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Over the Rainbow: The Uncertain Future of U.S. Politics

The World Turned Upside Down: ‘Our Revolution,’ Trump Triumphant, and the Remaking of the Democratic Party

When Bernie Sanders conceded the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in July 2016, he likely assumed that in a few months, after Hillary Clinton won the presidency, he would return to a role similar to the one he played on the campaign trail: a kind of social-democratic gadfly to a largely neoliberalized party, capitalizing on the unprecedented popularity he drew in his presidential campaign to pull President Clinton—and the entire party—to the left.

Alas, to his surprise and ours, this arrangement was not to be. But rather than seeing his role as an oppositional figure diminish under President Donald Trump, Sanders’ opportunities to affect the Democratic Party and American politics more broadly may have actually increased.

For one thing, the party appears rudderless, adrift, and still shell-shocked at November’s results. Perhaps no one better exemplified this fact than Clinton herself, whose top post-election priority seemed to be wandering in the woods beyond the New York City suburbs. Sanders, meanwhile, has taken action: publishing numerous op-eds and a book, debating Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Obamacare and single-payer health care, speaking out against Trump’s policies. The party seems to lack real leadership right now; if anyone holds it, it seems to be a wild-haired, self-described democratic socialist who has deliberately rejected the party his entire life.

Despite his professed disdain for the Democrats, Sanders has long been a pragmatist, dating back to his days as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont.[1] It should come as no surprise, then, that a new organization that has emerged in the wake of Sanders’ primary loss and bears his blessing (though not his day-to-day involvement) is, despite its to-the-barricades name, actually a deeply pragmatic one.

Our Revolution (OR) is that organization, backing political candidates in races ranging from local school boards to Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair and attempting to affect a transformation of the party at the state and local level from the bottom up. It is also running progressive campaigns like the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and demanding Democrats not vote to approve President Trump’s cabinet nominations.

The organization is young but has already experienced its share of turmoil, with a major staff revolt within weeks of its founding. Still, Our Revolution has positioned itself to absorb a large portion of the energy from Sanders’ campaign, raise large amounts of money through small donations and distribute the money to progressive candidates at all levels throughout the country.  It could play a major role in progressive campaigns and Democratic candidacies in the near future. Its overall aim appears to be nothing short of a major realignment of the Democratic Party in the very near future, pulling the party away from its pro-business, neoliberal shift of the past several decades toward a more robustly pro-worker agenda.

Much of the progressive and radical forces to the left of the Democrats expected to find themselves in a position in 2017 in which they could offer full-throated critiques of a rightward moving Democratic Party and a centrist-neoliberal president in Hillary Clinton. Instead, those forces—many of which have found a home in Our Revolution— now find themselves in a more delicate position in which they must balance building a united front approach to opposing Trump while confronting the party, the Democrats, which is currently the only viable home for those forces.

Right now, however, the organization seems to lack a stomach for the second part of that equation, the very thing that has made Sanders’ political career so unique: a deep-seated opposition to a party believed to be hopeless, corrupted, and unable to genuinely represent working and poor people’s best interests.

Candidates and Beyond

The scope of Our Revolution’s focus is broad, reaching far beyond individual candidates and even beyond the progressive campaigns du jour. The organization’s platform does not make for light reading: it features twenty-one separate issues ranging from “big money in politics,” affordable housing, and “Medicare for all” to disability rights and resolving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, many at great length and in significant detail.[2] As Sanders did during his speeches in front of massive crowds on the campaign trail, the group appears to trust the average American’s hunger for substantive, progressive politics will outweigh their short attention spans.

