While the electorate is rarely excited for elections, the 2016 race takes place against the backdrop of a country on the brink of a crisis of democratic legitimacy. Congress, nominally the most important democratic institution in the country, has suffered from an approval rating averaging in the teens for more than four years. Facing a government held hostage by the 1 percent, many Americans are throwing up their hands: Turnout for the 2014 midterm elections dipped to a 72-year low.
The sense that solutions won’t trickle down from Capitol Hill or the campaign trail has particular resonance with a younger generation. Tellingly, a recent Gallup poll found that a full 69 percent of Americans ages 18–29 would vote for a socialist candidate for president. Millennials, born between 1982 and 2000, are coming of age in a world in which the American Dream—where working hard yields a life better than Mom and Dad’s—is increasingly exposed as a fraud. Millennials are the most diverse, well-educated, tech-savvy generation in American history; they’re also on course to become the first modern generation to be worse off financially than their parents.
The American people—recognized citizens or otherwise—are hurting, and the established political parties have been unable and unwilling to meet their needs. That’s where movements come in.
Millennials and people of color volunteered and voted in record numbers to elect President Obama, but the lack of progress on the issues they care about—unemployment, inequality, systemic racism, climate change, immigration—has led them out of candidates’ offices and into the streets. From Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street, from the DREAMer movement to that for divestment from fossil fuels, young people and people of color have been at the forefront of a new generation of popular movements rising to fill the democracy deficit left by an unresponsive political system. Even as they tire of the morass of Congress and endless presidential election seasons, millennials are finding outlets for their frustrations in one another, and the strategies of disruptive power honed by their troublemaking predecessors.
Immigrant-rights leader Carlos Saavedra explains that, in the United States, “We have lost the avenues available for democracy.” As the former national coordinator for United We Dream, Saavedra saw politicians’ near-pathological intransigence on immigration reform firsthand. Eventually winning the uphill battle for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, brought him to a simple conclusion: “Popular movements are the only avenues for democracy in this country.”
It is this sentiment that, in the last five years, has nurtured a resurgence in populist, progressive energy. These uprisings have galvanized the public, and forced elected officials to respond to them—if not yet in concrete policy changes, then in major shifts in the political narrative.
It’s certainly reflected in the surprising early success of Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Charming as Bernie is, his strong polling and fundraising has more to do with the political moment than with his grandfatherly—albeit firebrand—charisma. Underlying both Sanders’s unlikely rise and heir-apparent Hillary Clinton’s distinctly populist tone thus far is a fundamental shift in the political weather. A long-simmering conflict between social movements and the Democratic establishment may finally be reaching its boiling point.
Nelini Stamp is the co-founder and co-director of Rise Up Georgia. Previously, she was a leading organizer in Occupy Wall Street and director of strategic partnerships and youth engagement for the Working Families Organization. In 2012, she also co-founded Florida’s Dream Defenders. At 27, Stamp is a seasoned veteran of outsider and electoral campaigns alike. “I believe that Hillary, at this point in her campaign, has been more progressive than Obama was during his campaign, and that’s because of the movement,” she told us. “The movement is actually shaping what she’s talking about.”
Savvy Republicans can see the pitchforks are coming, too. Frank Luntz, the wunderkind consultant behind the GOP’s moral crusade to power back in 1994, may have a better read on the American public than anyone in the country. He’s made a small fortune conducting rapid-fire focus groups with ordinary Americans—a practice that has led him to coin such memorable phrases as “death tax” and “job creators.” Back in 2011, as Occupy Wall Street took hold around the country, Luntz advised a room of Republican governors that the public “think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of ‘Wall Street,’ we’ve got a problem.”
Given all of this, today’s movements stand at a crossroads. While the fact that their leaders’ talking points are seeping into the 2016 fight deserves celebration, there remains the question of how popular revolts can transition—as civil rights leader Bayard Rustin asked in 1965—from protest to politics.“It is institutions—social, political, and economic institutions—which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments,” he argued, calling on the movement to contend for state power. For an American left traditionally allergic to the concept, it needn’t be any more complicated than a simple division of labor: There are some things movements can do, and others that states can do. Only a state, for instance, can keep carbon in the ground; only a state can grant legal status to all undocumented Americans; only a state can distribute reparations or a universal basic income, or fund public schools. “All these interrelated problems,” Rustin adds, “by their very nature, are not soluble by private, voluntary efforts but require government action—or politics.”
Put another way, only massive uprisings can create the disruptive energy to shake the political establishment’s foundations to its core. Movements throughout history—understood as uprisings, revolts, riots or otherwise—have been the brute force that creates the fissures in our political systems necessary for transformative shifts. Conversely, only political power—state power—can reconstruct political institutions toward popular ends, and consolidate the rabble’s disruptive energy into long-lasting, egalitarian victories. So how can today’s movements wield state power?
