Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything

Dec 29, 2016 by


Frontline lessons from the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Photo Credit: Steven Rosenfeld

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign didn’t just defy conventional wisdom by mobilizing millions of Americans. Its organizers and activists rewrote the political playbook by situating the campaign as part of a massive, grassroots, volunteer-driven movement for social, racial and economic justice and real change. Becky Bond and Zack Exley were at the heart of the campaign’s extensive volunteer effort. They and legions of young and older supporters used a mix of digital tools to communicate, organize, inspire, track and turn out voters. They tell the story and the lessons of what worked, what didn’t and why, in their new book, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change EverythingBond and Exley spoke with AlterNet’s Don Hazen, Steven Rosenfeld and Ivy Olesen.

Don Hazen: Tell us how the book came about and what you really mean by revolution.

Becky Bond: We wrote this book over the course of five weeks in August and September. We felt it was really important to capture the lessons of how the big organizing that we were doing on the Bernie Sanders campaign could be used by social justice activists. We knew they would have too few resources and a huge job no matter who was going to be the president. We thought it was more likely that it would be Clinton at that point than Trump.

We felt these were things that needed to be in the hands of activists. These were lessons we learned. These are an in-progress set of rules. We felt it was really important to set up a new marker for what organizing could do based on what we had learned on the Bernie campaign. We did this really, really quickly because we thought after the election and before the inauguration would be an important time for organizing. It was awkward to write a book before the outcome of the election was known. Most people were shocked at the election of Donald Trump, but it’s something we always saw was possible, even if we didn’t expect it.

Don Hazen: Even though you thought it was possible, you’re still shocked?

Becky Bond: Yes, it’s stunning, we’re stunned. Zack, maybe you can expand on that or talk about this question of what we mean by revolution, and why we even thought about it in terms of rules for revolutionaries and how that falls now.

What’s a Revolution?

Zack Exley: I think what Bernie meant by political revolution was just electing a whole bunch of people who actually represent the people, and who will carry out the sweeping changes that are needed to get Americans back to working, with good jobs and for some communities to stop being terrorized by their own government.

Becky and I have always believed in that. When Bernie announced and said, We need a political revolution, and thousands of people started mobilizing right away and he started raising millions of dollars right away, I was so thrilled because of the good use of the word revolution. I had always thrown that word around and a lot of progressives had always chided me and said, Stop using that word, people are thinking about Stalin and Lenin when you say that.

It’s interesting how Bernie got away with that. Another thing, Republicans have been winning their kind of revolution for a long time now. They control 30 state legislatures and have 33 governors. They have their majority in Congress. They’ve been winning their revolution, and I don’t know, as horrible as it is to think about what Trump’s going to do, it’s also pretty unpleasant to think about what it would have been like to have Clinton in the White House, with virtually no power and yet getting all the blame. It would have been such fuel for a Republican revolution to continue because they would have been able to claim, that “if only we had the White House and more power in the Senate and a bigger majority then we’d be able to get something done.” I don’t know if that’s a very good point to make.

Steven Rosenfeld: It is and here’s why. You both write about how Bernie’s campaign attracted a lot of people who wanted to do something meaningful. But then it became hard to channel that energy. You wrote about how technology played a key role.

BB: One of the amazing things about working on the presidential primary was things were possible that haven’t been possible in previous cycles, in part because of the technology. That’s the state of consumer technology, but also how bad things are for the American people.

We actually saw consumer technology that wasn’t available before like Slack and Google Apps and Trello, which allowed supporters to work together. They weren’t just connected to us. They were connected to each other. They weren’t connected to each other inside this proprietary software that the campaign controlled, they were connected to each other in free Slack teams, some of which were run by the campaign, some of which they set up in their own cities and Facebook groups. They had all their tools and scripts and documents in Google Apps which they had access to download and use and copy and put to other things. We couldn’t stop them from pursuing things.

DH: That sounds revolutionary.

BB: We couldn’t stop them even if we wanted to. That’s the beauty of it. They’re connected to each other and that’s why they’re continuing to work together. Millennials for Revolution is a really good example of that, which was it came out of Millennials for Bernie Sanders. It started as a Facebook group associated with People for Bernie Sanders and it became this big very active social media group that also pushed people to take action in real life.

