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Thousands of Bernies? Progressive Groups Aim to Build a Majority From the Bottom Up

A Bernie Sanders rally at Penn State prior to the Pennsylvania primary election, April 19, 2016. (Photo: Paul Weaver / Flickr) It has been about a year since Bernie Sanders launched an initiative to elect progressives down the ballot and across the country. Since then, the tactic is being adopted by the many groups that emerged in the aftermath of Sanders’s campaign. Can this strategy bring about a progressive majority in government?

A Bernie Sanders rally at Penn State prior to the Pennsylvania primary election, April 19, 2016. (Photo: Paul Weaver / Flickr)

Anna Callahan is an organizer with infectious energy and an unceasing desire to act. The Berkeley resident was so motivated by Bernie Sanders’s presidential run in 2016 that she quit her job and volunteered for the campaign full-time. Since the campaign ended, she got a tattoo of Sanders’s iconic hair and glasses and has continued to fight for his agenda — this time from the bottom up.

Our goal is to create thousands of Bernie Sanders and fill all levels of government with incorruptible service leaders who represent the needs of the 99 percent.

Callahan, who is speaking about this approach at the Democracy Convention this week, recently co-founded a new group called the “Incorruptibles,” which aims to build a progressive base in cities and towns across the nation to help run candidates for local offices: in state houses, city councils, planning commissions, select boards and more. “There is only one Bernie Sanders,” she told Truthout. “Our goal is to create thousands of Bernie Sanders and fill all levels of government with incorruptible service leaders who represent the needs of the 99 percent.”

The Incorruptibles, which hopes to focus on base building in local chapters so there is a permanent infrastructure of support for candidates in each area, is just one of many organizations that have sprung up since the Sanders campaign to embrace the “down-ticket strategy.” The idea is that by starting off with local offices, over time a generation of like-minded politicians who seek to fight for the people, instead of for the ownership class, will emerge up the ballot as well.

“We think that by putting progressives at the bottom of the ticket, and training and organizing a strong base of support, over time it can have a positive impact up the ticket,” said Callahan, director of the Incorruptibles. “As we organize and train activists, we will win with more frequency.”

The most recognizable organization of this kind is probably Our Revolution, launched by Sanders himself in August 2016. Our Revolution has already endorsed 16 victorious candidates for a variety of elections at the local level in 2017. Other groups that have formed since the Sanders campaign include Brand New Congress (BNC) and Justice Democrats, which are allied in their efforts “to recruit and run dozens of outstanding candidates in a single, national campaign for Congress in 2018.” Another organization, #WeWillReplaceYou, is specifically targeting corporate Democrats. It asks supporters to take the “primary pledge” and help challenge Democrats who are not steadfast in their opposition to Trump and the regressive GOP agenda. Some of these groups, like the Incorruptibles, have local chapters. There are also independent local groups and citizens who emphasize the down-ticket strategy in their regions.

In addition to trying to build a progressive majority in the future, such actions can have short-term benefits in efforts to curb the Republicans’ record domination of state legislatures across the country: Republicans now control 68 of 99 legislative bodies (and both chambers in 31 states). This has generated excitement from mainstream Democratic Party organizations focused on the state level, which have praised the influx of progressive electoral energy.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) “is excited to see a renewed focus on down-ballot races from Democrats and progressives … this focus and energy is finding form in groups newly active in the state legislative space,” said Jessica Post of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “DLCC is pleased to welcome these groups as new weapons in our arsenal … in our fight to flip state legislatures and build Democratic power in states.”

Successes of the Down-Ticket Strategy

One recent success story has advocates excited. Ali Dieng, born in Mauritania and raised in Senegal, pulled off a victory in a special election in June for a seat in the city council in the typically conservative New North End district in Burlington, Vermont (which is also the district where Bernie and Jane Sanders live). Dieng was a fusion candidate, running as both a Democrat and a member of the Progressive Party, one of the few successful third parties in the country. After building a strong coalition including members of both parties, he had a decisive victory and became the only non-white member of the council and the second new American (he came to the US in 2007) to serve on the body.

