Sen. Bernie Sanders is all but certain to never run for president again. So what happens to the massive army that formed around him across two presidential campaigns to render him the most formidable force in online campaigning and fundraising on the left?
Sanders’s mantra was “not me, us,” and now, the “us” is taking up his mantle.
Sanders has served as the North Star for progressives in recent years, but his exit from the presidential race does not mean the energy behind him disappeared. Now, his supporters, volunteers, and even staff are branching off to focus on advancing an array of progressive issues, many of which Sanders helped bring to the forefront of the political conversation in America, such as Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal.
“It was never Bernie’s army,” said Tyson Brody, former research director for the Sanders campaign. “It was the army that got behind Bernie.”
And post-Bernie, you can see that army appearing in a lot of places.
Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-MA) embrace of the Green New Deal drew him support from internet-savvy organizers and volunteers, demonstrating it’s not just Sanders who can capture meme magic on the left. The climate-focused Sunrise Movement, which officially launched in 2017 with a plan to back candidates focused on combating climate change, is emerging as an increasingly powerful force on the left, making hundreds of thousands of calls for progressive congressional challengers, such as Jamaal Bowman and Charles Booker.
Sunrise and other youth activist groups, many of which credit Sanders as an inspiration, have launched a collective effort to organize young people before and after the election to push for progressive change. And the Working Families Party, which backed Elizabeth Warren in 2020 and Sanders in 2016, has launched a “people’s charter” policy framework for rebuilding the country after November, and key progressive leaders and groups have signed it.
After suspending his presidential bid in April, Sanders has also leveraged his platform to get Joe Biden elected president and to draw attention to down-ballot races and causes Sanders cares about. And he is already positioning himself to continue to push his priorities forward once the election is over.
In recent weeks, I spoke with 20 organizers, leaders, and strategists on the left about what’s happening in the online progressive movements that formed to support Sanders’s presidential bids and where they believe things are headed. What emerged is a picture of a policy-driven, tech-savvy cohort with enormous energy that doesn’t begin or end with Sanders. It may lack some cohesion, but that’s not necessarily a significant weakness.
“For a lot of [progressive activists], we haven’t had a chance to conceptualize an organizing ethos that is not structured around a presidential candidate,” said Mattias Lehman, digital director of Sunrise. After all, before there was Sanders, there was Barack Obama. “It feels very freeing. It allows us to move into a lot of political organizing that is outside the realm of presidential politics.”
When Bernie said, “Not me, us,” he meant it
Sanders’s campaign committee, dubbed Friends of Bernie Sanders, has gotten smaller, but it continues to operate. Its goal is to keep his base and volunteers engaged and put his platform to use — and it’s an important one, given not only Sanders’s stature but also the fact that the pandemic has pushed politics even more online.
No one else on the left — not even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is still building out her operation — really rivals his reach. Much of AOC’s online influence is less formal and is still based on her ability to fire off a viral tweet or shoot an Instagram Live video from home. According to data from social media content tracker NewsWhip, Sanders’s posts on Facebook have generated tens of millions more interactions on Facebook than Ocasio-Cortez over the past month, and he posts much more often than she does.
Sanders has reactivated his campaign’s volunteer Slack, which has tens of thousands of people in it and was an important place for it to engage volunteers during the primary, and he’s invited representatives from different campaigns and groups to the channel to recruit volunteers for their own causes. His volunteers are also texting voters on behalf of local candidates.
“We don’t want to lose all that great energy that went into electing Bernie,” said Georgia Parke, digital communications director and press secretary for the campaign committee.
Sanders has endorsed many candidates and groups, including Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones, Ilhan Omar, AOC, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, and tapped into his grassroots fundraising network to help many of them raise money.
“The reality is he still has a huge audience; he still has a huge amount of followers on social media. So there’s no reason not to use that audience and continue to engage them with content that goes along with the senator’s message,” said Armand Aviram, a senior media producer for Sanders.
Those who work with Sanders say he is still closely involved in his digital operation. In late September, Sanders hosted a live stream event focused on races in Texas. It featured former presidential candidates and Texas politicians Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro as well as four local candidates — three for Congress, one for district attorney. His team continues to push out videos about President Trump, health care, and a variety of other controversial issues that engage people. “For the same reason that Trump does well on social media, Bernie can do things that lend themselves well to a viral video,” Aviram said.