After the campaign they renamed themselves Millennials for Revolution. Now they’re planning hundreds of millennial marches in connection with the inauguration. There’s no relationship to the campaign, campaign staff, to Bernie Sanders’ senate office or anything like that. They were organized for Bernie, now they’re continuing to organize for their causes that they care about and they can continue to do that.


DH: While you’re mentioning millennials, there’s a map we’ve seen that indicates if only millennials had voted, Hillary would have won 48 of the 50 states or something like that.

BB: Millennials did come out and vote. Millennials did come out and they voted overwhelmingly for Clinton as that map showed. The problem wasn’t the millennial vote, the problem was….

DH: Were there enough of them compared to Obama’s vote?

BB: It’s almost like putting it on any one group, you guys have to show up 100% or else we’re going to blame it on you, right? You know what I mean? People say the same thing about the African-American vote. They say the same thing about the Latino vote. The voter turnout was suppressed across all demographics for Clinton. In fact, voter turnout was suppressed in some ways for Trump

I think there was an issue with the fact that the Clinton campaign did not have a robust millennial turnout program nor a campus program that registered at all and they left that essentially to third parties. For example, NextGen Climate and Tom Steyer’s operation registered 80,000 students, 80,000 millennials in Pennsylvania alone. They collected 100,000 commit-to-vote pieces of paper on campuses in Pennsylvania.

The Clinton campaign relegated that to third parties. We don’t know what would have happened if there had been a more rigorous effort. She wasn’t talking about the issues that young people cared about, and yet to expect them to overperform relative to other voting demographics…There’s this weird blaming of millennials that I don’t really understand in this election. I think some of it comes out of the media crossfire of the Democratic primary where they became this narrative that millennials were naive and that they were takers. They just wanted free stuff and they didn’t understand what the candidates were talking about. Even [Clinton campaign manager] Robby Mook said at the Kennedy School debrief a few weeks ago that sort of thing; blaming it on young people who didn’t get it.

In reality, the under-26 millennials I found on the campaign were an incredibly practical, incredibly hard-working demographic. These are young people that came of age during the financial crisis 2007, 2008. Many of them had been from downwardly middle-class homes. Instead of being tracked to a four-year college they’re being tracked to community college or having to take time off and work instead of going to college at all.

Zack Exley: There was a CNN panel interviewing these 20 millennials and the host’s assumption was they were spoiled brats who don’t care about politics. The number one thing that kept coming up was, “How am I going to take care of my parents when I’m older because they’ve lost their incomes and they’re having trouble staying in their house. I’m afraid I’m not even going to be able to make as much money as they made.” Then the commentator was like, “Oh man, I never thought about how I was going to take care of my parents. When did that become a thing again?” There were mostly white middle-class students.

Becky Bond: The younger millennials who volunteered for Bernie, and then many of whom also continued on to work to try and defeat Trump, they’re incredibly diverse. They’re digitally native but they’re really hard working. They really got out of social media and into the streets and into the real world. They really got into voter contact, the knocking on doors, making phone calls. There is a radical practicality of this generation. When people say that they’re naive or they don’t know and then they’re described as takers, they’re missing the point. Young people get that they are inheriting a climate crisis. They understand that we can’t solve income and equality until we address structural racism. They understand that the immigration reform on the table is far short of what we need, even in the Democrats’ plans.

They’re described as idealistic, but they’re practical because they understand the only way they’re going to deal with these urgent crises is with solutions that are as radical as the problems that we face. It’s very important to keep them in politics and move them into leadership because otherwise clearly with the leadership we have—I mean there’s a crisis of competency in the Democratic Party and in the progressive movement. We need to switch out a lot of people who are running our institutions. I think we need to switch them out with some of these people who are under 26.

The Sanders Campaign

Steve Rosenfeld: The book talks about how to bring people into positions of responsibility despite the resistance from headquarters. These are people who don’t have titles, but end up making things happen.

ZE: In some ways it was a very traditional campaign and that’s true. In some parts of the campaign that was good because the traditional model, at least traditional as of the Obama campaign, is really the way to go. For example, our advance team was amazing and the leader of the team was from the Obama advance team. They did such an amazing job running those huge rallies. Also in Iowa and New Hampshire, it was a great field operation run by two amazing field leaders.

Our part of the campaign was on the fringe. It was called the Distributed Organizing Team, although sometimes our bosses would mispronounce it as the Distributive Team, like that math property. That gives you an idea of just how central either we were seen as being or not.