The Problem with Democrats
Georgia native Austin Thompson, a Howard University graduate, built SEIU’s Millennial Program and helped start the Freedom Side, a national coalition of racial-justice and immigrant- rights organizations. Thompson’s Southern upbringing and years as a teacher—of civics and comparative democracy, no less—dovetail into a cool, measured speaking style that rarely veers into the abstract. In his new role as director of the Youth Engagement Fund at the Democracy Alliance, he hopes to support movements that bring people from the margins—the youth and communities of color left out of Democrats’ coveted “likely voter” rolls—into politics. “In American history, there is no other conveyor belt to bring marginalized communities into politics besides movements,” he said.
Within the Democratic Party, there are some politicians who are more willing to take the movements’ lead than others—in no small part because they’re fed up with corporations’ control over their own party. The Sanders campaign has ridden the wave of dissatisfaction with the mainstream Democratic Party that gave rise to the tech-savvy “netroots” movement against Dems’ support for invading Iraq. The party’s “Elizabeth Warren wing,” similarly, was galvanized by its tepid and conciliatory response to the financial crisis a few years later. Given all this, the overall tide of the Democratic Party seems to have shifted considerably in recent years, as avowedly progressive candidates have won high-profile mayoral races across the country, and threatened even the seemingly safest corporate democrats, such as Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel. This sea change has played a key role in translating once far-fetched movement calls for paid sick days, state DREAMActs, and a $15 minimum wage from protest into policies.
Nonetheless, speaking with just a few of today’s young movement leaders, it’s clear the disappointment of the Obama years has led many to an understandably antagonistic view of the Democratic Party, and electoral politics more generally. Saavedra reasons, “The equation is simple: The political parties are in a financial relationship with the electorate. Corporations and rich people are able to buy votes and the people can’t compete with that. The rules are rigged against us.”
Umi Selah, mission director of the Dream Defenders—a leading voice in the movement for black lives—is of a similar mind. In an e-mail, he says, “There is no ‘democratic party.’ We are, for all intents and purposes, living under an oligarchy, a kleptocracy. Corporations run our country unabashedly…. the notion that we have two parties with one [the Democrats] representing the will of the ‘people’ is a farce. The party as a whole cares little about the community or the People.”
The millennial movements’ rift with the Democratic Party is shaped by a conflict between the grassroots communities that provide the party’s voters and the consultants, donors, and operatives that run it. In the view of the movements, the party has become a shell of itself, a corporate structure that treats voters like consumers and party operatives like brand marketers. Stamp, of Rise Up Georgia, suggests that movements need to build a party engaged in communities—one that can compete with the party’s slick branding campaigns. “There was a time when there was a storefront in your neighborhood that you could see,” she says. “The movement needs to take responsibility for making something like that happen again.”
Operating from a framework of community empowerment rather than instrumental gain, movements are perhaps better equipped than any force to engage people of color, millennials, and single women—the same constituencies that Democrats-not-named-Obama have failed to woo—at scales both local and national.
“The Democratic Party can’t be a party of consultants and professionals,” says Thompson. “It has to become a party of DREAMers, of culture makers, of students, of front-line activists, of people who are single moms piecing it together. It has to become a grassroots party and open itself to this energy. If it does not, we know what will happen.”
Still, there is a shared sense that electoral politics is too important to ignore. The millennial movement leaders we spoke with aligned around the need for a populist, grassroots, mass-based party that comes from and is accountable to the movements. “We absolutely need to build independent political power,” says Selah. Erica Sagrans, who was campaign manager of the Ready for Warren campaign and a former digital director for the Working Families Party, agrees. She argues, “The movement should engage directly with elections, but they should do it in a way where they can maintain their independence.”
But what is independent political power? The answer, rightly so, is far from simple.
The Problem with Third Parties
Accepting the necessity of state power, one option might be to create or support a third party along the lines of the Green Party, pooling resources around the next Jill Stein or Howie Hawkins. But the United States’ winner-take-all electoral system presents some of the world’s highest barriers to entry for new parties.
The Working Families Party began in New York seventeen years ago by organizing a coalition of progressive outfits (labor unions, community organizations, issue groups) to channel their shared electoral power into a single, unified vehicle. Using the unique fusion-voting system, which allows candidates to earn the endorsement of multiple parties, the WFP has had a major impact on the direction of New York city and state, and has shown the kind of power that can be won by working inside and outside the Democratic Party.
But while the slow and steady strategy of building from a coalition of well-established organizations has sustained the WFP over a decade, it also limits the party’s growth. Keeping with its current trajectory, it would take decades for the party to reach every state in the US. And as the party’s much maligned endorsement of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 reelection illustrated, WFP’s dependence on labor and community organizations rather than an independent base of voters leaves the party vulnerable to those institutions’ political baggage.
The choice we are left with, then, is to engage with our fraught and generally miserable two-party system, the one rapidly accumulating corporate money and broken promises, on our own terms—not Hillary’s, or even Bernie’s. But what does that actually look like?
