Had you closed your eyes last Sunday in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, you might have thought you were five years and a half-hour train ride away, occupying lower Manhattan for the 99 percent. Endorsing Bernie Sanders, New York City council member Jumaane Williams — a Black Lives Matter activist and former Occupier — led 28,000 people in a “mic check,” a call-and-response meant to get messages out fast to big crowds. “We want — we believe in,” Williams and the crowd roared, “the revolutionary moonshot.”
That moonshot, of course, is the 74-year-old democratic socialist vying for the nation’s top office. Having suffered a double-digits loss in New York last Tuesday, Sanders is now focused on garnering votes in the five states voting this week — though mathematically, his chances of securing the nomination are now slim. But win or lose, the future of the political revolution Sanders has championed probably won’t look anything like him. Rather, it will be headed by millennials and people of color — groups that, thanks to demographic shifts, promise to be major electoral bases in the coming years.
Encouraged by the momentum Sanders’ campaign has generated, the young people heading up some of the last decade’s most influential social movements are grappling with how to build a new kind of politics, as active in the streets as it is in the halls of power. Disillusioned by the lost hope of Obama’s historic election in 2008, they know better than to take any candidate, however progressive, at their word. Even leaders who feel the Bern share a kind of agnosticism for their work beyond election season, ready to ramp up protests whether Sanders, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office.
While millennial organizers may have been excited about a Sanders administration, many see a bolder goal on the horizon: an alternative to politics as usual, one that’s of, by and for the grassroots. From backing candidates up and down the ticket to marching on Washington, activists are looking to create a popular outlet for anger at the status quo, with electoral teeth.
“Movements are getting stronger, and are starting to take themselves seriously,” says Yong Jung Cho, the campaigns coordinator at 350 Action, the political arm of the environmental group 350.org. “They’re demanding political power.” For the last several months, Cho has been darting between campaign rallies from Iowa to New York. Small teams of activists, many of them trained in the fossil fuel divestment movement, have converged on candidates’ events to “bird-dog,” pushing White House hopefuls to answer tough questions as cameras roll. The goal is to attract media attention, and get candidates on the public record about controversial issues they would rather skirt. 350 Action’s victories this election season have included Clinton’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project she helped push as secretary of State, and her support for a moratorium on coal, oil and gas leases on federal lands.
For Cho, holding today’s politicians accountable is a key part of the democratic process. Just as important, she contends, is to support insurgent ones. “Movements will be movements, and parties will be parties,” Cho says. “We need a movement party that’s decentralized, that many people can identify with, organizationally and individually.” She likens such a formation to the Tea Party — not in its Koch Brothers funding or Fox News cheerleaders, but in the more than 900 local chapters that led a values-driven transformation of the Republican Party from town halls and church basements.
“Anyone across the country can identify with the Tea Party,” Cho says. “The open-source nature of it … that’s something our movements already are. We need to actualize that in a party structure.”
While the politics of this new party would differ significantly from the Tea Party, debates remain as to exactly what form “independent political power” might take: Who is involved? What are its hallmark values and policy platforms? Is it a third party, a DNC insurgency, or something else entirely? These questions are bubbling in movement spaces across issues, constituting more of an ecosystem than a consensus. All see this year’s groundswell of ire at the political establishment — on both sides of the aisle — as fertile ground for electoral outsiders.
“We’re not thinking about this in response for any one candidate,” says Maurice Mitchell, a member of the movement for black lives and a main organizer behind its first national convening last summer. He is also the co-founder of Blackbird, a group focused on racial justice, technology and civic engagement.
“This is the natural progression of where we are as a movement,” Mitchell says. “These conversations are not new, but there’s now a sense of real possibility.” The movement for black lives, he points out, has created an unprecedented national conversation about systemic racism with disruptive tactics, like shutting down bridges, highways and public transit. For Democratic candidates, then, proclaiming that “black lives matter” became critical on the campaign trail to stay politically relevant.
Moreover, Mitchell says, organizers in the movement for black lives have already begun to integrate the ballot box into their work. Last month, BYP100 led a charge in Chicago (#ByeAnita) to oust Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez, who waited more than a year to press charges on the cop who fired 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. They brought voters for Alvarez’s opponent, Kim Foxx, to the polls, canvassing neighborhoods and making some 200,000 phone calls. Similarly, in Cleveland, local groups helped vote out the prosecutor who neglected to charge the officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a city park.
