At a televised town hall last year, Trevor Hill, a college student from New York University, noted a rising distaste among young Americans for capitalism. He asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi if she thought her party might consider shifting farther left on economic issues as it had on cultural ones like same-sex marriage. Pelosi recoiled. “I have to say,” she replied, “we’re capitalist.”
Like the 2016 Democratic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the exchange was a proxy firefight in a larger war over the soul of the nation’s reluctant opposition party. Debates over the Democrats’ future tend to focus on exactly the sorts of ideological questions Hill posed: Will the party continue to embrace the current economic system or move gradually toward the kind of Scandinavian-style social democracy Bernie Sanders outlined in his campaign? Will they support Medicare for All, or simply tweak the Affordable Care Act? Will they guarantee every American the right to well-paid work, or just encourage employers to provide more work through subsidies?
Yet in the year of a pivotal midterm election, the progressive wing of the party is distinguished as much by how it organizes as the policies it advocates. How do they intend to achieve their policy goals, and elect more Democrats who can help push them forward? Will they win votes by going door-to-door talking to voters, or by courting wealthy donors who can help them buy television ads? Will they keep listening to the organizers who pioneered their ambitious and newly adopted demands, or claim all the praise for themselves? Will they help change electoral rules that keep old boys’ networks in charge?
Even as rumors of a 2020 presidential bid from Sanders float around Washington, the organizations that endorsed him last time around and emerged out of the 2016 Democratic primary see much more work to be done before then, and at just about every level of government, to make the political revolution he espoused a reality. That is, either electing Sanders or making sure he’s able to get anything done in the White House will depend on him having plenty of allies in both Congress and states around the country. That’s a large part of why upstart groups galvanized by or formed directly out of the Sanders campaign—Our Revolution and Justice Democrats—have been attempting to bring what they learned through that effort to Congressional fights and down-ballot races, from how to create robust volunteer networks to how to engage in small-donor grassroots fundraising, building on and often working with slightly older organizations like the Working Families Party, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, and the Progressive Campaign Change Committee. The two groups aren’t institutionally connected, but share a commitment to a broad set of progressive values and policies like Medicare for All.
Increasingly, they aren’t alone. Rumored 2020 hopefuls who would hardly be considered left wing, like Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Cory Booker, D-NJ, have come out in support of a federal job guarantee, a demand with roots in the civil rights movement but for years talked about only by a small faction of the left.
As the Sanders campaign helped highlight, there’s broad support for such ambitious, universal programs, and longtime labor demands like a $15 minimum wage. Ambitious Democrats already in office are seeing these sorts of proposals as an electoral goldmine, and talk of means-testing and a balanced budget—a mainstay of the Third Way—are growing increasingly rare. Candidates for everything from city council to Congress are even feeling comfortable enough with the political climate to run openly as democratic socialists.
Last November’s elections saw fifteen card-carrying members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) win seats in thirteen states. Among those was thirty-year-old Lee Carter, who—running as a Democrat—won a race for Virginia’s House of Delegates against a ten-year Republican incumbent, Jackson Miller. Other winners included newly elected city councilors and aldermen in Montana, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Idaho, backed by local DSA chapters that led ambitious, door-to-door get-out-the-vote efforts. Coming up on the midterms, candidates like Kaniela Ing, a DSA member running for Hawaii’s first Congressional district, endorsed by both Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, are hoping the momentum from state and local elections can translate up to the national level.
As Justice Democrats and Our Revolution are finding, though, the idiosyncrasies of the U.S. political system make any attempts to move the Democratic Party left an uphill battle, especially for outsiders. Unlike in parliamentary democracies, political parties in the United States don’t have leaders responsible for shepherding the party’s vision and electoral strategy. At the national level, our winner-takes-all elections mean that third parties are essentially locked out of any meaningful contest for power. That leaves third parties functionally irrelevant, and factions within the Democratic Party to vie for influence within its bounds by both accruing public support and electing candidates who are on their side. That means the party essentially operates more like a coalition than a cohesive entity, encompassing everyone from Blue Dog Democrats to democratic socialists. Party leaders are elected by a small group of members and don’t enforce ideological lines so much as set bureaucratic rules and functions, at least officially. Membership in the Democratic Party tends not to extend beyond who you vote for come election day (if that) and the number of Americans who identify with either party is approaching a historical low point; 42 percent identify as independents. By extension, politics tend to orbit more around individuals than any broader vision of the party’s mission.