The group was involved in over 100 campaigns in the 2016 election cycle, including three in the Senate, fifteen in the House, and dozens at the state and local level. By the organization’s own count, they appear to have won slightly more than half of the races they became involved in. Our Revolution also backed seven ballot initiatives, such as a single-payer measure in Colorado and a campaign finance reform bill in Maryland. [3]

In an election off-season, the group has moved to focus more on issue-based campaigns, including support for the #NoDAPL protests in North Dakota and various efforts to oppose Donald Trump’s new administration (as well as centrist-leaning Democrats that they consider too milquetoast in their resistance to the president). Our Revolution issued broad calls for more vigorous debate over and opposition to Trump’s cabinet nominees, for example, after many Democrats put up little resistance to their confirmation early on. (The organization has not, however, targeted any incumbent Democrats with its email blasts or messaging since November’s election.[4]) Before Trump’s inauguration, they encouraged President Obama to commute the prison sentence of Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar Lopez Rivera, who has spent 35 years in prison for a number of charges related to bomb-making and armed robbery as part of a campaign for Puerto Rican independence. (Shortly before leaving office, Obama did pardon Rivera.)

The group is also the inheritor of Bernie Sanders’ massive and famed email list, which helped produce the highest number of small donations in a political campaign in U.S. history. The Democratic National Committee is desperate to gain access to the list and the potentially huge number of activists and donors it would bring them; so far, Our Revolution has remained unwilling to turn it over.[5]

One election the group stayed involved in after November, however, was Rep. Keith Ellison’s unsuccessful run for Democratic National Committee chair against former Labor Secretary Tom Perez—a contest that was billed as a referendum on the future direction of the Democratic Party. Given the current state of affairs in the party—with Sanders’ campaign revealing and stirring to action a massive section of progressive and even socialist-curious voters, (many of whom still feel that party’s leadership unfairly stole the nomination from him); and with Clinton and her centrist brand of politics being clearly discredited by the Republican sweep across the local, state, and national levels — one might have assumed that the Democratic leadership would finally be willing to toss this newly riled base a bone in the form of appointing Ellison as DNC chair.

But instead of reaching out to that base through such a choice, party leaders rebuked them, mounting a full-on campaign for Perez over Ellison—even after he was endorsed by much of the labor movement, including by the United Auto Workers ( UAW), American Federation of Teachers (AFT),  Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and AFL-CIO. In the internal party vote that took place in Atlanta on February 25, Perez came out on top. Ellison embraced Perez after the vote and encouraged his backers to do the same. In a supposed show of unity, Ellison was named “deputy chair” of the DNC. But as AFT President Randi Weingarten noted on Twitter, just hours after Ellison’s appointment to this position, the Democratic Party’s official account tweeted a graphic of their new leadership slate with Tom Perez at the top; neither Ellison’s name nor the title “deputy chair” appeared anywhere.[6]

The contest may offer some clues about the kind of disdain with which progressives and leftists will continue to be treated as they go about trying to transform the party. While these activists may feel like they have the only momentum within the party right now while Democratic centrists have been thoroughly discredited, this does not mean the party will hand over the reins without fighting tooth and nail.

Perez is certainly more progressive than someone like Hillary Clinton and was praised by unions as an effective labor secretary. But Ellison was an early backer of Sanders and is one of the most progressive members of Congress. If there is a left wing of the Democratic Party, Ellison is certainly on it, making his endorsement by Our Revolution a no-brainer. The rubric for determining which candidates qualify as progressive enough to gain the organization’s stamp of approval, however, remains confusing.

For example, Our Revolution endorsed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii in her successful reelection campaign. Gabbard was one of the few members of Congress that backed Sanders in the primary and has spoken out against the war on Iraq after serving in a combat zone there through the Army National Guard, opposed a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary.

But Gabbard’s foreign policy stances are scattershot. Despite a handful of progressive stances, she also voted in favor of a 2015 Republican bill to ban Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, has visited Donald Trump in the White House and said her meeting had been “frank and positive.” Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top advisers, told the press the two had “a lot of common ground.” Gabbard also has close ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the far-right Hindu nationalist who “bears a responsibility for some of the worst religious violence ever seen in independent India” during his term as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, including a massacre of 2,000. The Atlantic called Gabbard “The GOPs Favorite Democrat.”[7]

Sanders’ campaign caught fire mostly thanks to his domestic policy agenda; his foreign policy, while far to the left of most in the Democratic Party, left much to be desired for many leftists, especially on issues like Israel-Palestine. Still, how could an organization dedicated to carrying on Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” within the Democratic Party continue to back a politician like Gabbard who has joined the GOP’s opposition to refugees?