“It’s never one cycle, it’s never one campaign, and the fact that we didn’t win does not mean that we’re not going to stop trying to help people and to use the tools and the stuff that we have available to us online to keep pushing these policies and make a better future and a better life for people,” Parke said. “Every campaign we ran, there were thousands more people who were waking up to politics for the first time, getting active for the first time, donating for the first time — and there’s so much value in that.”
For some outside groups dedicated to Sanders’s White House run, like a grassroots Slack channel called Connect With Bernie and an online group called the People for Bernie Sanders, the road ahead is less clear. Both have lost active members and some steam since Sanders lost the primary this spring.
“We keep on saying to ourselves that we need to talk about what’s going to happen after the election. It’s weird to have such a successful page named after a candidate who’s never running for president again. Do we want to be a successful publishing page on social media? Or do we want to be a political operation that has goals that we can point to?” said Charles Lenchner, one of the co-founders of People for Bernie.
Other campaigns have been able to pick up where Sanders left off
Presidential campaigns and primaries in particular tend to suck all of the air out of the room when it comes to political attention. But once the 2020 Democratic presidential primary ended, there were still a lot of engaged, energized people backing Sanders who were looking for a place to direct their attention.
“I don’t think that you have an online following that is engaged that just disappears overnight,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at progressive pollster Data for Progress. “The question would be who can come around and pick them up — either encourage them to start doing more coalition work or just direct their frustration at the party in productive ways.”
Waleed Shahid, communications director at Justice Democrats, a group that backs progressive primary candidates in an effort to pull the Democratic Party further left, said he believes that candidates such as Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush ousted incumbents in their primaries in part because of momentum from Sanders’s campaign. (Sanders also endorsed both candidates.) That is likely true for candidates who had primaries in the spring and summer, including Mondaire Jones, who won his congressional primary in New York.
“A lot of people felt heartbroken when [Bernie] dropped out and sort of looked to other candidates that shared his values, and I think a lot of those folks were excited to use that energy and passion to support someone who they saw as having a similar message,” said Hannah Nayowith, Jones’s campaign manager.
In Ed Markey, young progressives found another old white guy to love
The figure who has best been able to tap into the progressive energy once directed at Sanders’s campaign is Sen. Ed Markey. The 74-year-old Massachusetts Democrat faced a tough primary challenge from Joe Kennedy this election cycle, and for much of the race, he was expected to lose — until the kids stepped in to help.
“For most of these young people, they knew Ed Markey and thought he was cool because he was AOC’s friend,” John Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager, explained. Markey introduced the Green New Deal in the Senate, and while his record isn’t perfectly progressive, he leaned into the parts of it that are and embraced progressive policies during the primary.
Soon, Markey had a cohort of stans who believe it’s cool to support the milkman’s son from Massachusetts. One group, Students for Markey, focused more on field outreach. Another group — a Twitter account called @edsreplyguys — got to work on making Markey relatable through memes. “Because we were unaffiliated, we had a lot of freedom to post what we wanted, whenever we wanted,” said Emerson Toomey, one of the college students behind the account.
Were these grassroots, online-organizing supporters the only reason Markey won? Of course not. But it did help resuscitate his campaign. And the efforts can also provide a blueprint for candidates going forward. These young, engaged progressives care about policy, such as climate and health care, and if politicians are willing to commit to what they care about, they’ll back them up.
“The secret is there are actually a lot of Ed Markeys in Congress, and if you can get people to embrace the progressive side of themselves that they’ve been told for 30 years they shouldn’t show to people ... then the progressive movement doesn’t just have to elect the AOCs and the Jamaal Bowmans,” said Josh Miller-Lewis, the former digital communications director for Sanders. “You can actually grow much faster by electing the Ed Markeys of the world.”
Markey shows that politicians don’t have to be pure in their political history to gain progressive groups’ trust. They just need to be committed — and it doesn’t hurt if they can go viral, as Markey did days before the Massachusetts primary.
“Their litmus test, if you will, is a level of fearlessness that they feel. Are you willing to say the thing that other people are not?” Walsh said.
To be sure, political campaigns are not the only places that some of the post-Sanders attention and work are going. Democratic Socialists of America, which saw an increase in membership after the 2016 election, has added members in 2020 as well. And there are newer organizations, such as Sunrise and Justice Democrats, eager to take up the mantle. Some people I spoke with also observed that the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted over the summer absorbed progressive energy as well.
