Hope has deflated among Bernie Sanders supporters after the California primary that the upstart Democratic president hopeful could still overcome all odds and surpass Hillary Clinton’s delegate count ahead of the Democratic National Convention next month. But despite the defeat, the Sanders campaign has been unprecedented, and the question must now turn to whether the groundswell of progressive fervor can be harnessed to build a lasting movement based on his so-called “political revolution.”
Some seeds have already been planted through new electorally-focused initiatives such as the United Progressive Party, Grassroots Select, and Brand New Congress, among others, and time will tell whether they can offer a way to keep millions of inspired Sanders supporters from letting their hankering for political change fall by the wayside.
But there’s also a question of movement-building outside of elections. Speaking in California on Tuesday night as it became clear that Clinton’s lead was becoming unbeatable, Sanders credited the power of the people, saying “real change never occurs from the top down, always from the bottom up.”
Many are noting just how powerful it is that millions have risen up to reject income and wealth inequality and corporate power in politics in a country where there has long been no apparent alternative to crony capitalism—and the belief now is that an opportunity has arisen that can't be missed.
Clinton Clinches, but Not Without a Fight
Hillary Clinton became the presumptive nominee on Tuesday with an insurmountable lead over Sanders after winning the California, South Dakota, and New Mexico primaries, while the Vermont Senator took the Montana and North Dakota contests. Clinton’s 2,203 pledged delegates still falls short of the 2,383 delegates needed to secure the nomination, meaning she will have to rely on the support of controversial superdelegates to boost her over the winning threshold.
Does Bernie Sanders Have a "Plan B?"
Despite her consistent lead, Sanders has put up a fierce fight, skyrocking into the spotlight after being considered a “fringe” candidate in the early days of the campaign, as he often points out in his speeches.
But many point out that the cards have been stacked against the self-declared socialist candidate through the system of closed primaries that exclude independent voters, a key base of Sanders’ support, and disproportionate media coverage that has given comparatively little air time to the upstart campaign.
Ahead of the primary in California, the largest state of the union and a key contest with 475 pledged delegates up for grabs, Sanders voters raised concerns of de facto voter suppression after Associated Press and NBC called the nomination for Clinton, a move that critics argue likely discouraged Sanders voters from heading to the polls.
Is a New Major Third Party Possible?
The structural challenges that have led many to argue that the system is “rigged” against candidates that rail against the party establishment is a big part of what inspired the creation of the United Progressive Party last fall.
UPP founder Justin Renquist, a long-time progressive who has followed Sanders’ political career since the late 1980’s, says the goal of the initiative is to create a major third party that can challenge the bipartisan political system with a truly progressive alternative as both the Democratic and Republican parties continue to inch to the right. And so far, he says there’s been a positive response.
“There’s a possibility for a third party to arise and make it to being on par with Democratic and Republican parties,” Renquist told teleSUR by phone from Seattle. “We know it’s optimistic, but it’s possible we think.”
And for Renquist, the surge of energy around the Sanders campaign is a perfect opportunity to take up this project, while also helping to “keep the fire burning” so momentum isn’t lost after the nomination.
“We know that we are preparing possibly for a very large schism in the Democratic party,” Renquist said, pointing to the Bernie or Bust movement that refuses to endorse Clinton as the Democratic nominee. “I think a lot of progressive Democrats are fed up with the DNC and the Democratic Party moving further and further to the right and being this big party of Wall Street.”
He predicted that such disillusionment could push a lot of fed up voters to leave the party in favor of being independents. “Basically what we are trying to do is create a home, if you will, for these people and a way for us to operate under one umbrella,” he explained.
The idea, though ambitious, isn’t unheard of. Seattle socialist city councillor Kshama Sawant told teleSUR in an interview in March that her Socialist Alternative doesn’t believe that the Democratic Party can be an effective vehicle for change, and instead calls for building “an independent party for the 99 percent.”
“We have to run challengers to the hegemony of the Democrats and Republicans,” Sawant said, arguing that such a major independent party would not only by separate from the two established parties, but by definition would also be “purely funded by working people” to reject corporate money in politics.
Renquist acknowledges just how steep the uphill battle will be, emphasizing that fighting for electoral reform and changes to balloting laws will be key in building a major third party with ballot access in all states to avoid being sidelined like the Green Party.
“We’re aware that federal level, state level, and you could even argue at the local level, that the electoral laws and ballot access laws are ‘rigged’ to favor the two major parties,” he said. “Part of the way that United Progressive Party has to proceed is not only complying with ballot access laws in the ways that they exist now, but actually working in activist mode to get the ballot access laws change to make it fairer to third party and independent runs for public office.”
So UPP is already in it for the long-haul to create a “big tent” party, and if anything, Clinton sealing the presumptive nomination just adds to the motivation.
“We’re shooting for the moon,” said Renquit. “It’s all or nothing.”
Juggling Strategies and Priorities for Change
While the UPP isn’t alone in harnessing the “Feel the Bern” momentum, the idea of starting up a long-term political project—Renquist says the UPP “litmus test” is an eight year window—at this particular time is not without its detractors.
Grassroots Select, an initiative born out of the SandersForPresident Reddit community last year, is less focused on the post-election picture, and more keen on fighting for progressive change in the electoral scene starting this year.
“Currently we see many initiatives that are focused on post 2016 elections and post convention events,” Grassroots Select Executive Director Ian Boyd told teleSUR by email. “We disagree that this should occur, and thus we are supporting candidates now and hoping to build that narrative.”
The initiative, not formally connected to the Sanders’ campaign, is working to get “true progressive candidates” elected locally and nationally this year, according to its website. While unity is important for Boyd, he argued that the project of building a new long-term movement won’t be a priority for Grassroots Select until reliable progressive politicians have won their way into office.
“We want to make sure there are the strong voices in all levels of government that will carry the message on to years ahead,” Boyd said.
Despite the different focus compared to some other groups, Grassroots Select is another testament to just how influential Sanders’ campaign has been in mobilizing new political activists.
“Each of us find inspiration from the passion Bernie creates and how his movement inspires many to get involved,” Boyd said. “Personally I wouldn't be involved at all politically if it weren't for Bernie.”
Grassroots Rising Beyond the Electoral Machine
Sanders has managed to bring into the political spotlight issues that grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for 15, and many others have been campaigning around for years. While the officials in office do make a huge difference in terms of the policy context in which grassroots campaigns organize, social movement pressure is always an important factor in winning progressive change in Washington.
Now, how to channel the energy from the millions “Feeling the Bern” into these movements is a key question alongside electoral strategizing—one that will be taken up next week at the People’s Summit from June 16 to 17 in Chicago.
“Bernie reminds us all often that this is about a movement and about restoring power to the people,” said Donna Smith of the Progressive Democrats of America in a recent People’s Summit statement, describing movement convergence beyond the election cycle as the “logical next step.”
Main speakers at the event will include, among others, Cornel West and Naomi Klein. In a livestreamed conversation from Boulder, Colorado, on Wednesday, Klein argued that the task at hand is strategizing on how to “build on the fact that we now know that a progressive majority is within reach in the United States,” gesturing toward a key focus of the upcoming People’s Summit.
Real organizing will undoubtedly be needed beyond the summit to do such building, but it’s clear that seeds are being planted. While many Sanders supporters are likely feeling defeated after the California primary, many others are thinking about how to capitalize on what has become a huge opportunity.
Only time will tell if the upstart initiatives, as well as already-established groups, can manage to harness the passionate energy of the “political revolution” and “Bernie or Bust” movement to fight for bottom-up political influence leading up to the election and beyond.