“The Republicans I talk to don’t feel any more represented by their party than the Sanders Democrats,” says Corbin Trent. It’s a steamy night a few weeks after the California primary, in a hall belonging to Local 737 of the United Auto Workers. Bernie Sanders hasn’t yet endorsed Hillary Clinton, but even his most die-hard supporters know he isn’t going to be president. Trent, the founder of Tennessee for Bernie, is talking about the widening gap between Americans and the people who are supposed to represent us in Washington.
“We have a Congress made up mostly of millionaires who spend all their time talking to each other,” he says. “Our country is becoming an oligarchy.”
When Trent finishes, Zack Exley stands up. The people in the room are all Bernie volunteers, and Exley, a senior advisor to the Sanders campaign, begins by acknowledging their grief—and their frustration with the Vermont-based national campaign. “I was one of those people up in Burlington, and I want you to know you guys did 10 times what was required to win. In a whole bunch of ways, we let you down.”
Exley and Trent are a formidable double act. As the inventors of the “Bernie barnstorm”—a concentrated training session designed to turn green volunteers into the disciplined organizers who went on to build the biggest grassroots electoral movement this country has ever seen—they’ve been on the road since September. Exley, a tall, lean man with spiky silver hair and geeky glasses that make him look more like a film director than a veteran political operator, worked on Howard Dean’s pioneering campaign and then for MoveOn.org. A brilliant online organizer, he was chief revenue officer for the Wikimedia Foundation before joining the Sanders campaign—whose success in raising money from small donors proved that relying on corporate funding is a choice, not a necessity.
Trent is younger and more solid; with his calm good humor, he’d be an asset in a bar fight. He also seems less self-conscious—at least here in his home state, where his familiar accent and easy manner soften the radicalism of his message. While both Trent and Exley share their audience’s acute frustration with the outcome of a campaign that came tantalizingly close to victory, they’re in Nashville not to mourn, but to organize.
Their pitch is simple: Even if Sanders had won the nomination, and then the election, his ability to effect change—to bring about the political revolution—would have been severely limited by a dysfunctional Congress in thrall to corporate interests. So why not harness the energy, enthusiasm, national organization, and fund-raising muscle of the Sanders volunteers to elect a brand-new Congress—all at once, in 2018—committed to the same platform of greater economic equality, climate justice, civil rights, criminal-justice reform, and fair trade? Why not elect a Congress that not only looks like us—more women, more people of color—but that will actually work for us instead of for lobbyists and special interests?