The protests were a particularly important way for people of color to channel their focus, many of whom had long been organizing for racial justice. “Things felt very dismal for a little while, and having a non-electoral cause to organize around, again, after having those roots initially, I think for a lot of people was very grounding,” Lehman, from Sunrise, said.
“I thought he would have won, and I still do.”
Bernie Sanders wasn’t the beginning of the American left, and he won’t be the end of it. But his two presidential campaigns leveraged the power of the internet to help change the political conversation in the US. He, along with Elizabeth Warren, built an enormous platform that helped train a new generation of activists and inspired fellow politicians who will take the lead, such as Ocasio-Cortez.
“The way I look at it, four years ago, there was only Bernie Sanders, and now there is a whole array of progressive leaders,” said Stevie O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for Sunrise. “When Sunrise was started, there was no AOC, there was no Rashida [Tlaib], there was no Jamaal Bowman. Ed Markey was not talking about socialism. I don’t see [Sanders’s failure] as a loss; I see it as a huge step forward for the left because now we have dozens and dozens of leaders in Congress and all over the country who are ready to carry the torch forward.”
Of course, this wasn’t possible without some battles — tensions between Sanders and Warren in the 2020 presidential primaries divided some progressives online.
But after both candidates ended their bids, most of their supporters have set aside their conflicts.
“Some of that beef is way more of a beef with the online left than the offline left. You might see more of that on Twitter than actually exists with people who are always doing organizing,” Shahid said.
The “people’s charter” put forth by the Working Families Party, which backed Warren in the primary, has been signed onto by Sunrise, which backed Sanders. “We have different strategies, we have different bases, but at the end of the day, it’s going to take all of us to get anything that we want achieved on every level of office in this country,” said Nelini Stamp, national organizing director for WFP. “That means us coming together, and it also means us pushing forward.”
None of this is to say that the post-Sanders left isn’t fractious, or that there isn’t disagreement. Despite the “Bernie or bust” trope of “Bernie bros” who in 2016 supposedly wouldn’t vote for anyone but Sanders, in 2020, the vast majority of Sanders supporters are backing Biden. Admittedly, for some, it’s more of an anti-Trump sentiment than it is pro-Joe.
“There’s a danger that one part of this online coalition is going to go into an even more fringe direction, but I think by and large, the mass of people ... are still there, still have the same beliefs,” said Bhaskar Sunkara, publisher of socialist magazine Jacobin.
While online progressives may no longer have a specific person they’re organizing around, they do have policies, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all. They are policies Sanders helped put front and center in American politics.
The historic movement Sanders built came close to capturing the Democratic nomination for the White House, even though he ultimately failed.
“It shows both the powers and limitations of being an extremely popular online candidate,” Brody said. “I think it carried Bernie a long way. It did for a lot of us, but it didn’t, obviously, carry us over the top.”
Shahid compared the Sanders left to the Barry Goldwater right in 1964 — the Arizona senator lost his race back then, but the ideas and people who came out of his campaign shaped the Republican Party in the years to come. “Over time, these organizers and strategists and operatives will become a greater and greater influence in the party because the future of the party looks a lot more like AOC than it does Joe Biden,” Shahid said.
Take, for example, Aidan King, who was working at a Vermont vineyard in 2013 when he cofounded the Sanders for President channel on Reddit. The subreddit became a powerhouse of grassroots support for Sanders and raised millions of dollars for his campaign. King, who has no formal political training, is now a professional digital strategist. He worked for Sanders’s campaign in 2016 and 2020, and he is now the digital lead of electoral campaigns for Greenpeace.
“It was never just about [Sanders]. He was never going to pretend and claim that if he got elected, he could wave a magic wand and get rid of all the country’s problems,” King says. “It was more about showing disenfranchised people and cynical people — and I was one of them — … that ‘Hey, no, it can be better, things can be good, we can force progress if we fight hard enough.’”
To be sure, not everyone is staying in it — David Fredrick, who founded the Sanders for President subreddit with King, has basically quit social media since the primary.
“I’d already been demoralized, and by the time this came around, the level of toxicity that was coming at me was coming out of me, too,” Fredrick said. “I sleep much better now.”
King acknowledged it might be better for his mental and physical health if he took a break from electoral politics.
“I thought he would have won, and I still do. I don’t know; it is what it is,” King said at the end of our conversation. “If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll pick a winning ticket one of these days.”