The Exodus

Our Revolution was born in chaos. Within weeks of its founding on August 24, 2016, eight of the organization’s fifteen staff resigned in protest of the appointment of Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager and longtime associate, as the organization’s president.

Mainstream coverage of the staffers’ exodus adopted a bemused tone at the new organization of lefties who were at each others’ throats before their work was even up and running. The staffers who left laid the blame for Sanders’ defeat at Weaver’s feet, accusing him of mismanaging the campaign by focusing too much on television ads. They also emphasized a disagreement with the decision to adopt a 501(c)(4) tax status, which could allow the group to accept “dark money” from wealthy donors who would not have to disclose their donations—a perceived hypocrisy given Sanders’ relentless critiques of such campaign finance arrangements during his campaign.

“As a campaign manager, Jeff was a total disaster who failed Bernie’s supporters with his mismanagement,” former OR organization director Claire Sandberg told the Washington Post. 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.”[8]

In addition to philosophical disagreements with this arrangement, Our Revolution’s tax status led to difficulties in coordinating with the candidates it endorsed. 501(c)(4) organizations can give unlimited donations to candidates as long as these groups do not directly coordinate with the campaigns that they have endorsed.

This supposed firewall between campaigns and “dark money” groups has been widely criticized as both thin and unrealistic, with obvious opportunities for violation by both sides. But no one appears to have explained how to violate this law to Our Revolution in a key House race in Florida.

Tim Canova, who was endorsed by Our Revolution in his bid to challenge former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for her House of Representatives seat, and his former staffers complained about first a duplication of work by Our Revolution and Canova’s campaign due to that lack of coordination; Canova then accused the organization of abandoning him, aiding his loss in the race. The incident led The Atlantic to ask “whether Sanders, Our Revolution, and his supporters will be able to give candidates inspired by [Sanders’] call to action what they need to win.”[9]

Still, Canova’s complaints are isolated. If other Our Revolution endorsees share his campaign’s sentiments about the group, they have not yet voiced them aloud. And even over the course of its brief life, the group can be credited for some impressive victories.

State Takeovers

The group has led some impressive state-level victories in just a few months. The Wall Street Journal characterized Our Revolution’s strategy as focused on “infiltrate[ing] and transform[ing] the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts that typically draw scant attention.”[10]

Perhaps the most impressive of these campaigns is the recent takeover of the California Democratic Party by “Berniecrats.”

Our Revolution ran what The Hill called “an on-the-ground get-out-the-vote effort to make sure supporters attended caucuses in each of the state’s 80 assembly districts” during an “ordinarily sleepy” event, electing 650 state party delegates out of 1,120, giving them a majority in the choosing of the state party’s officials including its chairperson.[11]

The organization’s operation reflected the ability to engage in the nitty-gritty of actual politicking that Sanders’ campaigns have always focused on. Our Revolution claimed to have sent over 100,000 emails and 40,000 text messages, and over 800 Bernie supporters signed up to run for delegate seats, according to The Hill, transforming a usually staid affair into one buzzing with excitement. Activists’ express purpose was to aggressively push one of country’s most progressive states into playing a vanguard role pushing for even more progressive policies that other states could emulate.

Our Revolution-backed candidates also won the chairmanship of the Washington-state Democratic central committee after defeating an incumbent, “seized control” of the party apparatus in Hawaii and Nebraska, and “swept” local Democratic Party officer positions in Florida. The Wall Street Journal quotes a Florida activist, Stacey Patel, who was elected Brevard County’s Democratic Party chairwoman; she can’t quite seem to wrap her head around the group’s accomplishments: “We didn’t know that 60 folks would be enough to take the majority” of the local party, she told the paper.[12]

In addition to the state-level party takeovers Our Revolution has led through its numerous state organizations, it has also enlisted local groups as affiliates. In January, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a left-wing organizing and electoral group in the Bay Area city, joined Our Revolution.  The group is one of the more promising local, independent political formations in the country, scoring major victories on a wide range of issues from police reform to fighting corporate-backed politicians to winning rent control in the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area.