We were doing this experimental thing on the fringe of the campaign. In the beginning we had 46 states in which we were doing this experiment. It was all the later primary states where there was no staff on the ground. Some of those states became staffed later on. But because we were off on the side doing our own thing, we really were free to bring in all those new people—thousands and thousands of volunteers into a really new way of organizing.

That was our mission from the very beginning. We knew what we were doing. I have worked on presidential campaigns in the past and Becky had done some amazing pioneering work with Credo Super PAC where they mobilized a great many volunteers for national campaigns. We had this kind of fully formed idea of what we wanted to do. We didn’t really have many resources to build a team in the beginning or in the end, but that was okay because the whole point of what we were trying to do was to mobilize volunteers.screen_shot_2016-12-21_at_2-47-45_pm

Only a volunteer-powered movement can scale to 46 states. A mostly volunteer campaign is not how to win Iowa. Of course there’s going to be a lot of volunteers participating, but the core of your operation in Iowa, in a relatively small state, is going to be paid staff. When you’re looking at trying to build something that’s actually going to accomplish something fast across 46 states including, states like New York and California and Texas, it has to be volunteer-led and has to be a volunteered-powered operation.

Volunteers Will Make the Revolution

SR: A traditional campaign has a staff, but a movement has volunteers…

Becky Bond: Another way to think about it is the challenges that we face are so big right now that we just can’t take the staff that we have in the progressive movement and actually run something that will be large enough to overcome the huge obstacles that are in our way, now that we have Trump and a cabinet filled with all these billionaires and generals. We could be on the verge of martial law, right? I even can’t underestimate how bad things are.

We had this presidential candidate who had this amazing message that people responded to and who was an authentic messenger that people really could trust. We had 3% name recognition in the beginning and how is he going to win the Democratic primary for the presidency against Hillary Clinton, who had every single donor, every single endorsement, had locked up all of the top staff?

The only way that we thought Bernie was going to have a chance was getting so many people involved that the campaign was driven by volunteers. I think we’re really facing a similar situation now with the president-elect Trump and with the people he’s putting in charge of huge parts of the government. It’s going to take a huge number of people, not just the people who already are involved doing it smarter and having a better strategy or being more coordinated. We need way more people. How does that happen? One idea is to actually let all the people who are just waiting to be asked to do something big, to let them take on responsibility that’s in scale to their skill and desire to be involved.

One of things we learned too on the campaign was people are so talented and committed that if you actually give them control and there’s a strategy that makes sense to them, it will get us from the world where we are to the world where we want to be. They’ll take on any number of tasks. We went from people writing music and software and holding bake sales and doing honk-and-waves, all this creative energy for Bernie’s campaign and we told them, “How you’re going to help us win is by getting involved in voter contact in the key states at scale.” Most of them switched to working together on the plan. I think part of it there needs to be plans that are big in scope, that people can participate in it to scale.

DH: How do you translate the energy and talent of Bernie’s campaign to what’s needed now?

BB: Zack, do you want to talk about Brand New Congress? That’s one thing.

Brand New Congress

Zack Exley: The Brand New Congress is a campaign that I’m working on with a bunch of volunteers that came out of Bernie and some other places. It’s trying to follow through on the idea of revolution we talked about earlier. The goal is swapping the people who are in government out with people who actually represent the people. We really believe people want to work on something big. They want to put their time into something big and worthwhile that will actually fix everything.

The target of Brand New Congress is to run 400 candidates in a block and with one campaign organization behind one plan to fix America and rebuild the economy, reform the criminal justice system, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It’s an audacious idea, but what we found in the Bernie campaign is we just ran into so many volunteers who are already thinking about this. They were saying, Well, when Bernie gets elected, he’s not going to be able to get anything done with this Congress, and there’s all those state legislatures out there redistricting and making it harder and harder, so we just need to keep going and take over everything. We said okay, and again, so many professional progressives have just not been willing to think on any kind of scale like that because we’ve been getting beaten.

But so many Bernie volunteers, so many people who became world-class leaders in the Bernie campaign in their cities and doing all kinds of stuff, they’re ready for something this big. That’s why we’re going for this.

DH: Let me pivot here. Zack, in your In These Times piece, you raised the question, ‘Why hasn’t the progressive movements’ leadership brought about the radical shakeup that the country needs?’ You argue there should be an overthrow of the non-profit foundation-industrial complex. One of your principles is the revolution will not be foundation-funded. How does this take place?

