If you were to tune into the Democratic Presidential Primary, you might be excused for wondering what year it is. The candidates drawing the biggest crowds and occupying two of the top three spots in almost all polls (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) sound more like the heirs to FDR as opposed to the Clintons or Obamas, railing consistently against the wealthy, corporations, and corruption. They’re further left of FDR when it comes to racial, immigration, gender, and environmental justice. And they aren’t even pandering or apologizing to the neoliberals and triangulators who still dominate much of the party establishment and media. This is a massive shift from just four years ago.
Take healthcare, for example. At the beginning of the most recent debate, Warren and Sanders teamed up against Joe Biden to argue in favor of #MedicareForAll while Biden pushed to protect and improve the ACA (aka Obamacare). This is noteworthy because while Biden isn’t a sacred cow in the Democratic Party, Barack Obama still is for many and they were essentially calling Obama’s signature legislative achievement insufficient. This same fight played out just four years ago between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but the result will almost certainly be different this time around. Back then, Sanders was the only candidate who supported Medicare for All, but now almost all other candidates say they support some version of Medicare for All. Even if their specific plans (many yet unreleased) fail to live up to the title, the fact that so many of the candidates are identifying their goal as closer to “Medicare for All” rather than the ACA is evidence of a major shift in the political landscape.
There’s been similar tectonic shifts on other topics, including the minimum wage, fighting climate change, protecting the environment, reforming the justice system, how to deal with Republican obstructionism, reigning in Wall Street and other corporate power, addressing the cost of higher education and existing student debt, closing immigration prisons, and battling wealth inequality. On every single issue, the stances of Warren and Sanders represent a leap to the left for the national party and many of the other candidates are following them further left. This is more surprising when we compare the Democratic Party’s focus on (obsession with) fundraising from big donors over the past few decades with the threat this shift left represents to the bottom line of corporate and wealthy interests.
How did things change so fast for the Democratic Party? The simple answer is that organizing and activism work. Behind every policy change are people-powered grassroots movements comprised of evolving organizations and coalitions that have been growing bigger and stronger over the past decades. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, Sunrise Movement, 350.org, a reinvigorated labor movement, Our Revolution, Indivisible, and Justice Democrats are some of the more recognizable players in a wave of activism and organizing that has brought the values of the left roaring to power in the Democratic Party.
How did things change so fast for the Democratic Party? The simple answer is that organizing and activism work.
The activists who have come onto the scene in the past 20 years are bringing a fresh wave of organizing to the political landscape, combining their passion for change with savvy organizing tactics that are empowering movements to not just protest and ask for change, but to go directly after the levers of power needed to achieve change, including political office and positions of power and influence inside the national, state, and local Democratic parties. This is a newer wave of people-powered organizing rather than top-down organizing common among the larger power-players of the past, including unions. This kind of organizing has little entrenched power structure and more activists who demand results. This is organizing, Occupy Wall Street style. And it’s here to stay.
Yes, Occupy Wall Street didn’t have a clear agenda, goal, or set of demands, but it succeeded anyway. It re-framed the conversation in the country and brought together organizers in municipalities around the world who would start spin-off organizations with more concrete goals and clearer organizing principles and tactics. Organizers plan protests which — when they’re successful — lead to an expansion of what people think is possible and to more people organizing. That then leads to more ambitious events and concrete goals (small goals at the beginning). More protests and achieved goals bring more people into the movement and begin to shift the larger conversation in the country. This feedback loop continues until larger goals become achievable. And what’s beautiful about this new way of organizing is how it is focused on making activists out of every member, empowering them to contribute to the present cause and to other causes, including potentially starting a new cause. For a fantastic account of the evolving nature of grassroots organizing, check out This Is an Uprising by Mark Engler and Paul Engler. To see how activism and organizing for different issues overlapped and generated energy and strategies that were leveraged into a movement to challenge Democrats in power and take seats in Congress, check out this video about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Justice Democrats:
In many ways, Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign was a national coming-out party for this new wave of people-powered organizing. He ran on a platform similar to the one Dennis Kucinich ran on in 2004 and 2008, but Kucinich never received anything approaching the kind of support Sanders did. As good of a campaign as Sanders ran, his success was largely the result of capitalizing on years of organizing work that everyday people across the country have been doing in the past ten-plus years. And why did Bernie appeal to them? Despite growing power and organization, most of the grassroots movements on the left had been neglected by the national Democratic Party, leaving activists frustrated, disillusioned, and looking for an opportunity to be heard. Sanders’s candidacy and platform stepped directly into the void left by the Democratic Party and tapped into a massive reservoir of organizing knowledge and skill by giving those activists an opportunity to show the popularity of their ideas and the value of their organizing compared to big-dollar donors.
Sanders’s candidacy also tapped into the activists’ sense of indignation at the injustice of being ignored by the Democratic Party for so long. So in the wake of Sanders’s loss, the activists set their sights on seizing power within the party. First, they sought to reduce institutional bias in the Democratic National Committee by eliminating the unfair practice of superdelegates in the Democratic National Committee. They largely succeeded. In the 2018 election, they looked to challenge powerful Democrats who were no longer serving their constituents and who had survived largely due to institutional backing as incumbents. This is how two members of “The Squad” joined Congress — Rep. Ocasio-Cortez beat second-ranking Democrat Joe Crowley and Rep. Ayanna Pressley beat 20 year incumbent Mike Capuano.
In light of this history, the present Democratic Primary shows that the key takeaway from 2016 and 2018 is that the activists are only getting stronger and people running for office are taking note. That is why the national conversation on many topics has been shifted so far to the left. The mantle of countless democratic movements in human history has been taken up by the new left in this country, and they are here to stay.
So if you’ve ever thought about going to a protest event and wondered to yourself whether it would make a difference, take the transformation of the Democratic Party as a very loud “YES!!!” Showing up matters. Showing up makes you an activist, no matter how much you do. Maybe you are busy and can’t do anything this month. That’s ok. Maybe you can only attend a protest. Good. Do it. Bring the kids. Your mere presence helps expand what attendees and viewers think is possible. Maybe you have the time and energy to join a group and attend meetings. Maybe you’ll get inspired to take on some work for that group. Maybe you’ll be the person who has the idea for the next huge social movement. Or maybe you’ll just inform your friends about it on Facebook. Activism is like everything else in the world; it’s a spectrum, but we humans are inclined to reduce it to a binary quality where either you are an “activist” or you aren’t. Either your protest works or it’s a failure. That is a false dichotomy. Simply by showing support, you are an activist and you are helping make this country better.
So please show up and make America better. We need you and will be grateful for whatever you can do.