To do so, the RPA has gone toe-to-toe with centrist, business-friendly Democrats in Richmond that reflect many of the problems of the Democratic Party nationally. Our Revolution has supported RPA candidates in the past. In the most recent city council races, an OR email blast netted around $5,000 for each RPA endorsee as well as close to 900 donors’ contact information—a testament to the power of Bernie Sanders’s vaunted email list. If Our Revolution wants to transform the political landscape nationally, its leaders should take the RPA’s lessons on the need for independence from—and thus a level of combat with—the Democrats seriously, especially in one-party cities like Richmond.

The group also has the support of many of the former members of Labor for Bernie, a grassroots organization of union members and staffers around the country who backed Sanders’ campaign. Many did so in defiance of the decisions of their international unions, which either endorsed Hillary Clinton or stayed neutral in the election. National Nurses United (NNU) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) (whose former president Larry Cohen now works for Our Revolution) have also worked closely with the group; both endorsed Sanders in the primary. The California Nurses Association has even given Our Revolution California a full-time staffer.

Given the complete lack of institutional mechanisms for establishing the party’s fealty to unions (unlike, say the Labour Party in the U.K., in which unions have a far greater say in the party’s direction) and the disdain with which much of the Democratic Party treats organized labor, this could be an important base from which organized labor pushes for its agenda within the party. In addition to the NNU and the CWA, the wide-ranging group of union staff and rank and file— many of whom also make up the most important activist and progressive wing of U.S. labor — that made up Labor for Bernie has now become Labor for Our Revolution, and could continue to play a role in pushing both the party and their own unions leftward.

Transforming the Party

Our Revolution organizers see the group as a vehicle for realigning the Democratic Party so it meets the needs of the working class rather than the one percent— something perhaps more closely resembling a twenty-first century labor party.

“We’re looking to transform the party,” said Our Revolution executive director Shannon Jackson after the California party takeover.

This is not the first time leftists and left-liberals have attempted to affect such a shift. Such attempts have a long history in American politics, ranging from Walter Reuther and the New Left in the 1960s to Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988. None have been particularly successful, as the party has drifted further and further in a neoliberal direction.[13]

There are structural barriers to the transformation of the Democrats, both in the party’s history, its current composition, and the diminished power of organized labor. Many labor parties in Europe are rooted in breaks from bourgeois parties from earlier in the twentieth century, and took place at a time of rising strength of the industrial working class. That break never happened in the United States, leading to the Democratic coalition including several strongly conservative elements like various sectors of capital and Southern white racists alongside workers, unions, and (later in the twentieth century) African Americans and other people of color.

This has led to the classic dilemma endlessly debated by American radicals for decades: Should they struggle within a hopelessly compromised Democratic Party in order to make the greatest possible impact on the world, or should they abandon the party in favor of creating an alternative but risk complete political isolation? It’s a question that has never been an easy one to answer, and now is no exception. On the one hand, in the wake of November’s devastating results across the board for the Democrats and Sanders’ successful insurgent and unapologetic left-wing campaign, the party’s centrism has never appeared more bankrupt and the need for a real alternative never greater. On the other hand, faced with the extreme reactionary revanchism of the Trump administration and the immiseration its policies have already brought, the impulse for many is to put such battles to the side in favor of building the unity needed to defeat the Right.

Part of what makes Bernie Sanders’ career so unusual is that he is the most successful politician in the past half-century or more at striking a balance between these two poles. He has been a steadfast critic of not just the party’s rightward drift but of its inability to ever serve as a genuine vehicle for working-class interests. He only joined the party in order to have access to a mass audience, and even then, he continued to make many such criticisms.

But he also has long caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate, and works closely with many in the party. After Hillary Clinton’s campaign criticized Sanders’ stance on health care reform during the primary, the Sanders campaign released a photo of the then-representative in a meeting with the paragon of centrist, pragmatic deal-making herself, Hillary Clinton, in 1993, with a handwritten note from the then-First Lady thanking Sanders for his role in pushing health reform.[14]

No one else in recent American political history has walked this line as deftly as Sanders has. That he has managed to do so is perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of his political career. It is also what defines him and is most responsible for his campaign’s success. Any other established, longstanding Democratic politician attempting to capture the current populist mood would likely have failed because of the compromises being a member of that party requires of its members.

