His presidential dream may be over, but Bernie Sanders doesn't want his revolution to end. He's pushing his army of progressive supporters to stretch their wings and join a permanent movement devoted to transforming American politics.
Changing the world isn't easy, however, and his new Our Revolution organization has already had trouble getting off the ground. Just days before its Aug. 31st unveiling via a Sanders live-stream to house parties across the country, key staff inherited from the primary season pulled the ripcord. Some aren't going quietly.
Our Revolution's organizing team resigned en masse as did much of its digital team, including digital director Kenneth Pennington. Several turned around and aired their grievances in public, faulting new Our Revolution head (and former Sanders campaign manager) Jeff Weaver for what they see as a betrayal of the grassroots ideals the Sanders campaign was supposed to embody.
Much of the tension appears to be personal, but deep philosophical differences left over the primaries are clearly at play, too. A big sticking point? The fact that Our Revolution has chosen to organize itself as a 501(c)4 organization. Besides raising campaign-finance ethics questions, this legal framework means that it can take big donations from the super-wealthy, but can't coordinate with progressive-minded candidates and campaigns on the ground.
The idea that Our Revolution might become a conventional, consultant-driven media operation obviously stuck in the collective craw of the now-departed staff. As former organizing director Claire Sandberg told NBC, "We're organizers who believed in Bernie's call for a political revolution, so we weren't interested in working for an organization that's going to raise money from billionaires to spend it all on TV."
This dichotomy is nothing new for the Sanders operation: despite thriving on the raw passion of its supporters (and raising most of its money in grassroots increments) his campaign actually spent more like a traditional political operation, putting the bulk of its cash into TV advertising (and enriching consultants in the process). With the launch of this new organization, and absent the driving imperative of electing Bernie, the idealistic simmer among the staff clearly turned to a boil.
Regardless of any questions of pragmatism versus purism, however, it shouldn't surprise us that Sanders has hit speed bumps in the transition from a campaign to a movement. Most attempts to do something similar have ended in disappointment.
Despite its origins in Obama's victorious 2008 campaign, for example, Organizing for America/Organizing for Action didn't play the transformative role in advancing his legislative agenda many had hoped. Likewise, Wesley Clark's WesPAC maintained his email list and raised a couple of million dollars after his 2004 dip into political waters, but it was functionally done as a political force after 2010.
The only presidential campaign-derived organization so far with real independent influence started with Howard Dean: Democracy for America directly descends from the citizen-driven movement that tried to put him in the White House twelve years ago.
Organized as a PAC rather than a 501(c)4, it's directly supported progressive Democratic candidates and campaigns since it launched. Moreover, it's maintained a grassroots focus throughout. What lessons, besides the eternal importance of avoiding "People's Front of Judea"-style internecine battles, does it teach future movement-builders?
Organize to meet your goals. DFA raises money to support progressive candidates, move progressive issues and train progressive activists. Much of this work is local: even a cursory glance at the organization's website shows that it endorses candidates for mayor, city council and state legislature. As a PAC, it can donate to directly to federal campaigns, make independent expenditures and highlight favored candidates for its members to support on their own.
Respect your supporters. DFA supported Sanders after nearly 90 percent of its members voted to back him, and it also jumps into many races because of requests from local chapters and activists. Plus, it devotes real resources to training them to activate and advocate in their own communities. According to its website, 150,000 have taken part so far.
Meet an unmet need. Presidential, congressional and statewide campaigns suck up almost all of the resources in American politics. DFA puts much of its money down-ballot, where it can really make a difference. As can its training work, which will likely be particularly important for Democrats following the demise of the New Organizing Institute.
DFA, OFA and Our Revolution certainly won't be the last to try to turn a campaign into a movement. The efficiency and effectiveness of online organizing tools creates opportunities for all kinds of ephemeral groups to stick around for the long term. Donald Trump is apparently already thinking of ways to turn his grassroots groundswell into an independent media empire, though perhaps more for monetary gain than a sincere desire to change the world.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com and a 15-year veteran of online politics. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org