ZE: We don’t think that just because you take money from a foundation that you’re tainted and bad and incompetent. Revolutionaries used to rob banks…

DH: They had no obligation to the bank if they robbed it, correct?

ZE: Well, not necessarily. If you believe in what you’re doing and are going to stand by your principles, you can take money from a foundation, as long as you’re prepared, and as long as you set up your structure so that you’re not creating massive dependencies. Also, there are a lot of great radicals in foundations. If you feel like you can do your work and take some money from foundations, fine.

To your example, you didn’t owe anything to the bank, but you had to run for your life and stay undercover after you robbed a bank. You’re left with a lot more room to maneuver and operate if you just take a foundation grant. We’re not purists on this, but I don’t think that we need to overthrow the progressive establishment.

BB: There are a couple of points. One is to say basically what that we’re doing now is not good enough. Obviously we need way more organizing. That’s not happening with the structure we have, which has become over the decades more and more foundation dependent and more professionalized. Right? It’s not saying that all that needs to shut down, but it’s just saying that we need other things happening.

That’s something that we’ve learned from the Bernie campaign, and can be seen in efforts like the anti-fracking movement. When you align incentives and the base is actually paying for the efforts, what the organizers spend their time on and what they tend to maximize is participation. Right? As opposed to having to spend their time chasing down the big money, which may or may not be like, “I’ll only fund efforts in this state,” or “I can only fund you to work for regulations on fracking, but not a ban.” That sort of thing becomes a barrier to all of your energy, and all the energy of your members and to work that moves the cause forward.

If you have a big vision but can’t build a base of people who are willing to support it, you won’t have a mass participation movement behind that vision. You’ll need to pursue that idea in a different way, or drop it and follow someone else who is getting more traction. The Bernie campaign was able to go up against the establishment and go up against the conventional political wisdom because we were small-dollar funded. Too many people wait to get started until they can raise the foundation money, or set up the organization or pursue ideas that go beyond their usefulness because they have this funding, and they don’t have to be responsive to more people. We need more member-driven, small-dollar funded, movement-oriented organization. We’ve got a robust institutional sector, but we don’t have the same kind of structure that supports mass participation. Some of that has to do with where the money comes from.

Race Matters

DH: While we’re on a controversial area, can we talk about race? One of the things I found striking and positive about the book was your core principle that race has to be part of all the decision-making processes. Clearly, race was a problem for Bernie for reasons that were mostly not his fault, but he had to learn along the way how to deal with groups like Black Lives Matter.

After the election, there is still some controversy as he’s talking about what is political correctness. He’s trying to communicate to white voters, in some ways maybe validating their feelings, even though they may be displaced. How do you experience all of this?

BB: To be really clear, we’re not speaking for or as part of Bernie’s team, but as part of the movement. Bernie wasn’t the movement. Bernie was in this movement. We are in the movement. Clearly over the course of the campaign, the campaign got better and better at including more people and at reaching more people with a motivating message and at prioritizing so that everybody could bring their full selves to the movement. What we were working on was going to help everybody.

In the beginning, we were getting younger voters of color, but the campaign struggled in the early states to reach older, specifically African-American voters, but also older voters in general, and include them in the conversation. We had to basically get people to know who Bernie was and then understand what his message was and persuade them to bring them into the campaign. That was a big task. By the end of the campaign, those numbers were going up. If we had started earlier or had more time, then we could have continued to improve on that.

After the campaign was over, one of the things that Zack and I did was we looked at what black leaders and intellectuals said about the campaign, many of who personally supported Bernie, but who had a critique of the campaign. That specific critique is less important than what some of these really thoughtful black leaders and intellectuals had to say about race, which was if a campaign is going to be successful and include everybody, then fighting racism has to be part of the core message to everybody, not just added on for a specific constituency. If we’re truly going to be in this together, and it is going to take all of us, because we have to have a majority to win. It’s not a question of adding up all the little constituency subsets until we get to 50 plus one.

We actually have to work together and be in this together to win, and then we’re going to have to win majorities, not just to win the White House, but to win back Congress and win back statehouses. Everybody has to be not just included, but everyone has to be part of this movement that we’re in together.