“Those are examples of more to come on the local level,” says Mitchell. He and other organizers agree that upcoming electoral pushes will find their strength at the local level, engaging with city and state races in places where movements have built strong followings. They would merge the type of decentralization Cho describes with a set of shared values and a strict independence from both Democrats and Republicans. “We have no friends in the political class,” he tells me, referencing major party loyalists.
Mitchell predicts movements will open the door for the kinds of policies and proposals long thought politically impossible. He cites BYP100’s Agenda to Build Black Futures, calling for such things as reparations and a universal basic income, as one example. Activists would garner “political muscle,” he says, by “using some of the same tactics that we’ve used to move the conversation over the last year.”
In the U.S., social movements have historically shied away from the electoral sphere. For instance, while Occupy activists are now entering the Sanders campaign’s fold, many in Zuccotti Park rejected politics outright. There are a number of reasons for this. Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of American election law, third-party challengers — who often represent the kind of sweeping change many activists want to see — have been all but locked out of elections. (Part of the Tea Party’s brilliance was its ability to exert blunt force on the GOP instead of running against it as marginal outsiders.) And the seemingly inescapable influence of big and “dark” money money in politics — super PACs have given upwards of $665.4 million to candidates this cycle alone — has left a sour taste in many mouths. Runs from Sanders and even Trump — who each boast about their lack of corporate funding — show a hunger for something new.
But millennial-led movements are, it seems, starting to shed their ambivalence toward elected office. So what can they do? What’s even possible in America’s deeply flawed democratic system? According to Winnie Wong, an Occupy veteran and co-founder of People for Bernie, plenty. Asked what it would take to carry the “political revolution” touted by Sanders forward, she’s quick to note that the momentum “won’t come from the Sanders campaign,” but rather from movements. She says an infrastructure to support progressive candidates in local and regional races could pave the way for a progressive takeover of movement electeds. Left-leaning challengers like Tim Canova in Florida and Lucy Flores in Nevada are part of what pundits have dubbed the new crop of “Sanders Democrats,” most not explicitly connected to social movements but all tapping into a deep mistrust for Democratic Party business-as-usual.
People for Bernie and National Nurses United, an early backer of Sanders, are some of the many organizations pulling together something called the People’s Summit, scheduled for mid-June in Chicago. Details so far are scarce, though Wong says one goal is to inaugurate the next phase of the organization she helped found. According to the summit’s Eventbrite page, it aims to “[create] a new Movement Politics — a people’s movement where candidates, elected officials, and organized people work together to implement our shared agenda.” Over a decade, they plan to build “an economy and democracy that puts people and planet before corporate profits.” A teaser of a website released over the weekend lists over two dozen partnering organizations, including 350.org, Democratic Socialists of America and National People’s Action.
Wong sees Bernie’s campaign, with which she’s worked closely as a volunteer, as having opened up new space for the American left to consider state power in earnest. “The cynicism that came from the radical left when we first launched this campaign has dissipated,” she says. “If anything, the radical left have learned a lot from him.”
Importantly, she says, Sanders’ campaign, spurred on by forces like Occupy, made room for new ideas on a popular scale — not just candidates.
“He and all the movements managed to push back the idea that socialism is this terrible thing,” she says. “Who knew that could ever happen? That’s why the left has failed since the Sixties: It couldn’t figure out how to do this effectively.”
Despite a new acceptance for the term, a democratic socialist may not take the Oval Office in 2016. And, in reality, Sanders’ socialism may be more in line with New Deal, “Warrenite” Democrats than Eugene V. Debs. But as recent polling shows, the younger Americans are, the more likely they are to hold a positive view of socialism, long considered a dirty word in American politics. Defining and popularizing what socialism means in 21st century America — be it climate justice, reparations, a basic income or all of the above — will be up to a generation of activists some 50 years Bernie’s junior.
If a small-s socialism really is rising in America, it will look different than any form we’ve yet seen around the world. Like Podemos, Spain’s rising anti-austerity party, or the grassroots army surrounding insurgent Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, it will be fiercely local, and a creature of its context. Young, decentralized and with people of color at its center, open-source political parties are on the horizon. And if Sanders is the revolutionary moonshot Councilmember Williams says he is, then today’s movements are building a ship bound — against all odds — for Mars.A week before the primary, the streets around New York City’s Washington Square Park were teaming with supporters for what would be hailed as one of the biggest rallies of the Sanders’ Campaign. Watch here.