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How Sanders Accidentally Built a Groundbreaking Organizing Movement


McDonald’s workers, pushing for higher wages and an end to workplace abuses, picketed Thursday outside franchises across the country. In an unusual twist, they were joined by volunteers from the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders.

It was the campaign’s second bout of activist intervention in as many weeks, as campaign supporters had previously joined a picket line with University of California workers locked in negotiations with their bosses.

It’s common for a politician to make a brief appearance on a picket line to show solidarity with a cause, but it’s practically unheard for a campaign to divert its own volunteers away from the mission of electing its candidate. This act of activism flows directly from the bottom-up approach taken by the 2020 Sanders campaign, which is not just in stark contrast to every other presidential campaign: It’s also a sharp reversal from the approach taken by the leadership of the 2016 Sanders campaign.

For all its revolutionary sensibility, the 2016 campaign was organized around a traditional strategic approach: Raise money to put ads on television and fund a field operation in key early states.

But outside of the watch of the campaign’s top brass, a collection of activists working in the bowels of the campaign tested out a variety of experimental approaches to organizing, eventually producing a breakthrough that has been copied by organizers in Spain and the U.K.; helped elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress; and is now guiding Sanders’s 2020 campaign. Sanders built this movement, however, largely by accident.

Throughout his career, Sanders resisted hiring any more campaign or even congressional staff than absolutely necessary — and oftentimes less than that. Part of it was philosophical: Sanders for decades believed that staff were inherently corrupting of a politician, more likely to push him toward party orthodoxy, and undermine the iconoclastic independence he had nurtured.

His 2016 presidential campaign was no different — in part because nobody who wanted a future in Democratic Party politics thought they’d survive coming near his challenge to Hillary Clinton. Jeff Weaver, who left Sanders’s office in 2009 to run a comic book store, came out of retirement to work as campaign manager, but few others joined the official campaign.

“You have to remember in the very beginning, it was very hard for the Bernie campaign to hire pros,” said Becky Bond, an adviser to the 2016 Sanders campaign, “because it was just very clear that you’d be totally blackballed, not just from a White House or a federal agency job, but from any of the Democratic-aligned institutions. Even vendors who weren’t employed by the Clinton campaign didn’t want to work for the Bernie campaign, because they were worried about not getting business in the future.”

“We really had to fill out the ranks from the super volunteers who’d never worked in politics before.”

That meant that, by definition, the staff had to be filled out by renegades, people with activist rather than campaign backgrounds, and operatives accustomed to taking on the establishment. Claire Sandberg fit that bill. As a high school student, she was swept up in an illegal mass arrest at a protest of the World Bank and IMF in 2002 and used the settlement she got to launch a group in New York dedicated to banning fracking. Improbably, she won, and by 2015, was looking for her next thing. She reached out to everybody she knew who might have some tangential connection to the small circle of Sanders advisers and eventually connected with Zack Exley, who had been talking to the campaign about joining. The pair pitched themselves as a package deal, and Weaver bit. Exley was brought on as a senior adviser and Sandberg was made director of digital organizing. Exley also brought on Bond, his longtime friend and ally.

“The professionals that joined were really true believers, like me and Zack, and then we really had to fill out the ranks from the super volunteers who’d never worked in politics before,” Bond said. One of those super volunteers was Corbin Trent, a chef in Tennessee who sold his food trucks to volunteer for the campaign full time. He reached out to Exley about a job, and Exley, without a lot of other options, took a chance on him. Another was Saikat Chakrabarti, who’d been the first engineer, and the fifth employee, of the Silicon Valley firm Stripe but left it behind to join the campaign. A third was Alexandra Rojas, who Exley met as she organized community college students in Orange County, California.

The team’s charge was to figure out a way, with very little budget, to channel the energy behind the Sanders campaign into an effective volunteer army. But if they couldn’t, that was OK too. Even as the team began putting people to work, expectations were low.

