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Bernie Must Retool His Campaign Organization, Not Dismantle It

Bernie Sanders has officially suspended his campaign, but its infrastructure is our best hope at organizing to win a just response to the coronavirus pandemic. Bernie can’t dismantle that infrastructure now — we need it more than ever.

Bernie Sanders at a March 2 rally in St Paul, Minnesota. Nikolas Liepins / Flickr

Bernie Sanders has ended his presidential campaign. What that means is less clear than it may appear at first blush. He will not be actively persuading voters to vote for him, and he concedes that it is all but impossible that he could beat Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination. But Bernie will remain on the ballot for upcoming primaries. People will continue to vote for him, and he will continue to collect delegates.

And, critically, a few hundred staff remain on payroll, according to a high-level staffer I spoke to. Most will soon likely be laid off (though the campaign will extend their health insurance benefits through October). But some staff should be retained and, along with the rest of the campaign organization we have built, be repurposed toward new ends.

The campaign has an opportunity to strongly influence US politics despite its suspension. Because the US left has no nationwide social-movement infrastructure that can match it, Bernie can and should keep the campaign organization together to fight for a just response to the coronavirus economic and public health crisis.

Taking “Not Me, Us” Seriously

Conventional presidential campaigns’ organization ends when the race for the presidency ends. But Sanders’s campaign has always been an unconventional one. And this is an utterly unconventional moment in US and world history.

Millions of Americans have built a campaign that is about a lot more than electing Bernie president. It’s a movement to transform American politics, economics, and society — what Bernie calls a political revolution. We have all built Bernie’s campaign infrastructure together.

That infrastructure offers an unparalleled vehicle for fighting for a just response to our massive public health and economic crises — a response that is opposed by most people in power, including Joe Biden.

Bernie can continue campaigning for the issues his candidacy was about, issues that are more urgent than ever: Medicare for All, good union jobs, a Green New Deal and green stimulus, and  strong social-welfare benefits. People deserve a good and secure life that doesn’t depend on an employer’s paycheck, particularly now that so many employers cannot or will not pay workers.

We need Bernie to enter the Democratic National Convention (DNC) with the maximum number of delegates so the Left can ensure maximum leverage over the future of Democratic Party politics. It’s not just about the party’s platform; it’s also about making permanent the reforms from the Unity Reform Commission — reforms that were won thanks to the strength of the 2016 campaign going into the convention that year — like limiting super delegates to the second ballot. Otherwise, those reforms might be scrapped, making it impossible for an insurgent candidate to ever get this close again.

But more than anything, we need Bernie to transform his campaign into a powerful movement organization.

He can announce that he’s using his staff, volunteers, and fundraising power to do something historic: remake his campaign’s organization into one that will outlast the campaign. He can rename the campaign to reflect the new mission: Bernie 2020 could become something new, with a name like “Not Me, Us.”

Ensuring They Can’t Ignore Us

Bernie has done incredible work communicating ideas about what a better world could look like, not only before the coronavirus explosion but especially after, including recent livestreams with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Pramila Jayapal, as well as public health officials like Abdul El-Sayed, to talk about what a just coronavirus response could look like.

What’s sorely lacking right now is the campaign muscle to organize for those ideas, to ensure that our demands cannot be ignored.

Bernie must not only keep collecting delegates but also reactivate and retool his campaign for the moment and for the movement that we urgently need. The Bernie campaign already has the movement infrastructure to do so: a powerful fundraising system, staff, and, most importantly, a huge volunteer leadership and base.

In addition to those few hundred people still on staff, it has, according to campaign sources, raised enormous sums from 2.1 million people, and roughly half a million people have volunteered for the campaign by canvassing, texting, phone banking, or doing some other task. There are 68,000 “super volunteers” in the Bernie Slack. Volunteers organized roughly 59,000 events out of an estimated 137,372 total campaign events. There are 2,720 Bernie “Victory Captains,” skilled volunteer cadre who can organize at a level typically reserved for campaign staff.

By comparison, DSA, one of the most important institutions on the American left, has more than sixty thousand members, a smaller number of whom are active, and the DSA national office has 21 staff. DSA, Sunrise, Justice Democrats, and Our Revolution all do important work. But none of them have the capacity to fill this void.

We Can’t Make Obama’s Same Mistake

I’m a volunteer leader in Rhode Island. We filled buses to New Hampshire, organized two rallies that drew large crowds, and knocked on doors across southeastern Massachusetts. We have built our organization with minimal help from national staff. We are, however, currently adrift.

This capacity for self-organization is the brilliance of the Bernie campaign, what makes it special. But we need the national campaign to take leadership and remobilize us so that we can do the same and remobilize our own substantial volunteer bases.

If the end of the Bernie campaign means the end of the campaign’s organization, the infrastructure for the movement that we need will go with it. We all built this infrastructure together, and we cannot let that happen.

The Left has long criticized the Obama campaign for demobilizing Organizing for America— it would be a shame if we repeated that mistake. To put it bluntly, Bernie has a responsibility to not make that mistake.

The question volunteers everywhere are asking themselves: we aren’t going to lose all of this, everything we built ourselves, are we? Can we keep the Slack and the systems and the programs, and just refocus to keep going?

I propose that the national campaign organize meetings with each state’s volunteer and (where it exists) staff leadership to develop organizing plans to confront the crisis. This should happen not only in states that haven’t yet voted, but in all states, including those that have already voted like California.

Alongside the national office, each state organization can work together on movement goals, including shaping the next rounds of stimulus in response to coronavirus. State-level, volunteer-led organizations could also decide to support down-ballot candidates for state and federal office.

We can form new partnerships with social movement organizations and labor unions. We can support the effort to support non-unionized workers recently launched by DSA and UE. Already, the campaign’s union members constituency organizing program has transitioned into a powerful workplace solidarity campaign.

There isn’t another network of volunteers and supporters on this scale that can mobilize to support workers demanding PPE, paid sick leave, shut downs of nonessential work, and safe working conditions. These efforts cannot be shut down. Workers’ lives quite literally depend on it.

Now or Never

Such a retooling would be an unprecedented move for a presidential campaign, because a normal presidential campaign is narrowly concerned with winning the presidency. But this campaign has always been an unconventional one, for which winning the presidency was just one piece of a bigger-picture struggle to change this country and the world.

This is Bernie’s decision to make. But this decision, like the campaign, does not belong to him alone. It belongs to all of us who built his campaign, who knocked on more doors than we could count and gave more money than we could probably afford and put everything in our lives on hold to throw everything we possibly could into getting Bernie elected. If this organization continues, I will gladly contribute $19 a month (at least) and continue to volunteer my time. I know that countless more will join me.

Though we fell short, we have already changed American politics forever. We can’t discard such a powerful organization now. In a time of such great need, it’s our best — and perhaps only — hope.