Last Saturday, my partner and I showed up an hour early to get ready for our Bernie 2020 Organizing Kickoff event. As we re-arranged tables and learned how to operate the ring of TVs in the back of a local pizza joint, I tried to ignore the nagging question that often creeps into an organizer’s head before an event: What if no one shows up?
Forty-five people had RSVP'd online, but with the standard flake rate of about 50% that is common for political gatherings, we expected a couple dozen, maybe 30. But as the line of people coming in to register filled the spacious entryway and backed up through the front door, it became clear that standard metrics for estimating attendance would not apply for the first official campaign event of Senator Bernie Sanders’ second run for president.
All told, at least 65 people attended, working and retired people of all ages and races from across the community. What was going on here? One thing was clear: a lot of important local organizing work had been done in 2016 (and afterwards) that set the foundation for 2020. We were essentially getting the band back together.
But we knew that couldn’t be the whole story.
The truth is that the Bernie 2020 campaign is being thoughtfully and deliberately designed to create an unprecedented grassroots movement driven by hundreds of thousands of volunteers – and that approach is already showing results.
The idea of running a campaign as a grassroots movement is not new for Sanders. He ran in 2016 with a similar message, repeatedly invoking the principle that real change never comes from the top-down, but always from the bottom-up and that it will take a “political revolution” to take on the billionaire class and transform our country for the benefit of ordinary working people.
But the campaign has taken this idea to the next level for 2020. In a recent interview on the campaign’s “Hear the Bern” podcast, Sanders said, “We have to be focused on building an unprecedented grassroots movement.” And during the Organizing Kickoff’s video broadcast, Bernie said, “So here’s the bottom line, we need put together the strongest grassroots movement in the history of politics.”
In the history of politics. Unprecedented. These words are being chosen carefully by Sanders not only to inspire the kind of momentum his campaign will need to win, but because they actually reflect the specifically mass-scale and distributed design of his campaign.
The centrality of this point was brought home later in the broadcast when the campaign’s National Organizing Director, Claire Sandberg took the mic. She started by recapping the extraordinary scope of the Organizing Kickoff.
“Right now, you’re participating in the largest distributed day of action ever in a presidential campaign,” Sandberg said. “Over 4,700 events are happening today all over the country and around the world… There are events in all 50 states and Puerto Rico and in 30 countries outside the US.”
Let that sink in. The Bernie 2020 organizing team, with the help of several thousand volunteers sending texts, making calls, and hosting events, have organized the largest distributed presidential campaign event ever – 19 months before the general election and in a primary field crowded with 19 other candidates. That is a baffling accomplishment that demonstrates the thoroughly grassroots nature and already unprecedented reach of Bernie’s campaign.
But of course, the Organizing Kickoff events were not simply ends in themselves, but a means to prepare tens of thousands of volunteer to start talking directly to voters. Sandberg explained, “Our strategy is simple. We are going to grow the largest grassroots electoral movement in history to talk to voters. We’re going to ask you to talk to people you know… and... people you don’t know.”
To enable this unprecedented grassroots electoral movement, the Bernie 2020 organizing team has launched a new app called BERN, which allows volunteers to track their outreach to friends and community members and to help build a decentralized database of potential Sanders supporters that can be utilized by the national campaign.
“Now, if you’ve ever volunteered for a presidential campaign before,” Sandberg said, “You know you only get the ability to start talking to voters in a systematic way if you live near a field office… But we want everyone to get started right now.”
The Sanders campaign is not waiting for field offices or paid field staff. No doubt they will have both in abundance, but no number of offices or field organizers can act as an adequate counterbalance to the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be spent against us by powerful special interests determined to undermine Sanders’ candidacy. We need nothing less than a political revolution made up of hundreds of thousands of volunteers and millions of supporters.
The BERN app, the grassroots organizing communities formed by the Organizing Kickoff events, and the robust national organizing team of staff and volunteers dedicated to supporting on-the-ground volunteers are among the key ingredients in the campaign’s recipe for generating that political revolution, for building an unprecedented grassroots electoral movement.
Over the course of this primary campaign, we are going to hear a lot of rhetoric from a lot of candidates about how they are “building a movement”. But for Senator Sanders and his team, this is not just an inspirational talking point, nor only a general assertion about the importance of electoral politics for getting people more democratically engaged (though that is also true). It is a statement about the unique character of this campaign and specific movement-based theory of change that undergirds that character: that the only way we can defeat both Donald Trump and the billionaires, millionaires, and corporations that dominate our society is by organizing massive numbers of everyday people to take collective action spreading the word and talking to voters about Bernie’s message, vision, and platform. Only then will we have the people power necessary not only to win the White House, but to enact the bold progressive agenda we desperately need to address the moral crises of our time.