Sandberg recalled a meeting with a leader of the field program, who didn’t end up sticking around, as indicative of how traditional campaigners viewed what they were trying to do. “I remember him saying to us, ‘Listen, you guys, you’re the dancing dog. Just be happy that the dog dances. Don’t try to get it to do anything else,’” she said. “He meant that the fact that you have this system where people on their own can go every week … with some friends and do a chalk-the-block-for-Bernie or do a honk-and-wave, a table at a farmer’s market, is in and of itself an accomplishment, and that is the best that you can achieve, is having people where there are no staff basically just keep themselves busy with stuff that everybody knows is not actually valuable work.”

Big Organizing

A honk-and-wave can be a fun-enough way to spend an afternoon with newfound friends, but there’s no evidence it has any impact on actual votes. For that, a campaign needs voter contact, both to persuade people to vote for their candidate and to motivate them to get to the polls.

Simply emailing a list of supporters and asking them to phone bank or door knock wasn’t working. And even if it did work, the team didn’t have regular access to the email list, whose main purpose was to fuel Sanders’s surging fundraising. The campaign brass, meanwhile, assumed that the flow of money could shrink to a trickle at any moment and resisted investing in volunteer organizing. One loophole Exley found was the travel budget, which had more flexibility. So he and Trent decided to hit the road, to see if meeting face to face with volunteers could spark the kind of engagement that an email or a text message couldn’t.

A standard campaign field operation rents an office and pays canvassers to go door-to-door while facilitating volunteer activity like phone banking. It’s top-down and expensive, and the Sanders crew wanted to distribute the potential for that organizing across the country to places where there was no paid field staff. The approach is now known as distributed organizing.

Folks like Trent were willing to try things that campaign veterans would have laughed off the whiteboard.

In October 2015, Exley and Trent set out on a tour of Tennessee with a new experiment: see if single gatherings could be used to create an endless number of new events. The team called them barnstorms and picked Tennessee because Trent had already done much of the organizing work there on his own.

The upside to having inexperienced staff was that folks like Trent were willing to try things that campaign veterans would have laughed off the whiteboard. At each event, Trent and Exley tried to figure out why the barnstorms just weren’t clicking. Toward the end of each gathering, they would ask who there was willing to host an event at their house — a phone bank, for instance — and often 10 to 20 percent of the crowd would volunteer. Despite that enthusiasm, however, almost nobody would show up to the event that had been planned.

Throughout October and November, Trent and Exley continued iterating at barnstorms to no real success. The digital team gathered for a retreat in Seattle in the middle of December to work out the kinks, and Sandberg suggested connecting the hosts and attendees right there at the event, something Trent had also been proposing they do.

They gave it a shot and experimented with different approaches, but the one that landed was this: After people were asked who would host an event, they’d be told to come to the front or stand off to the side. That solidified their commitment and gave the campaign a chance to tell the audience, “Look, these people have committed to hosting an event — you have to commit to go and bring something.”

Trent was the first to try the new barnstorm model in Asheville, North Carolina, in January, where they worked out one final kink: how to actually get people to sign up. They tried name tags and big signs people would hold up, before hitting on a simple altar call and a sheet of paper. “We did all this complicated, convoluted shit,” Trent said, “when the answer is actually just a piece of paper with the host’s name and with blocks for people to sign up.”

The way it worked was that volunteer hosts would line up and give a one- to two-sentence pitch about their event, then the audience would be told to find the host of the event they planned to attend and sort out details. By having people link up in real life, they formed a social contract of sorts, Trent said. “That social contract became super powerful,” Trent said.

Rojas handled logistics for the barnstorms. “We started seeing a lot of the results coming in from these barnstorms, and it’s like, ‘Holy fuck, we’re creating way more voter contact events through this way than we are any other way,’” she said. Rojas and Lynn Hua, another student organizer Exley had met and recruited on to the team, expanded the barnstorming model to allow volunteers to run them. The campaign ended up hosting roughly 1,000 barnstorms, 650 of which were run by volunteers.

By the time the campaign had finally figured things out, the end was approaching.

