When Bernie Sanders announced that he was running for president last year, people didn’t expect much from the Vermont senator. The political establishment wrote him off and the pundits berated him—“he’s a socialist for God’s sake.” Even die-hard progressives conceded his bid was a long shot.
In the months since, Sanders has not only drawn record crowds, he’s earned more than 12 million votes and won 45 percent of pledged delegates. Far and away, he’s done better than any self-declared socialist in our nation’s history. And he funded it all by raising hundreds of millions of dollars in mostly small donations from everyday people.
But the numbers only tell part of the story. Bernie Sanders has shifted the goal posts for the Democratic Party. From trade to wages, the environment to infrastructure, tuition-free college to health care for all, Sanders’s platform has raised expectations and electrified the nation.
In the years since the great recession, we’ve seen a new wave of activism across the country as movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, and the Fight for 15 take root. Sanders, for his part, worked hard to break the political mold for a presidential candidate and make his campaign a vehicle for movement aspirations. He’s built on the energy generated by those movements and given them even greater reach.
As Sanders’s presidential campaign nears its end, the “political revolution” he’s called for is just getting started. As Bernie himself has tried to make clear, this movement is about more than one candidate, one election cycle, or even one political moment. It’s about millions of people coming together to demand that we fundamentally restructure our society, economy, and government to build a better future.
In many ways, the Sanders campaign signals the end of an era—the crumbling of the neoliberal consensus in electoral politics. He raised expectations by putting forward an agenda that’s based on what we need, not simply what we can win within the current political moment. It’s precisely that move that enabled Sanders to attract millions of followers and begin to reshape what’s politically possible.
Undoubtedly, the call for progressives to “be realistic” in their demands will remain for some time to come, especially as Secretary Clinton faces off against Donald Trump. Yet the failure of neoliberal policies to serve ordinary Americans and ignite imaginations shows why a bold progressive agenda isn’t just a moral imperative, but a political necessity. Precisely because the neoliberal consensus is crumbling, a progressive alternative is pivotal to preventing the insurgent right from advancing a racist and nationalist agenda. Now is not the time for tinkering. Our communities cannot afford to wait for incremental reforms to add up to the sea change we need. If movement history tells us anything, it’s that we’ve never won more by demanding less.
The role of progressive individuals and organizations now is to outline the big campaigns we want to drive through cities and states and up into the national discourse. The issues include tuition-free college, a massive green infrastructure program, health care for all, ending mass incarceration and criminalization, and progressive taxation. Sanders supporters attended rallies, signed petitions, made phone calls, and donated money. It’s time for this movement to organize their neighborhoods around the issues that matter most to their community.
It won’t be enough to simply put these ideas into the ether. During the course of our campaigns, we must aim to create moments that force people—especially powerbrokers and elected officials—to publicly take sides on the issues we care about. These “whose side are you on” moments not only crystallize the debate, they can force a re-orientation for public officials and move them to take our position on the issues. The next big moment like this could come when Congress is asked to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership later this year.
Conservatives have a deep bench of candidates for political office. For instance, we can make a pretty good guess as to which faces we’ll see running for the executive office in coming years. (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, after all, are both only 45.) But it isn’t just the top of the ticket—conservatives have candidates running at all levels of government. In 2014 Republicans swept state offices like a tidal wave, taking control of both legislative bodies and the governor’s office in a total of 23 states. And that doesn’t even account for chambers in places like Illinois, which are in large part dominated by corporate Democrats.
If progressives are going to go big on campaigns, we should take a page from the Tea Party’s playbook and invest down ballot. We need allies on the inside who can help us advance our agenda. Even better yet, we can work to elect members of our own movement to office—people who are deeply committed to our agenda and our values. Then we can truly play an inside-outside game—working during election cycles to put our members in office and then using these partnerships, along with direct action and community organizing, to win big at the local level. Those wins, especially when they lead us to take over a city council or state legislature, can not only add up and make millions of families’ lives tangibly better; they can change the political weather and provide models for the national level. Progressive organizations must recruit, develop, support, and elect thousands of truly progressive candidates at every level of government
We can only go big on bold issue fights and run movement candidates if we invest in building independent political organizations that undergird such work for the long haul. While movements can shift public opinion and open up new political space, organizations provide the infrastructure to sustain us in lean times, and seize openings generated in movement moments. Indeed, if there had been more local political infrastructure that was in line with Sanders’s aspirations, the outcome of this year’s Democratic primary might have been different.
The creation of political organizations that are loyal to everyday people and a set of principles—and who have been independent of any one political party—have been a rare breed in the United States. The good news is that this is changing. And it could change quickly, if thousands of Sanders activists and people engaged in other movements invest in building or joining independent political organizations that are grounded in communities and issues of race, class, and gender.
Too much of the existing organizational infrastructure serves the establishment and is unwilling to do what’s necessary to challenge the status quo. Perhaps that’s one reason why many activists and progressives—in particular young people—are wary of joining. But organizations are vital to making deep change. They not only provide the infrastructure for advancing a progressive agenda, they are also vital sites for deep leadership development, and building long-term power that can help expand the momentum of movements in good times, and sustain people and energy in lean ones.
We are seeing more independent political organizations spring up. For example, Reclaim Chicago has provided a model of what such organizations can do in just a short period of time. Formed in 2015 ahead of the Chicago Mayoral Election, Reclaim Chicago has quickly become a political powerhouse in the city, electing progressive aldermen and most recently working to defeat State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and replace her with Kim Foxx.
What’s special about Reclaim Chicago isn’t just that it can put progressive champions into office. It’s the organization’s deep commitment to political independence and challenging the corporate agenda, to training committed leaders, and uniting direct action, issue campaigns, and electoral fights for maximum impact. Reclaim Chicago is just one of many such organizations across the country, but we need more of them and now is the time to double down on this investment. There’s no time to waste.
This article originally appeared in The American Prospect.