A week after the midterm elections, 200 activists from the Sunrise Movement occupied Sen. Nancy Pelosi’s office with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to demand a Green New Deal. It came at just the right time, as the 24-hour news cycle made this bold proposal — advanced by a new generation of the climate movement and the Democratic Party — the next big story. The visionary urgency of the new guard contrasted powerfully with the plodding pace of the old guard, especially as Pelosi’s office showed no signs of major proposals a week after winning a new majority in the Senate. Since then, the Green New Deal has shaped the terms of debate around climate change — while also calling into question the old guard’s ability to contend with it.
For those of us on the left who have lived decades of our political lives in a defensive crouch, it is exhilarating beyond words to watch the new guard stand up straight and go on the offensive. But the media, unable to distinguish between historical happenstance and brilliant organizing, won’t identify the lessons — and choices — of this era for us. To do that, we must look beyond the faces of the new guard, like Ocasio-Cortez, to learn from the two groups driving the Green New Deal and, with it, a realignment of the Democratic Party: Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats.
Sunrise relies primarily on an “outside strategy.” According to their website, they are “building an army of young people to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.” By contrast, Justice Democrats relies primarily on an “inside strategy” to take over the Democratic Party with, in their own words, “a new generation of diverse, working-class leaders.”
But this is not a traditional “inside/outside strategy,” which often dilutes disruptive outsider organizing and turns it into little more than transactional grassroots lobbying. Instead, Sunrise and Justice Democrats embrace disruption, conflict, and polarization as a means of creating political will where it has been sorely lacking — and as necessary features of democracy itself.
In short, Sunrise and Justice Democrats are reshaping the political landscape and what grassroots organizing looks like in the United States. Here are three key ways they’re changing the game:
1. Sunrise and Justice Democrats are movement organizations, which means their primary target is the public — not decision-makers. Both groups are focused on moving the base out from under the politicians who perpetuate the status quo, instead of focusing exclusively on moving politicians themselves. Politicians still have the same instrumental role they’ve always had: making policy. That is why Sunrise partnered with Ocasio-Cortez to write and introduce the Green New Deal resolution. It’s also why Justice Democrats launched her campaign in the first place. But politicians are even more important here as spokespeople galvanizing the public around a new common sense.
Drawing on lessons from civil resistance movements around the world, Sunrise and Justice Democrats understand that popular support is essential for creating political will. (By way of full disclosure, many of the strategists in these groups are also active leaders in the Momentum community, of which I’m the executive director.) Both groups know that popular support must go beyond public awareness to become sustained participation in the form of voting, donating and disrupting the status quo. For Sunrise, this has meant absorbing thousands of new members over the last few months, training them up, and turning them out for a new wave of public-facing actions. For Justice Democrats, this has involved backing insurgent candidates popular enough to garner millions of votes and then supporting them, once elected, to disrupt business as usual over and over again.
A movement orientation, in turn, impacts how these groups understand victory. While their goals are, respectively, to pass a Green New Deal and to elect a left flank of the Democratic Party, they are equally focused on changing the common sense of the American people themselves, as movements like Occupy and candidacies like that of Bernie Sanders did. It is not quite accurate to say that building popular support is simply a step on the path to more instrumental wins, such as passing a Green New Deal, because changing the common sense often makes much more than a single policy reform possible. Changing the common sense — and turning that into organized political leverage — is at the heart of their strategy to change what is winnable instead of accepting whatever paltry solutions are on offer from the old guard.
2. They are building a different kind of coalition. Traditional grassroots coalitions rely on the premise that if we can bring several organizations together around a single goal, we can create adequate leverage to pass significant reforms. For instance, if you have 10 organizations working on a campaign to increase the minimum wage, and each organization has 100 active leaders with the capacity to knock on 10,000 doors, obtain 6,000 petition signatures, and mobilize 500 people to an action, the coalition can collectively knock on 100,000 doors, get 60,000 petition signatures, and mobilize 5,000 people to an action. An assessment of those numbers will in turn shape what the coalition believes is winnable, and therefore the campaign demand: For instance, the coalition may assess that they have the leverage to raise the minimum wage from $10 per hour to $13 per hour — but not to $15 per hour (either by ballot measure or by legislative process).