The final innovation that made it all workable came from Chakrabarti, himself an unusual figure on the Sanders team. After graduating from Harvard in 2007 with a computer science degree, Chakrabarti briefly worked for a hedge fund, then became the founding engineer for Stripe, the payment processor now valued at some $20 billion. When the Sanders campaign launched, he queried his network to find a connection, and like all the others, that turned out to be super-connector Exley, who brought him on board.

Chakrabarti put together a process that easily allowed organizers to snap photos of the handwritten sheets and upload them to the campaign website, where other volunteers would enter the information in so that events could be facilitated and tracked.

By the time the campaign had finally figured things out, the end was approaching. “We didn’t even hire most of our distributed team until January 2016,” said Sandberg, “and we’d only hit a million calls, out of the 85 million that we ended up making, by Iowa.”

Sanders stunned the political world by effectively tying Clinton in Iowa on February 1 and crushing her in New Hampshire, but she had locked in nearly all the superdelegates. She eked out a win in Nevada, crushed him in South Carolina, and ground out a victory.

Brand New Congress

As primary season progressed, the traditional campaign was running headlong into the radical distributed experiment that was now under way. In some states, the field team worked collaboratively with the distributed team — often because Sandberg had hired that state’s director — but in others, they effectively kicked the Sandberg-Exley-Bond operation out. In one state, the campaign shut down a volunteer-organized phone bank because the campaign was having a ribbon-cutting on its first official field office and didn’t want competition.

By April 2016, it was becoming apparent that the primary was no longer winnable. The only path Sanders had to the nomination was to convince Clinton-backing superdelegates to switch sides, as unlikely an event as is conceivable. Exley, Rojas, Trent, and Chakrabarti were determined to channel the energy that had gone into the Sanders campaign. They teamed up with Isra Allison and created an organization called Brand New Congress, aimed at running Bernie-style populists everywhere around the country. And they really meant everywhere — even in Republican districts.

Sandberg, for her part, stayed until the bitter end and then joined a new group, Our Revolution, that Sanders set up to carry the political revolution forward. Her condition for joining, along with other organizers, was simple: Jeff Weaver could not run it. When Jane Sanders decided to install Weaver as president and turned Our Revolution into a 501(c)(4) organization that could take unlimited dark money contributions, Sandberg and her team quit.

While Our Revolution splintered, Brand New Congress struggled to get its concept off the ground. After the November 2016 election, Cenk Uygur, the founder and head of the progressive news network The Young Turks, reached out and said he wanted to find a way to support the group’s efforts but that TYT’s viewers had no interest in backing Republican candidates. Out of that conversation, Brand New Congress agreed to carve out a separate group, called Justice Democrats, that Uygur could get behind. (I’m an on-air contributor to TYT.)

Eventually, Justice Democrats — with Rojas, Chakrabarti, and Trent at the helm — split from Brand New Congress and became an independent organization. Soon after, #AllofUs, a group founded by Sandberg and Waleed Shahid to pressure Democrats to resist Donald Trump, folded into Justice Democrats. They backed more than 60 candidates ahead of the 2018 midterms, including an activist named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who went on to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

Today, Rojas is the executive director of Justice Democrats, where Shahid is the communications director. Chakrabarti is Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, and Trent is her spokesperson. Exley co-founded New Consensus, the policy muscle behind the Green New Deal. Bond took the distributed organizing model, along with Sanders aide Zack Malitz, to Texas, running Beto O’Rourke’s groundbreaking field program during his 2018 Senate campaign. She and Malitz stayed on for his presidential run but were pushed out by former Obama operatives.

Sandberg, meanwhile, spent time in Spain and the U.K., training Podemos and Momentum, the leftist movements in each, on the art of the barnstorm. Weaver, rather than running the campaign, is a senior adviser, and he and Sandberg have reconciled. She’s now the national organizing director for the 2020 Sanders campaign.

This article was adapted from “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement” by Ryan Grim, published by Strong Arm Press on May 28. 

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