is the Sanders campaign a movement?

My friend Micah Sifry has a must-read article in The Nation entitled “How the Sanders Campaign Is Reinventing the Use of Tech in Politics.” He interviews two key staffers, Zack Exley and Becky Bond, who reveal a lot about the way their campaign has engaged its supporters.

I’ve written before about an oscillation: campaigns go back and forth between using technology to empower volunteers and accumulating Big Data to make their centralized outreach efforts more precise. Bond is explicit about which direction the Sanders campaign wants to move:

We’re shifting the focus away from a small number of sophisticated data and technologists engaged in a kind of Election Day arbitrage that ekes out incremental advantages by using micro-targeting algorithms to identify and turn out voters based on a model. Instead, we’re putting hundreds of thousands of volunteers to work, and in some states have literally called every single voter who will pick up the phone to identify everyone who supports Bernie or is undecided. Then we have other volunteers persuade the undecideds and turn out those who indicated support.

The article repeatedly describes the campaign as a “movement.” For instance, Exley says, “When Claire and I first arrived at the campaign, we knew that a movement was already way out ahead of the campaign. We believed it was our job to set up structures and tools to … help grow the movement.” A campaign fueled by volunteer hours and small donations that encourages its activists to recruit and lead certainly has a movement “feel.” But what would qualify the Sanders campaign as an actual movement–or as part of one?

Some would say that it’s already a movement because it has engaged a lot of fired-up people in unpaid political activity. Exley describes “a massive volunteer organization that’s making more than 1 million calls every day right now, knocking on countless doors and doing so much more.” Those accomplishments are typical of big, grassroots-based campaigns–not only partisan electoral campaigns but also bursts of grassroots energy in civil society. According to the late Charles Tilly and his colleagues, such campaigns are components or activities of social movements. But one campaign–even a large one–does not itself constitute a social movement.

Others would say that Sanders is part of a movement because he belongs to a loose, evolving, open network of academics, cultural figures, union leaders, organizers, and a few politicians that originated in the New Left and that supports democratic socialism in the United States. Not only is that network called a movement, but it is sometimes called The Movement–as in, “I grew up in the movement, you know,” or “I got to know Bernie through the movement back in the ’70s.”

I personally do not identify with this network, in part because I haven’t done anything worthy of admission to it and in part because my actual political beliefs are too eclectic. (I am not sure you can love Hayek and be in The Movement.) But I’ve known and admired bono fide participants all my adult life. The questions are … Does this strain of political thought and activism really qualify as a movement, even as it has spanned multiple decades? Has it shown enough signs of motion to be a movement? And how much of a movement activist is Senator Sanders? My sense is that he has been a solo voice on important issues, but not much of a movement-builder. He is not known for training organizers or leading organizations. As a voice and a vote in the Senate, he may be an asset to the movement–much like a noted author or musician who supports the cause–but I’m not sure he’s a movement person.

His campaign could nevertheless be an important episode in a movement that spans a longer time horizon and that has many more leaders than Bernie Sanders. It’s too early to say whether that’s the case, because everything depends on what happens after the 2016 election.

Another question is what movement his campaign is part of, if it turns out to be part of a movement at all. Sanders’ own roots are in ’60s-style US-based democratic socialism (see the Port Huron Statement), but other currents are feeding his campaign. Bond says, “First of all, I want to take this opportunity to say that the movement to defend black lives is fundamentally changing the terrain of social-change organizing. After recognizing that, yes, the young people and working-class folks, many of whom are from communities of color, who are leading the movement behind Bernie Sanders as volunteers on the ground are changing American politics.” That comment sounds somewhat aspirational to me–Sanders would be closer to the nomination if he had engaged the Black Lives Matter movement more effectively. But a large coalition could still form after his campaign concludes. Influenced in part by Tilly, I’d look for these features as evidence that a movement is afoot:

  • A set of campaigns–such as the Sanders presidential run and the civil disobedience in cities like Ferguson–that gain rather than lose momentum over a span of years and that look increasingly interrelated.
  • A characteristic repertoire of political acts, which might encompass everything from viral “memes” on social media to people shutting down highways.
  • A diverse, not completely consonant, yet overlapping and interacting set of prominent leaders, some involved in politics and some outside of it.
  • Cultural manifestations, such as very popular music in support of the cause.
  • A set of increasingly specific demands that begin to be implemented by major institutions.

See also: questions for the social movement post Ferguson.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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