The limitations of the traditional grassroots coalition is that the size (and tactics) of the base determine, in large part, what the campaign can demand and win — and even with a combined base, those wins can be modest. Many coalitions who have run these kinds of campaigns for decades have assumed that eventually these modest reforms would incrementally add up to something larger. The Sunrise Movement recognized that there was no guarantee of that, and certainly not on the timeline needed to stop climate change.
Sunrise and Justice Democrats’ model of a campaign coalition instead takes its cue from the likes of Podemos, an insurgent political party in Spain. Their leaders realized that even if the Spanish left were to add up the bases of all its organizations, it still wouldn’t have enough leverage to win the kinds of reforms that are truly necessary. As a consequence of this insight, Podemos decided to frame its platform in terms that would appeal broadly to the Spanish people and their lived concerns, instead of speaking in the left/right shorthand of political affiliations.
To win a Green New Deal and a realignment of the Democratic Party, Sunrise and Justice Democrats determined that they would need to organize the millions of people who aren’t yet organized. Ironically, having a big demand — like the Green New Deal — makes it much easier to do this than a more modest demand like cap-and-trade legislation. Both Sunrise and Justice Democrats are energizing broad swathes of the public and converting that energy into new capacity for their campaigns. While Sunrise publicly declares that anyone who wants to join their movement has a place in it, Justice Democrats is more selective — giving priority to working-class people of color as their candidates and campaign managers. Either way, both groups are working to build a coalition of the public — young people, people of color, working-class people and women — instead of a coalition of organizations representing tiny fractions of those demographics. In the process, they invite us to imagine what the American left could achieve with a similar orientation.
3. They studied the changing political landscape and changed their organizing strategy accordingly. Through extended research and planning, leaders in Sunrise and Justice Democrats saw that democratic capitalism was undergoing a crisis throughout the West. In the U.S. context, they saw partisan polarization at a record high, and faith in public institutions at a record low. They also saw that in a two-party system, both parties are barely coherent aggregations of different interest groups.
Obama’s 2008 election, Bernie Sanders’ popularity, and finally Trump’s victory decisively proved that the U.S. government was undergoing a crisis of legitimacy and that the public now had a preference for populist candidates. In spite of the media’s constant harping on the divide between “liberals” and “conservatives,” Sunrise and Justice Democrats — among many other brilliant organizers and theorists, such as Jonathan Matthew Smucker — saw that the real conflict was between the people and the establishment. The open question for this era, therefore, is what party will be the party of the people that can credibly claim to represent the 99 percent?
With the Republican party offering a reactionary populism that reduces the American people to white Christian men, the Democratic party appears to be the only possible vehicle for representing, in government, the interests of the entire working-class, people of color, women and everyone else excluded from original access to American democracy.
If climate change requires precisely that kind of coalition — and a realignment of the Democratic Party — to make sweeping reforms sooner rather than later, then Sunrise and Justice Democrats would catalyze it and work to reshape the meaning of American democracy in the process.
This has real implications for democracy as we know it: If this new generation manages to transform the ruling bargain such that our political parties are not warring clans of elites, but instead populated and led by the people, the United States will be among very few democracies in the world to achieve such a feat. To this day, very few liberal democracies are governed by working-class people.
As the media never ceases to remind us, it is too soon to say precisely what Sunrise and Justice Democrats will win in their efforts to stop climate change or realign the Democratic Party. However, what is crystal clear already — and more relevant to strategists than journalists — is that the Green New Deal is not the only sweeping reform possible. Justice Democrats provides its candidates and officials with a policy platform that includes other visionary policies, such as a living wage, free higher education, abolishing ICE and Medicare For All.
The new guard has created an opening for movements on a range of issues to dust off our biggest demands and translate them into a platform that can be stumped on, debated and popularized in the coming years. We are no longer in an era where we have to settle for what the establishment says is winnable. Whether we, on the left, seize that opportunity and shape the realignment already underway, is up to us.