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Life after Bernie Sanders

The senator’s presidential run has been surprisingly successful, but will it leave a movement behind?

January 20, 2016 2:00AM ET

As the early primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire near, Democrats unhappy with their party’s establishment have much to celebrate. Over the past seven months, the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, has produced a serious national debate about democratic socialism and the battle to confront inequality in the United States.

Sanders has already accomplished far more than most professional commentators had expected, with tens of thousands of people turning out to see him speak. The senator may not have a Super PAC, but his campaign raised $41.5 million as of the last Federal Election Committee filing in October, almost entirely from small donors, becoming the first campaign to reach two million donors this election cycle. Millennials have been donating money to his campaign at an impressive rate.

Sanders may yet surprise the political class with strong returns in the opening caucuses and primaries. But sooner or later, all good things must come to an end.

Realistically, Sanders’ chances of defeating the Democratic frontrunner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are very small. Even if he has performed better than anyone initially gave him credit for, he’s still a long shot, having never led Clinton nationally among Democrats. Moreover, Sanders has vowed that he won’t run as an independent if he loses the primary, for fear of dividing the liberal vote and ensuring a Republican victory. This means that he will likely endorse Clinton, whether or not his supporters approve. It’s not too soon for those supporters to start asking what’s next.

Failures at movement building

Even if Sanders were to pull off a miracle and win the White House, he would need a strong progressive movement to get anything done. “This campaign is not about electing Bernie Sanders for president,” the candidate tweeted last August. “It is about creating a grassroots political movement in this country.”

Progressive presidential candidates have often failed to build organizational infrastructure to continue the fight. In 2008, Barack Obama created a remarkable field campaign, Obama For America, which enlisted the largest number of volunteers ever amassed by an American presidential candidate. After his victory, he suggested that the group — which was rebranded Organizing For America (OFA) — would continue as a grassroots advocacy operation. Obama’s camp made much of their plans for OFA and its 13 million-person email list, 4 million donors and 2.5 million activists. “This would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works,” said Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican campaign strategist and advisor to President Ronald Reagan, in an interview with Rolling Stone. “No one’s ever had these kinds of resources.”

Sadly, many activists energized by the Obama campaign soon found themselves disillusioned with OFA. As the new administration formed, the White House scrapped plans for an independent organizing operation that would put pressure on all politicians. Rather, it wanted loyalists willing to rally in support of the administration’s policy proposals. Ultimately, OFA became a wing of the Democratic National Committee, and its once-mighty grassroots swagger faded into history.

Sanders offers a unique opportunity for progressives to generate fresh energy and draw in people who are otherwise disengaged.

Obama’s inability to channel the energy of his first presidential campaign into a lasting movement is not unique. As Harold Meyerson argued in The Washington Post, “Robert LaFollette’s 1924 independent campaign failed to create an ongoing institution.” Likewise, “the Rainbow Coalition that emerged from Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in the ’80s never had the autonomy it needed to move beyond Jackson’s narrow post-campaign agendas.”

But where Democrats have struggled to harness grassroots movements, Republicans have enjoyed more success.

Learning from Goldwater

Conservative candidates have arguably proved more successful at spawning enduring movements. The political movement built to win Barry Goldwater the presidency in 1964 ended in crushing defeat, with only 38.5 percent of the popular vote and six states in his column. Yet even after their candidate lost, his supporters used the relationships and infrastructure they had built to keep on recruiting new prospects, engaging in electoral campaigns for local offices and building a powerful faction for conservatives within internal Republican Party debates. Half a century later, the activists who tried to elect Goldwater have changed the course of their party, the government and the nation. If Sanders’ supporters want his campaign to have lasting significance, they should take notes.

Like Goldwater’s supporters, the Sanderistas face an ascendant centrist establishment that is disconnected from the concerns of the Democratic base, as well as an emboldened opposition party. Republicans control 70 percent of state legislatures and 60 percent of the governors’ mansions, with the Democratic Party incapable, or unwilling, to find a way to win in these hugely important local races.

Sanders offers a unique opportunity for progressives. Presidential campaigns get far more attention than any other type of election, not to mention standard organizing drives. It’s a big media moment, and often the only time that many people really pay attention to politics. This potentially allows progressive movements to generate fresh energy and draw in people who are otherwise disengaged.

With this new momentum, one option for Sanders supporters would be to expand the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and try to take over smaller party chapters and other related institutions. This pressure group within the party could then vie for smaller races, develop candidates and try to advocate internally at the local and state level to bring progressive ideas into the Democratic mainstream. Such a strategy has proven frustrating in the past, but the conservative movement’s takeover of the GOP proves such a course is feasible.

This action need not rely exclusively on new organizations to capitalize on the momentum from Sanders’ campaign. There already exists a wide array of innovative and effective progressive groups, including the Working Families Party, Progressive Democrats of America, Jobs With Justice, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the Democratic Socialists of America and the Fight for $15, that are already working to influence politics, especially at the city and state level. Instead of reinventing the wheel, new activists and donors could join movements and organizations in their area that have already built up membership rolls.

After all, Sanders has benefited from all these previous movements and infrastructure. There’s no reason his campaign shouldn’t feed back into them, drawing new people to effective organizations and causes. Progressives don’t always need to create a whole new infrastructure from scratch. Sometimes old movements and old forms can be reinvigorated.

Sanders’ supporters have already proven themselves passionate and independent-minded. No matter the outcome of the coming primaries, they should continue championing the issues that animate the socialist senator’s campaign beyond the presidential race. The end of Sanders’ campaign should not be the end of the movement.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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