I went to a Northwest Philly live-streamed event with Bernie Sanders to get answers to two questions about his new organization,Our Revolution. First, was Bernie’s revolution going to focus on electing progressives at the grassroots? Democrats have never been very good at this; the Republicans have been much better at the long game. In the 1980s, political analysts were remarking on the skill with which what was then called the “New Right” focused on the grassroots—-the party infrastructure at the precinct level as well as low-profile local offices such as school board elections. The right-wing focus on grassroots electoral politics has continued with the Tea Party, the 21st century incarnation of the radical right, wasting no time getting its members elected to political office.
Sanders understands the importance of building from the bottom up and Our Revolution involves just such dedication to the unglamorous work of building a progressive infrastructure at the grassroots. He described those who enlist in his political revolution as: “people who will be fighting at the grassroots level for changes in their local school boards, in their city councils, in their state legislatures and in their representation in Washington.” He answered my first question.
My second question: Is Our Revolution an effort to move the Democratic Party to the left much as the Tea Party yanked the Republican Party to the far right? There is division within the Sanders coalition, with some wanting to build an alternative to the Democratic Party and others wanting to build the progressive wing of the party. Sanders largely ignored this divide. He spoke of supporting progressive candidates--not necessarily Democrats.
In an interview with Amy Goodman’s Democracy NOW, Larry Cohen, the Chair of the Board of Our Revolution suggested that a primary goal was reform of Democratic Party but that the group would also support non-Democrats:
Again, what we will manage and support are these networks of people that are pushing to reform the Democratic Party, as I mentioned, at the state level, like a Jane Kleeb, at the local level, independents like two candidates running for the Richmond, California, City Council—in many cases, Democrats, in many cases, not.
It is possible to focus on reform of Democratic Party and also, because of the circumstances of a particular election, support an Independent. However, there was no acknowledgement of the existence of any tension between the two approaches nor any indication how the Sanders revolution envisioned balancing these potentially conflicting goals.
The Our Revolution website lists the candidates Sanders is supporting without mentioning their party affiliation. As far as I can tell, they are Democrats, but the failure to identify them as such suggests that Sanders is reaching out to progressives who may not want to work within the Democratic Party.
I want the “political revolution” based in the Democratic Party--at this point that seems the surest path to building a winning coalition. At some point the current party configuration will change and we are certainly overdue for a realignment. The last time this occurred was in 1854 when the Republican Party supplanted the Whig Party. Eventually we will have something other than D’s and R’s but I don’t see this on the horizon in the near future.
There is another compelling reason for Sanders to base the revolution in the Democratic Party. Any new party would be overwhelmingly white. Many African Americans have deep loyalty to the Democratic Party and recently this has become the case among Latinos and Asian Americans. And yes the Sanders coalition has support among people of color, but at this point nowhere near enough support to build the kind of progressive movement Sanders envisions. A winning progressive coalition must be multi-racial/multicultural and that coalition can most easily be forged within the Democratic Party.
In many places the local Democratic Party is ripe for takeover. In Philadelphia the Democratic Party machine is a shadow of its former self and can best be understood as a group of often competing machines rather than as a monolith. Nonetheless, even in its weakened state, the Party machine still has an infrastructure of ward leaders and committeepersons. However, there will be opportunities for significant change as the party is currently staffed by ward leaders and committeepersons already in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. The current configuration cannot last much longer. And as I argue in Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party,changing that infrastructure, although a long, slow process, is arguably easier than building a competing structure.