“Candidates are not accountable to anything except the next election or their donors,” explains Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America and the chair of Our Revolution’s board of directors. “The broader task,” he says, “is building political organization. . . . For the most part, we see the precinct and the county as the building blocks.”
Our Revolution is the official outgrowth of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and since 2016 it has worked to help elect progressives, build out a network of decentralized, place-based political organizations around the country, and change the often-archaic rules by which the party operates at the local, state, and national levels. To do all this, they deploy a range of tactics and orbit their activities largely around their local membership groups, who lend a built-in street team of volunteers that can work on both issue campaigns and elections they see as strategically important. Cohen sees all those areas of work as deeply linked, and has been dismayed to see well-meaning progressives prioritize simply supporting candidates above all else.
There’s no guarantee that once in office, Democrats will use it well. Cohen calls it “candidate addiction”: entrusting enormous faith and power in elected officials to carry out a progressive agenda despite having virtually no incentive to do so and no institutions ready and willing to hold them accountable. Among the sectors he’s most upset to see fall into this trap is the one where he spent most of his career: labor. With certain exceptions, he says, “labor is accountable only to its transactional goals, and will endorse candidates they think are a safe bet to deliver good contracts and legislation, often without an eye toward a long-term strategy. Similar dynamics are at play for a number of other big players in Democratic politics, like Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood PAC. Within the progressive electoral ecosystem, there simply aren’t very many groups who deliver support based on a holistic, progressive vision that extends beyond either election day or a handful of votes on key issues. With more than 500 local groups spread out around the country—working on phone banks, canvasses, and issue campaigns—Our Revolution hopes it can help build that.
The process hasn’t come without its challenges. As a Politico story this spring highlighted, the group has faced growing pains that have supporters worried. Our Revolution president Nina Turner, for instance, put her consultant and friend Tezlyn Figaro on payroll, evidently without informing the organization’s staff. That Figaro had a history of making anti-immigrant comments on Fox News—that immigrants were “coming into the country and getting benefits that Americans do not get”—exacerbated existing tensions that Our Revolution was neglecting immigration issues in its campaign priorities and social media accounts. Long-time immigrant rights organizer Erika Andiola, who’d served on Sanders’s Latino outreach team, was fired as Our Revolution’s political director by Turner last November, shortly after requesting time off to help out with efforts to defend DACA that Turner didn’t want performed under the organization’s official auspices. “We need Our Revolution to exist, be strong, and work to not just elect candidates but build an amazing movement for Medicare for All, free education, criminal justice, etc.,” Andiola wrote in an extended reflection on Facebook. “Despite what the article says, there has been a lot of incredible work done at the grassroots level. But I also hope and pray that the organization doesn’t forget about Latinos and undocumented folks on the left.” Lucy Flores left the group over its lack of attention to issues that disproportionately impact Latino communities in the United States, and shortly after the article came out, undocumented immigrant and transgender activist Catalina Velasquez announced she was leaving the organization for similar reasons.
Among other things, what the episode appeared to show was that the movement is still grappling with issues that plagued the Bernie campaign, including difficulties connecting with communities of color. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Our Revolution—or any viable left project—making considerable headway without taking these concerns to heart. That the organization looks to live up to a progressive set of values also necessarily means it’s held to a higher standard by its allies and establishment types eager to point out hypocrisy.