Dieng, whose campaign emphasized access to child care, transportation, affordable housing and increased participation in the political process, was endorsed by Our Revolution and a local organization, Rights and Democracy (RAD), which advocates for a number of candidates and social justice issues in Vermont and New Hampshire. Isaac Grimm, political engagement director of RAD, spoke about how the group found solidarity and enthusiasm in backing Dieng.

“When we started the organization … we had conversations about what kind of movement we needed to build and what people saw in themselves as their role in this movement,” Grimm told Truthout. “Ali [Dieng] was one of the first people who said he could imagine running as a grassroots candidate and then actually stepped up and did it.”

Grimm emphasized the need to listen to the concerns of voters, and to engage with them personally through strategies like knocking on doors. “[This] is exactly the formula we need to have the people’s movement take power in this country: a multiracial, multigenerational, people’s platform of issues and aligned with the political revolution that Bernie’s campaign inspired,” he said.

Callahan also views these approaches as vital. “Eighty percent of organizing is listening,” she said. “And knocking on every door you possibly can, not just among ones deemed as ‘likely voters.’ We need to connect with everybody.”

Public Support for the Sanders Agenda

To this day, much of the media, along with many establishment Democrats, like to portray Bernie Sanders and his supporters as extremist, Bolshevikpurity” trolls. Sanders’ ideology, however, is not significantly to the left of the average American. Yes, more Americans self-identify as conservative (35 percent) than liberal (25 percent) or moderate (34 percent). But when asked about specific policies, Americans are supportive of most of the major Sanders proposals.

Most Americans support Medicare for All and think the government has the responsibility to cover everyone. According to a poll by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), nearly 80 percent of the country (and even 63 percent of Republicans) says the “economic system unfairly favors the wealthy,” up from 66 percent in 2012. The poll also shows 65 percent of the country feels “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.” On taxation, 61 percent say the wealthy don’t pay enough taxes. About 66 percent of Americans are worried about global warming, compared to just 16 percent who are not. These results show that when it comes to specific issues, the public is largely on board with Sanders’ self-described democratic socialism.

Progress in Victory — and Defeat

Even in losing, organizers argue, the campaigns lay the groundwork for future engagement among voters and keep progressives from feeling alienated.

While there have been plenty of successes in 2017, this year has also seen tough losses. Republicans have won four high-profile special elections for Congress this year. Rep. Keith Ellison, who was endorsed by Our Revolution and Bernie Sanders personally, lost his race to be chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Indeed, while Our Revolution has had 16 wins in 2017 elections, it has also had 29 losses. Is this reason for despair? Not according to organizers, who note that one of the key strategies of this tactic is running progressives in red states and other places where these candidates have not succeeded in the past. Even in losing, organizers argue, the campaigns lay the groundwork for future engagement among voters and keep progressives from feeling alienated.

Our Revolution currently has 18 endorsements outstanding with many more to come, including some that take place on August 8. Michela Skelton, for instance, is endorsed by Our Revolution in her run for a seat representing Missouri’s 50th district. Skelton has made news for returning donations from lobbyists. Whether or not she wins her special election against Republican Sara Walsh — local media reports it is an “uphill fight for Democrats” in a region with about 60 percent Republican voters — her candidacy already matters. Not only was her refusal to accept lobbyist money newsworthy, but according to the Missourian, she has still outraised her opponent considerably, mostly with small donations.

“Skelton is receiving quite a few $27 donations, which is the average amount that was given to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential primary campaign. Skelton said many of her supporters were Sanders supporters and the donation is symbolic,” the paper reported.

How candidates are chosen and what standards or issues they must adhere to vary between organizations. But Callahan notes that the Incorruptibles has a couple of rules. One is that the group itself not affiliate with a specific political party. The other is that the candidates “must not receive corporate money.”

Win or lose, the Skelton campaign has helped promote a progressive agenda in a red district, and may help make the seat more vulnerable in the future. Moreover, the candidate has increased her name recognition and reminded progressives in the Columbia, Missouri, area that they are not alone. That message of solidarity, organizers say, is what will make the down-ballot approach succeed in advancing economic justice and political revolution into the future.

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