Bernie's revolution revs up for 2016 election and beyond – without him

Senator Sanders has launched a new group, Our Revolution, calling on supporters to elect like-minded candidates to everything from the local school board to the Senate. But he himself has to step back.

Craig Ruttle/AP/File
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, shown here addressing supporters in New York before ending his presidential campaign, addressed 2,600 house parties across the US via live video link on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. His supporters hope to keep the revolution going, creating change from the bottom up.

Soon enough, Bernie Sanders will go back to being just another member of the United States Senate – albeit, the only democratic socialist in the club.

But if all goes according to plan, his revolution will live on. The first step came Wednesday night, at 2,600 house parties around the country, where supporters of the Vermont senator gathered to watch his call to action, via live-stream.

“Real change never, ever takes place from the top on down,” Sanders said, reprising a theme from his presidential campaign. “It always takes place from the bottom on up, when millions of people come together and demand fundamental change in the country.”

Change, he said, will come by electing like-minded candidates to office, from school boards to the US Senate. It will also come through ballot measures in the states. And it will come by holding Democrats’ feet to the fire in implementing the party platform, the most progressive in party history, he said.

During the Democratic primaries, Sanders won more than 12 million votes, and held hundreds of massive, enthusiastic rallies – the left’s answer to Donald Trump. Out of that pool could march many foot soldiers for the battles ahead.

The question is whether the Bernie revolution – now enshrined in an organization called Our Revolution – can survive and thrive without Bernie himself.

The new group’s tax status, as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, prevents Sanders – as an elected official – from playing a role in running the group. The tax status also proved a sore point with many in Our Revolution’s small staff, who resigned over the weekend over Sanders’s decision to bring in his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, as president. It was Mr. Weaver who determined the new group’s tax status, which allows acceptance of undisclosed and unlimited “dark money,” potentially from billionaires.

During his campaign, Sanders railed against billionaires, and prided himself on raising more than $200 million in donations that averaged just $27.

“There will be no contributions from billionaires, and I guarantee that,” Larry Cohen, incoming chairman of the board of Our Revolution and a former union leader, said Thursday on the radio show Democracy Now!

'Sanderistas' optimistic, determined

But to the 30 Sanders supporters gathered in a row house in Washington's Mount Pleasant neighborhood Wednesday night, Our Revolution’s organizing woes didn’t matter. These were “Sanderistas,” as one attendee called herself, thrilled to hear their leader speak once more.

“The revolution has to continue, or people my age don’t have a voice,” says Michael Pattis of Deerfield, Ill., a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., working in Washington for the summer.

Mr. Pattis ticks off pieces of the Sanders agenda: health care for all as a right; reform of the criminal justice system; more even distribution of economic growth.

“It’s a more fair, 21st-century vision of America, and we’re just waiting on the demographic time bomb to go off,” he says. “We’ll have the numbers to implement this.”

Maggie Ellinger-Locke, a lawyer in Arlington, Va., said she was most excited about the “down ticket” races in November – those below the presidency.

“Change isn’t going to happen at the top,” she says. “It’s essential that we go and get involved in local races and campaign for our state senator. There are so many ways to get involved. It’s unfortunate that much of politics revolves around one day every four years.”

But both she and Pattis are prepared to vote for Hillary Clinton in November, like most of those interviewed at the gathering.

The host, Alex van Schaick, said he, too, is ready to vote for Mrs. Clinton, but might “trade” his vote with someone who lives in a swing state. So Mr. van Schaick – a resident of the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia – may end up voting third party in exchange for having a third-party supporter in a state like Florida or Ohio cast their ballot for Clinton, to help prevent Mr. Trump from winning a crucial state.

But van Schaick’s heart is clearly still with Sanders. “Bernie understands that it takes real activism to bring about change,” says van Schaick, a lawyer at the Department of Labor who took a leave during the spring to work for the Sanders campaign in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Uncertain future

The future of Our Revolution remains uncertain. And the precedent for such groups isn’t promising. It’s similar, in a way, to the group Organizing for America – a group set up by President Obama flowing from his successful reelection campaign, aimed at supporting his agenda. But Mr. Obama himself is barred by law from being involved in the running of the group, because of its tax status, just as Sanders is with Our Revolution.

The difference is that Obama won the presidency, which meant, in theory, that he was now an insider with power to implement his agenda. Sanders, having failed to reach the nomination, only has the power of his seat in the Senate, and his continuing status as a cult icon. That, in a way, gives his followers more impetus to keep fighting as emboldened outsiders.

But all revolutions die off, sooner or later. The tea party movement has faded, and shifted in part toward Trump. On the left, the Occupy movement channeled its energy into Sanders’s candidacy.

For now, though, Sanders supporters are hopeful – and some have already made gains in local politics. Jane Kleeb, visiting from Nebraska, recently won an upset victory in the race for chair of her state Democratic Party. Originally an activist opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, Ms. Kleeb has now set her sights on remaking a party that has failed for many cycles to win statewide office in deep red Nebraska.

“Our state party, for so many years, has not been progressive, and that has deflated the base,” Kleeb says. “Candidates somehow think they have to be more conservative to win. I’m a progressive Democrat, and I was able to bring this coalition of conservative folks together to defeat the pipeline.”

“It’s because they knew where I stood,” she says. “I was honest about that.”

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