Progressive Politics After Bernie

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.”

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”


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