Still, a number of the frustrations raised in the Politico piece—by Democratic party insiders in particular—hinged on the fact that Our Revolution hadn’t endorsed more centrist Democrats like Alabama’s Doug Jones in recent special elections. As Larry Cohen explained it, Our Revolution endorsements come via a self-consciously small-d democratic process—local affiliate groups, including some DSA chapters, can endorse candidates, who in turn can seek an endorsement from Our Revolution at the national level. That backing brings with it the support of Sanders’s sizable email list to help fundraise and get out the vote, staff who can help increase candidates’ footprints on social and traditional media, and infrastructure in the form of automated dialers from phone banking that smaller down-ballot campaigns otherwise might not have access to. Often Our Revolution will partner with groups doing similar work, like their recent joint venture with the Working Families Party to support progressive Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Such tactics aren’t all that out of the ordinary for campaigns, although Our Revolution and Justice Democrats both place a premium on grassroots mobilization as opposed to TV ads and paper mailers, the bread and butter of traditional political campaigning. Aside from supporting explicitly progressive candidates, what really sets these upstart groups apart is an attention toward institution-building, not simply leaving the transformation of the Democratic Party up to candidates and the teams of staff and volunteers that dissolve after election today.
As Cohen sees it, a key part of the work of changing Democrats for the better involves changing the governance of the party itself. As, if not more, important than electing fresh blood into office, he says, is dismantling the rules that keep new candidates out. In addition to his work with Our Revolution, Cohen serves as vice chair of the Unity Reform Commission, a body within the DNC created to reform the presidential nomination process and ease tensions between the Bernie and Hillary camps following the 2016 primary. Among the biggest items on its agenda is dramatically curtailing the role of “superdelegates,” unelected party delegates—usually Democratic office holders, lobbyists, and party operatives who are free to support the presidential candidate of their choosing regardless of how many votes they get. The system was created to quell dissent within the party’s own ranks and give party insiders more of a say over the nomination after Ted Kennedy primaried then-president Jimmy Carter. Nearly forty years later, efforts to reform the superdelegate process have drawn support from the likes of Pelosi and Clinton vice-presidential pick Tim Kaine.
But it’s not just the presidential level where party rules have to change. “Rules, particularly in the blue states, range from bad to horrifying,” Cohen says. There, he explains, entrenched party bureaucracies have broad influence to decide which candidates fail or fly come election day.
Take the battle currently playing out in New York, between Governor Andrew Cuomo and his primary challenger from the left, Cynthia Nixon. In order to vote in the September primary, progressive New York voters registered with the Working Families Party would have had to switch their registrations in October of last year to become Democrats who can vote in the state’s closed Democratic primary—something that worked against Sanders in the state and could also work against Nixon. Many of those voters are also young, a demographic that tends to lean toward the kind of overtly progressive politics Nixon is championing. County party bosses in New York choose interim officeholders should a state legislator leave their post. So in places where Democrats should theoretically be able to push the progressive envelope farther than their counterparts elsewhere—sending more left-leaning candidates on to Congressional and executive-level offices—party rules are set up largely to keep the same kinds of Democrats in power.
And establishment Democrats are losing on one of the criteria they’ve defined as all-important: fundraising. This spring, for instance, six House candidates enjoying party backing at either the state or national level were out-raised by their progressive challengers in states from Pennsylvania to Montana. Much of that was owed to candidates’ persistent small-donor fundraising, a technique pioneered by Howard Dean’s campaign for president in 2003 and that exploded with Sanders’s primary run. Like much of what drove the Sanders team to its surprising success, their strategy on this front relied on a combination of new technology and old-fashioned grassroots campaigning.
As former Bernie organizers Becky Bond and Zack Exley detail in Rules for Revolutionaries (2016), though—part memoir of the Sanders campaign and part how-to guide for progressive insurgency—a campaign with grassroots fundraising means having “a base that wants to support you. If you don’t have that base, you face two options: seek large donations from rich people and foundations, or build a base so you can seek small donor donations.” Especially after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United in 2010, which repealed limits on campaign financing, big donor fundraising has become more important for candidates on both sides of the aisle. For Bond and Exley, fundraising is about more than just bringing in money.
Small donations were so baked into the Bernie campaign that the average size of donations to Sanders became a popular chant at packed rallies along the campaign trail: $27. “The messages were that Bernie was a long shot,” Bond and Exley write of the campaign’s fundraising tactics, “and moneyed interests might be too powerful to overcome. That what we were talking about was nothing less than a political revolution and it would work only if millions of people joined us.”