At a time when most of the Democratic Party was pushing welfare reform, Sanders was denouncing it; when Bill Clinton led his party into passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, Sanders spoke out in vehement opposition. Even the most progressive members of the party have been compromised in important ways. Keith Ellison, for example, receives large amounts of campaign contributions from large corporations like TCF Financial—companies Sanders has spent his whole career opposing.

Over the span of Sanders’ career, a fair number of Democrats have joined him in breaking with certain aspects of the party’s rightward drift, and many have decried the pernicious influence of corporate money in politics. But no one has held as consistent of a left-wing governing record and as complete a rejection of corporate cash as Sanders has. Part of this surely has to do with Sanders’ personality. But it also has to do with his consistent independence from the Democratic Party.

Our Revolution has played a key role in amplifying some of the leftmost voices within the Democratic Party; it may help launch the careers of some talented young progressive politicians, and it may even help steer the Democrats away from the disastrous neoliberal course it has been on the better part of the last half-century.

But will it help inculcate the level of hostility toward not just the right wing of the party but also the party itself? At a moment when the first instinct of many in response to the nonstop depravity of a Trump administration will be to forego a necessary confrontation with the Democrats, will Our Revolution buck the tide? Will it produce any future Bernie Sanderses—not just broadly defined progressives but bone-deep leftists whose politics include a commitment to do battle with the Democrats from a place of independence, even when it is often forced to work within and around the party? The organization is in its infancy, and its path it still wide open. But it will soon have to make a choice about how close its relationship to the Democratic Party will be. 



[1] Bernie Sanders with Huck Gutman, Outsider in the White House. Verso Books, 2015. Katherine Q. Seelye, “As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist.” New York Times, Nov. 25, 2015.

[2] Our Revolution, “Platform.” Ourrevolution.com/issues.

[3] Kate Aronoff and Ethan Corey, “Welcome to the Next Incarnation of the Bernie Sanders Campaign.” In These Times, September 12, 2016.

[4] Ed O’Keefe and David Weigel, “Democrats bracing for town hall protests directed at them ask Bernie Sanders for help.” Washington Post, February 14, 2017.

[5] Daniel Marans, “Bernie Sanders Has a Massive Email List. But He Has Good Reason to Think Twice About Sharing It.” Huffington Post, February 9, 2017.

[6] Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten). “What happened to the new deputy chair?” February 26, 2017, 12:26 am. Tweet. The Democratic Party (@TheDemocrats). “There’s a tough fight ahead of us, and our newly elected DNC officers are here for it. Let’s do this. #DNCFuture.” February 25, 2017, 8:34 pm. Tweet. Later tweets from the party’s account included Ellison.

[7] Alex Seitz-Wald, “Democrat Tulsi Gabbard Defends ‘Frank and Positive’ Trump Meeting.” NBC News, November 21, 2016. Ivy Ashe, “Gabbard Supports GOP Bill on Syrian Refugees.” Hawaii Tribune-Herald, November 21, 2015. Aditya Chakrabortty “Narendra Modi, a man with a massacre on his hands, is not the reasonable choice for India.” The Guardian, April 7, 2014. Krishnadev Calamur, “The GOP’s Favorite Democrat Goes to Syria.” The Atlantic, January 18, 2017.

[8] David Weigel and John Wagner, “Bernie Sanders launches ‘Our Revolution’ with electoral targets — and a few critics left behind.” Washington Post, August 24, 2016.

[9] Clare Foran, “How the Political Revolution Failed Tim Canova.” The Atlantic, August 30, 2016.

[10] Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook, Wall Street Journal. “Bernie Sanders Loyalists Are Taking Over the Democratic Party One County Office at a Time.” February 22, 2017.

[11] Reid Wilson, The Hill. “Sanders backers take over California Democratic Party.” January 19, 2017.

[12] Epstein and Hook, Wall Street Journal.

[13] Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party.” Jacobin, Issue 20: “Up From Liberalism.” Winter 2016.

[14] Peter Wade, “Hillary Questioned Bernie’s Record on Health Care and The Internet Made an Epic Correction.” Esquire, March 12, 2016.