Jacobin - June 23, 2020
After the end of the Bernie Sanders campaign, we have no shortage of takes on why Bernie lost. Pointing fingers in directions that confirm their preexisting political convictions, analysts claim the working class rejected socialism, or nonvoters will never vote, or that Bernie should have pivoted from insurgency to a party unity message to win over Democrats, or that the campaign should have pushed harder against Biden. Many of these arguments are worth engaging with. But as explanations of why the campaign didn’t come out on top, those takeaways don’t fit with what I observed in my ten months of on-the-ground organizing for the Sanders campaign in Iowa and Illinois.
The Bernie campaign was about organizing. We aimed to organize a multiracial, working-class coalition of people behind a presidential campaign that represented their values, not the interests of the rich. Over and over again in Iowa, I saw people transformed by conversations about Sanders and his platform, communities rally around the possibility of change, and new supporters take their first steps into political organizing.
We preached that our campaign would build a new working-class movement in this country, a tall order even for a country with a more established and functional Left than the United States. Our problem was not that we set this as a goal for ourselves — it was that our applied strategy stopped short of even attempting to reach this goal.
If the campaign leadership had been uniformly committed to the goal of building aworking-class left movement through a presidential campaign, then our campaign would have looked very different. For instance, we would have invested in physical field staff in every state far earlier. We also would have treated our “distributed organizing” program, a virtual program coordinating volunteers across the country to run their own canvassing and phone-banking operations, as supplemental to paid staff rather than as a cheaper replacement.
Our campaign leadership made several major gambles that were not in sync with the values or espoused strategy of our campaign. But rather than ignore our flaws or write off our campaign for its failures, we owe it to ourselves to identify what we did that worked, and why and how we should have gone further to build a unified, grassroots left movement that could win the policies in Bernie’s platform and much more.
A Campaign at Odds With Itself
Ilanded in Iowa as a field organizer in early June 2019. From the first week on the ground, my comrades and I heard of internal struggles between senior campaign advisers advocating for traditional electoral campaigning and the grassroots organizing–minded leadership trying to enact our campaign’s own radical theory of change.
Central to that theory animating those of us who were grassroots organizing–minded was the idea that winning policies like Medicare for All and the Workplace Democracy Act would require more than just getting people to vote for Sanders. It would require a bottom-up, grassroots organizing strategy to motivate disenchanted and angry working-class people to embrace a politics of hope and outnumber or win over establishment-leaning voters.
Our goal was to seed the growth of working-class organizing or unify current organizing efforts in every part of the country where we had a field program. We would do this by having more trained, strategic, face-to-face organizing conversations than any campaign in history. This was explicit from my first day on the campaign. The training that field organizers went through in Iowa was not just about how to use the voter database NGP VAN or best practices for canvassing. Onboarding for field organizers included training on political analysis and the nature of power in politics. Organizers weren’t just being trained to move people to win an election but to understand how to attack the root causes of the daily injustices in their lives. We aimed to identify and train future leaders and unify with current leaders from community groups, unions, issues-based organizations, and down-ballot campaigns who would have an active collaborator in Bernie Sanders.
We made it clear that these are not just tools for an electoral campaign. These are the same fundamentals we use to build highly effective grassroots community organizing campaigns, labor campaigns, and more.
A perfect example of this occurred midway through the summer in Iowa, before many campaigns had even put field staff on the ground. The campaign decided to hold a series of grassroots organizing trainings with volunteer leaders. In these training sessions, we discussed how neoliberalism had led us to our current crisis. We trained volunteer leaders to organize people around their day-to-day issues and trained them on how to share their own issues using tools like “My Bernie Story,” a conversational formula for connecting personal issues to platform policies. We trained these leaders on how to agitate others and make hard asks of their friends and family to get involved in organizing. We trained them on how to hold others accountable to the commitments they made.
Throughout these training sessions, we made it clear that these are not just tools for an electoral campaign. These are the same fundamentals we use to build highly effective grassroots community organizing campaigns, labor campaigns, and more. After the training sessions, we even brainstormed with people what their next local organizing target might be once the Bernie campaign ended.
Our goal was that these leaders and their campaigns would unify with each other and with existing progressive organizations to create a lasting left infrastructure that would take on the DNC, RNC, and their parent corporations. No other presidential campaign that I have ever heard of went out of its way to balance the daily grind of voter identification and turnout with deeper grassroots leadership development the way our campaign did in Iowa.
When I was promoted to regional field director for Southeast Iowa in September, I was shown a fuller picture of what we needed to accomplish in order to win the caucus. It was only at this point that I understood how herculean a feat this balancing act between grassroots development and meeting traditional electoral metrics was — and quickly gained an even greater respect for our state leaderships’ commitment to building a unified grassroots movement.
Our state leadership’s commitment to this goal was crucial to what inspired our army of volunteers to win the popular vote in Iowa. This commitment is all the more impressive since it seems members of national leadership and the logic of traditional electioneering were arguing against it.
Despite the immense challenge of pulling off such a feat, our state leadership held to their values. Even well into the fall, our explicit goal was to balance this longer-term investment in grassroots militancy with our electoral goals. ...
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