Message to Bernie: Transform Your Campaign Into a Permanent Movement or Fail

Photos from a Bernie Sanders for President campaign event. The audience was primarily students and young adults asking the U.
Photos from a Bernie Sanders for President campaign event. The audience was primarily students and young adults asking the U.S. Senator from Vermont about issues ranging from education to immigration to crime to child care. The event was held at Creative Visions, an organization founded by former Des Moines School Board member and current State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad.

What this campaign is about is not just electing a president, it is transforming America. To do that we need millions of people--people who have given up on the political process, people who are demoralized, people who don't believe that government listens to them. We need to bring those people together to stand up loudly and clearly and to say 'Enough is enough.' This country belongs to all of us, not just wealthy campaign donors.

--Bernie Sanders

Dear Bernie,

Do you really mean it when you say that, whomever is elected the next President, we need a "revolutionary" political movement to bring real change against the resistance of the broken political system, the oligarchy and the power of big money?

If you do, I suggest you utilize your campaign organization to create a permanent national organization of the democratic/socialist/social democratic left, even as you campaign for the Presidency.

If you win your unlikely campaign for the presidency, such an organization will be necessary to force our politicians to enact at least some of the change that you advocate. If Hillary gets the Democratic nomination and wins the presidency, such an organization will be necessary to pressure her against her natural inclination to move to the corporate center. And if a Republican should win the presidency, it may be necessary to literally put its bodies on the line to block the dismantling of the social safety net and the initiation of new foreign wars.

Yes, I realize that running a Presidential campaign is an immense effort which leaves little time or energy for anything else. Building a permanent mass political organization parallel to a national electoral campaign is something that's never been done before, at least in recent times. (The Populist Party in the late 19th Century and the Socialist Party under Eugene Debs and then Norman Thomas may be historical exceptions, and though neither gained national political power, they were influential in bringing the changes of the progressive era and the New Deal.)

The closest thing to a mass progressive movement in recent times was Obama's 2008 political campaign. But Obama effectively dismantled the movement once elected, turning "Organizing for America" basically into an email list run by his supporters and whose sole aim was to back his cautious policies, not push him and Congress to act more forcefully.

Obama's failures to support an independent mass movement that could push him and Congress to go farther and faster has resulted in the disillusionment of millions who worked in his campaign and, in many cases, low voter turnout from the "Obama Coalition" of young people, minorities, women, and progressives, which disillusionment helped right-wing Republicans gain control of Congress and many states, which in turn has strengthened Washington gridlock and led to further disillusionment.

Bernie, if you win without creating an organized movement, then your efforts as president will likely be stymied by the power of the Washington and Wall Street elites, and many of your supporters will sink back into disillusionment and alienation.

And if you don't win, your campaign will likely be little more than a blip on the historical map like Howard Dean's or Gary Hart's insurgent campaigns against the Democratic establishment unless you leave behind an organized movement.

So Bernie, here's my proposal: Even as you campaign for president, set up a parallel organization as the precursor to a permanent national democratic/socialist/social democratic organization that would engage in both electoral and activist politics.

Use some of your millions in small dollar donations to hire organizers in most states and many cities and towns, and/or use your fundraising list to raise separate contributions to fund the founding of a new, permanent progressive organization. Build local, city and state chapters from activists in your campaign and others. Sign up members and solicit more contributions online. Hold a national organizing convention this summer to parallel the presidential nominating conventions.

From now until the November election, much of the work would be electoral. A big focus would be a grassroots campaign to drive voter turnout, even while focusing on your key issues and, when appropriate, joining in protests and demonstrations. If you're the nominee, much of the work would be aimed at winning the Presidential election, as well as supporting progressive candidates nationally and locally, all while developing a program to push for if you're elected. If Hillary is the nominee, the organization would critically back her and mobilize your base to go to the polls to prevent a takeover by reactionary Republicans. (You're old enough to remember that in 1964, when LBJ ran against Goldwater, much of the civil rights and anti-war movement critically backed LBJ under the slogan "Part of the Way With LBJ", mirroring LBJ's own campaign slogan of "All the Way With LBJ". How about "Partly Ready for Hillary"?)

After the November election, the organization would engage in both electoral and activist politics. It would train, run or back sympathetic candidates in primaries and general elections at all levels of government from dog catcher, to city council, to state legislators, to Congress. Since the structure of the American political system makes a national third party all but impossible to succeed, it would work to move the Democratic Party to the left, even running against centrist Democrats in appropriate primaries, much as the Tea Party has moved the Republicans to the right (while in those localities where it's practical, also establishing its own line on the ballot).

It would also engage in activist politics, demonstrations, and where appropriate, even non-violent civil disobedience. It would have its own publications, both online and (if not too anachronistic) in print, both to spread news of the movement and to engage in policy debates. It would join alliances with other sympathetic organizations and movements including the new civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and labor unions. It would hold local, state, and national conferences.

There's nothing like a Presidential campaign to mobilize activists. But if they're not organized to continue their activism after the election, then its supporters become demobilized and there's no pressure on elected officials to keep their promises.

Bernie, you have an historical opportunity to use your Presidential campaign -- win or lose -- to help birth the organized political movement you call for. Please don't blow the chance.

If readers like the idea of a new democratic/socialist/social democratic organization, I invite suggestions to name the organization in the comments section.