoing effort to stamp out Blairism within Labour before Corbyn, however marginalized its champions. And Labour has the kind of militant, working-class roots — which Corbyn himself comes out of — that the Democrats never did.
Corbyn’s also a more radical figure than Sanders. And, of course, Corbyn won his race, which put more wind behind his supporters’ sails than Sanders will be able to count on come August.
Still, there are important parallels. Asked about the future of the Sanders moment, Schneider advised that, even in the event of a victory:
You’re going to need citizens’ councils, public assemblies, and other democratic tools to run alongside it. The party exists for purely electoral purposes. This isn’t really about the party. It is about engagement with the state, and particularly the local state. You’ll need to develop a dual power which is about mobilizing people for the provision of services, and taking quite direct political action within communities to take on a semi-state role.
Whether or not they want to win the Democratic Party’s soul, Sanders staff, volunteers, and supporters must engage with the state and the people who populate it. Harnessing post-Sanders energy is about much more than uniting activists. It’s about extending the bounds of the American left.
That said, voter-registration drives and down-ticket fights are likely to ring hollow without transformative ideas to animate them — the kind that have formed the core of history’s most dynamic socialist and egalitarian projects.
If our strategy is still in question, one mission should be clear: bolster post-Sanders forces by defining what a “Future to Believe In” looks like. Plans for robust public housing, budgets where black lives matter, and energy democracy are already being drafted at the leading edges of today’s social movements.
These go beyond Bernie’s attacks on “the millionaires” and “the billionaires,” showing alternatives that can truly overcome capital.
Such common sense plans — for a future where people control their political and economic lives — could win support, and form the backbone of a vision for what a governing, redistributive US left might look like. In 2016, there is at least as much dreaming to be done as there is organizing.