We must change the conversation so that the central conflict in American politics isn’t between Democrats and Republicans but between those who believe in popular rule and those who believe in the rule of the few. A united party of the millennial movements could replace the Democratic as the main alternative to the Republican party, by giving society a genuine choice as to whether we want to live in a world of distrust, governed by the market, or in a world in which we have trust in each other and that’s governed by people.
As Austin Thompson describes, the corporatized Democratic Party will never pose so clear a choice. “The problem is that the [Democratic Party institutions] aren’t framing choices,” he says. He goes on to explain, “This is 101 of organizing. If you want to win, you polarize and you frame choices. We keep going into election after election mobilizing around this centrist message that targets likely voters. That’s not enough. We need unlikely voters, and that means we have to tell them they have a choice at the ballot box, and we need champions.”
Bernie Sander’s success with the Warren wing of the Democratic Party, the Netroots, and even those farther to the center shows that unifying progressives in favor of a populist, democratic socialist agenda that polarizes against the billionaire oligarchs can bear juicy electoral fruit. That said, black organizers’ protests at Sanders events—first at Netroots Nation, spawning the #BernieSoBlack hashtag, then in Seattle—and the campaign’s sluggish, awkward response to it all, show that Sanders’s success among whites may never translate to black and brown voters. Without winning support from voters of color, Bernie and all white progressives stand little chance of winning against corporate Democrats’ slick electoral might.
The combination of white progressives and voters of color, however, is the same coalition that Obama rode to victory, and could well be replicated by a strong movement candidate. The activists who disrupted Bernie Sanders at Netroots have reconfigured the terms of the Democratic primary, such that candidates are now obligated to put Black Lives Matter front and center. But what if there were a candidate by, of, and for the millennial movements in the first instance? One that unified progressives Democrats and ordinary people tired of life in an oligarchy?
A Party of Unified Movements
The choice we would pose to the American people would be based in the shared values that already guide our movements. Already, the millennial movements are uniquely aware of the intersection between climate, race, and the economy. We all know a small group of white men control the resources and determine what happens in our society. They stoke racial divisions to monopolize the economy and continue destroying the planet. A party of the movements would propose an America in which everyone would have the things they need to live a decent life as a part of an actual community.
An agenda of the unified party could emerge through a process of grassroots consultation and negotiation. It would include proposals that would give every American a say in the government, and control of their lives and community. It would attack the roots of white supremacy, environmental destruction, and inequality. But what’s more important than the policies is the guiding values and vision.
A unified movement party would run candidates up and down the ticket—from Congress all the way to dogcatcher—on a set of open-source principles that articulate the movement’s shared beliefs. Instead of a central leadership deciding who could run on the party line, any candidates that agree to abide by agreed-upon movement principles could lay claim to the party moniker. The candidates would be drawn from the movements and communities that have been left behind by the Democratic Party, and given the freedom to determine their own agenda. If it made sense to run within the Democratic Party—as we believe it would in most races, especially federal ones—candidates could do so. If it made sense to run outside the party, candidates could have an opportunity to do that as well. Bernie’s career—from his start as an independent mayor with Progressive Party support to his tenure as an independent representative in Congress to running as an insurgent in a Democratic Party presidential primary—shows how candidates could work inside and outside the Democratic Party to maximize their impact in differing circumstances.
The movement’s party would enjoy much of the same grassroots enthusiasm among white progressives that Bernie’s campaign is now, but with the additional potential of massive support from people of color. With a series of victories in primaries and local open races across the country, we could take over the Democratic Party, and reconfigure American politics away from the neoliberal consensus towards a vision of a racially just, environmentally sustainable socialist democracy.
While it would certainly take real resources to create a party of the people that challenges the corporate parties, there are new models of organizing to borrow from that allow upstart organizations to compete with entrenched powers. The emerging science of decentralized organization has been used by religious communities, businesses, computer programmers, and even political parties to engage with massive numbers of new supporters outside of existing structures. Notably, for those interested in organizing a new political party, social movement leaders from Chile to Spain have tapped into decentralized organizing principles to build new parties and candidates from the remains of movements.
In fact, decentralization has already been used in the United States to massive political impact—just not by the movements. For example, the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 were hugely successful at building local teams as the foundation of their voter-turnout efforts, but most of those teams quickly demobilized after the elections because they weren’t given autonomy or common purpose beyond getting out the vote. Conversely, many of the local groups that compose the Tea Party have remained active for years, including between election cycles because they can set their own course within a set of shared goals and principles for the Tea Party at large. (Adding to their longevity, of course, are billionaires like Charles and David Koch, who have pledged to spend $60,000 per hour in the lead-up to 2016—in no small part by padding local Americans for Prosperity chapters until they can front for Manchurian candidates like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.)
The American political system makes organizing new political parties incredibly difficult. Our system is designed to be stable and status quo–oriented—just what the plutocrats like. But the stakes are too high for us to not try to shift the trajectory of our broken system. The people have lost confidence in our ability to govern ourselves, but there is a whole world to win. This is the richest, most technologically advanced country the world has ever known; there is no reason so many should be without when there is so much. We have to believe that if given the choice, the people will agree.