Understanding Bernie Sanders’ Theory of Change and Preparing for What Comes Next.
Whether Senator Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination for President or not, the work of building an economic and racial justice movement to transform the U.S. is the same. The movement being built right now has the potential to do something previous campaigns have never accomplished—continue to grow in power and numbers even after the election.
“We need a political revolution of millions of people in this country who are prepared to stand up and say, ‘enough is enough’,” said Sanders. “I want to help lead that effort.” We need a mass movement of people electrified by this campaign.
At the heart of Bernie Sanders’ theory of change is this idea—that the movement is more important than any one person and that the movement goes on, win or lose. Unlike other candidates, Bernie’s candidacy is not about him. He wants to “help lead.” That means other people will also have to “help lead,” presumably many, many people. So, what does that leadership look like?
Our task—whether Bernie is the candidate or not—is to organize at the local level, engage our neighbors, push for a progressive agenda, donate time and money, and run candidates for local, state and federal office. The political revolution will also require creative nonviolent direct action—protests, vigils, boycotts, civil disobedience, marches—to address issues of climate change, mass incarceration, wage theft, and wealth inequality. This is what will bring about real change.
After Barak Obama was elected President in November 2008, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) demobilized the movement that elected Obama. Since their theory of change is an elite strategy of “Elect Us and We’ll Take Care of Things” — the extraordinary volunteer infrastructure that elected Obama was dismantled. As a result, progressives were ill-equipped to respond to the right-wing attacks on Obama’s agenda, from health care to climate change. So instead of a public jobs program, a public option in health care, and a cap and trade bill, we got Tea Party politics and tax cuts for corporations.
As we know from Jane Mayer’s extraordinary reporting in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, as the DNC unplugged the right-wing stepped up. While the Democratic Party operatives demobilized the tens of thousands of volunteers sparked by Obama’s candidacy, the Koch brothers and other right-wing funders were investing hundreds of millions in a permanent campaign of resistance, including mobs at town hall meetings. As Mayer writes, the billionaire opposition, with strong roots in the fossil fuel industry, converted “thirty years worth of ideological institution building into a machine that would resemble, and rival, those of the two major political parties.”
In contrast, the Obama campaign took their activist list and created “Obama for America” (now Organizing for America) for fundraising purposes. But they asked little more of their base. For many of us involved with campaigning for Obama, it felt like a slap in the face. More importantly, it did nothing to advance the cause.
So how can we change the future? If Bernie is the Democratic Party nominee, we need to continue the full press until Election Day and beyond. A Sanders administration will require significant outside pressure to have any impact. Bernie knows this as well as anyone after many years in the increasingly unproductive Congress.
In the unfortunate scenario that Bernie isn’t the nominee, we have to continue the full press to both ensure that young voters stay engaged and that the “Political Revolution” continues.
A tiny percent of this energy will be about ensuring that Hillary Clinton is elected rather than the GOP nominee. This may be repulsive to some Bernie loyalists, but we shouldn’t burn a lot of calories venting our wrath at Clinton and the corporatist Democrats. Voting in elections is one percent of our political work. We can’t go back to sleep and demobilize. Don’t mourn, organize.
Whether Hillary is President or it is (gulp) Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich or the ghost of Mitt Romney -our mindset should remain the same. In some respects, our job is even more important if Clinton is President. She, perhaps more than anyone, needs to be reminded what a strong progressive movement looks like.
The good news is we have a selfless leader in Bernie, a campaign structure second to none, and millions of volunteers already engaged. Bernie will have to decide what he wants to do with the campaign infrastructure that he has built. But all signals point to his awareness that we have to be permanently mobilized into an independent political organization.
Bernie is not beholden to the Democratic Party establishment. In fact, it’s obvious that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has attempted to derail him from the start. Come November, when the DNC demobilizes, the Political Revolution has an opportunity to continue.
It probably won’t get the same lift from television or the mainstream media that the Tea Party did in 2009. But we have all the tools including online networks like the Other 98 Percent and independent media to cover the Political Revolution and remind us that social movements make history, not candidates—though thoughtful leaders can make a huge difference.
We must maintain and expand this powerful independently funded base to advance a post election agenda. Like the Koch-funded Tea Party movement, this formation will be a movement formation in its own right, not a traditional “third party.” But it will be funded by the people, not billionaires.
What’s the agenda? It’s the issues that Bernie has galvanized people around: Eliminating student debt. Taxing the wealthy. Reining in Wall Street. Combating climate change and opposing new fossil fuel infrastructure. Racial justice and reversing mass incarceration. Youth jobs. Immigration Reform. Protecting Social Security and expanding Medicare for all. All these issues will require tremendous pressure outside of Washington, DC to advance.
So what might “Political Revolution Part II” look like? Imagine, this fall, Senator Sanders barnstorms college campuses, pulling together “Student Debt Town Meetings” -registering voters, inspiring and training leaders, and plugging people into an issue campaign.
Imagine the Bernie donors continue donating to “Political Revolution” to fund a paid organizer on every college campus and in every Congressional District to engage and mobilize voters. These organizers exist solely to support volunteers — organize actions, accountability meetings with elected officials -and mobilize street heat around the agenda. New leaders of the Political Revolution will emerge -from young people, communities of color, from progressives who share Bernie’s agenda but bring additional skills and talents and perspectives. And downballot candidates will be empowered to run on a much bolder progressive agenda, after having just seen a socialist rake in contributions from more than five million people.
The next step is to talk with all the Bernie fans we know that are caught up in the horserace of the President primaries. Remind them: Our work ahead is the same, no matter what happens.
Don’t plan on taking August off -or the next two years for that matter. The Political Revolution needs you.
Chuck Collins-Senior scholar, Institute for Policy Studies (*for identification purposes on political columns) and author of ‘99 to 1’. Follow Chuck Collins on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@chuck99to1