The logic behind small-donor fundraising speaks to more than just messaging or financial savvy. What the Sanders campaign seemed to help cultivate was an ethos that had become rare in electoral politics: mobilizing big numbers of people toward big, ambitious demands. As they put it, small organizing—appealing to narrow constituencies on a set of narrow, poll-tested demands—“works well enough when incumbents want to maintain the status quo, but it isn’t big enough to challenge the establishment . . . far more people are willing to step up if you ask them to do something big to win something big.”
Working alongside Bond and Exley in this work was Saikat Chakrabarti, the Sanders campaign’s Director of Organizing Technology. In that role, he helped develop some of the software that helped the campaign enlist massive numbers of donors and volunteers, and rapidly scale up the numbers of people who could get involved both online and in-person. Now he’s the Executive Director of Justice Democrats, and looking to bring what he learned into 2018 and beyond.
Justice Democrats, a PAC, was founded with the express intention of challenging both Republicans and Democrats who aren’t living up to progressive values. “The Democratic Party over the last ten years lost over 1,000 seats. Our theory and hypothesis,” he tells me, “is that a major reason for this is that the Democratic Party is not standing for anything concrete. We think voters come out to vote for good policy, but won’t come out to vote for unexciting ideas or candidates.” In deep blue districts and those that swung for Trump by double digits, they support Congressional candidates based on their stances on a number of key issues—enacting Medicare for All, banning Super PACs, abolishing ICE—and offer both financial and digital support to help bring people to the polls in ways similar to Our Revolution. Justice Democrats also hold trainings around policy priorities, and for campaign staff that cover the ins-and-outs of how to set-up and run voter-mobilization efforts. Their aim is to recruit and back a diverse group of candidates across race, gender, and age.
It’s a strategy that has inspired some to dub the group a “Tea Party of the Left,” although Chakrabarti points out that the comparison has its limits—and not just because of the number of wealthy donors willing to back Republicans’ shift rightward. “Electoral strategy-wise, we’re doing what the Tea Party is doing on the right,” he says, but the Tea Party has an easier job in that their message is one of obstruction and destruction. It’s easier to talk about that. “I think it’s harder on the left because we’re trying to message creation of a bigger and more inclusive future. The future that we’re pitching looks multiracial . . . the future that we’re working toward hasn’t ever really been the case in America.”
For that and many other reasons, the task of shifting the Democratic Party left is a tall one. The smattering of left-leaning elected officials in places like the Congressional Progressive Caucus are only now considered trendsetters and not irrelevant backbenchers—and there aren’t very many of them. While more institutionalized progressives within the broad umbrella of the labor and environmental movements haven’t shied away from endorsing candidates or allying with Democrats, much of the self-described American left—those housed in rowdier, new social movement uprisings, from the alt-globalization movement to Occupy Wall Street—have spent the last half-century either ambivalent or actively hostile toward the idea of contesting for and winning elected office. On the one hand, this has been disastrous—cratering the left’s influence over mainstream politics as movements fetishized and perpetuated their role as consummate outsiders. As centrism wanes, leftists are now having to learn or relearn a way of doing politics they could have spent decades honing. There’s a lot of catching up to be done with the right, which has for decades cultivated extensive candidate pipelines and networks of think tanks, ready to hand white papers and model legislation to state legislators and Congressmen on their first day on the job. If the left has only started to flex its electoral muscles, developing the skill to govern may prove even harder.
But it’s not all bad news. Organizers newly galvanized around electoral politics and trained in social movements are applying lessons learned there to races up and down the ballot, and helping break down a long-held divide between the “inside” and “outside” of politics. With the spotlight and momentum provided by the Sanders campaign, demands that social movements have pioneered—from the $15 minimum wage, ending mass incarceration, transitioning away from fossil fuels—are rapidly becoming more mainstream in the Democratic Party. Now, organizers new to the electoral realm are helping reimagine not just policies, but the practice of politics itself. In the left’s half-century sojourn away from electoral politics, it may have brought back a few useful souvenirs.
Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times and a contributing writer for the Intercept.