Heather McGhee and Ian Haney Lopez wrote this article while the campaign was still going on in The Nation, pulling a lot on Ian Haney Lopez’s book Dog Whistle Politics, where it talks about how the billionaire class has used race to divide working people. This has been going on for decades. This has to be part of the analysis. This isn’t something that happens in some back room in some campaign office. It has to be shared with everybody because everyone is going to have to understand where we are, what the plan is to get to where we need to be, and then what their work is to be part of that. It’s not honing down on the two messages to be said on TV to fool people into being with us.

Also, you can’t have fighting racism as part of the core message to everyone if you don’t have a diverse leadership. That’s been something that the progressive movement has just largely failed to do, with some exceptions. Not just a token representation, but working-class people of color and immigrants in the inner circle, part of making decisions, as campaigns get built. While we had a lot of amazing surrogates on the campaign, people like Nina Turner, people like Keith Ellison. People like Rosario Dawson. Dozens, really too many to name.

We had some of the most amazing Dreamers on the campaign, too, that really made a difference in terms of how we were able to gain a larger and larger share of the Latino vote week by week. But this has to be part of how campaigns are built. It’s multiracial working-class representation in leadership and putting racism as part of the core message to everybody, not just something that is only given to one constituency. And white people have to take responsibility for persuading and educating white voters to share in this analysis, so we can all work together because there is just no other way to win what we need to win.

There is no other way forward. I’m very grateful to people who laid this out very clearly and with confidence but also with love. I also am really hopeful about the younger generation of volunteers. They get this. So I’m very hopeful about the ability for campaigns to look more like this in the future and for us to learn from where we fell short because I think it’s important to admit that we fell short, even though we improved throughout the campaign.

Bernie Bros

Ivy Olesen: There was a gender dimension too. You wrote about people projecting on you, and the feminine erasure of being called a ‘Bernie bro’ and what that means.

BB: I do want to say that the campaign that happened in person was really different from the campaign as it was portrayed on social media and in the media. I’ll give you one example. I was talking to Moumita Ahmed, who was one of the leaders of Millennials for Bernie Sanders, who’s from Queens. She’s Muslim, she’s a working-class democratic socialist. We were talking about a news report that came out from Massachusetts, where Clinton was talking about young people, and said you can’t blame them for voting for Bernie and not understanding that the Clinton campaign was fighting for things that were big in the context of what was possible. One of the things that Hillary said was they were living in their parents’ basements, and they have to work as baristas. My interpretation of that was that Clinton was trying to understand why young people supported Bernie, and they were going to vote for her, but they were not putting the same kind of work into her campaign.

But Moumita said to me, “No, I find it really upsetting she said that, because time after time after time, I’ve found myself and other young women of color who have been leading so many of the efforts on the ground, first for Bernie Sanders and then for the Democratic platform, we feel so erased. You know who lives in the basement of their parents’ homes? It’s white guys. Guys live in the basement. Girls don’t live in the basement.” This is someone who is one of the leaders of the youth movement for Bernie. So many of the nationally recognized leaders were actually young women of color. In place after place I saw, the volunteers on the ground tended to be much more diverse, in terms of ethnicity and in terms of class, than the voting base and how the media portrayed it.

IO: Didn’t that happen to you? You’re a woman was attacked as a Bernie bro?

Becky Bond: I just wanted to set some context, which is that there was this media narrative of aggressive white Bernie bros and that was reinforced by the Clinton supporters on social media. These were fights about people that were actually not the same ones doing the organizing in their communities because this was an existential fight for them. In fact, our best volunteers leading efforts on the ground and managing other volunteers were almost always working-class women of color. I think there’s just a misconception of the Bernie movement in that. The media really did not represent very well that which was a huge part of our daily experience on the campaign, especially when it came to volunteers.

This is the same idea that people don’t want to do something small to win something small, but they’re willing to do something big to win something big. This idea of revolution, it really appealed to them, that actually if enough of us got together, we could actually change who was in government, and then actually get some things done. This idea of changing everything and it being a political revolution because we’re going to do it by voting in a peaceful way was really important.

I saw Clinton surrogates say they came from countries where having revolution is a negative thing. But people are smart. They understood what we meant by a political revolution. They were engaged in the biggest voter contact machine ever built in a presidential primary because they saw that this was the way they were going to change things, even though it was unlikely, even though it was the longest of long shots. But it was the thing that was worth pursuing, given how urgent and how huge our problems are as a country, and how few politicians in power actually seem to recognize and connect to how bad things are and how big the changes are that we really need.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights, campaigns and elections, and many social justice issues. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).

Ivy Olesen is an editorial assistant in AlterNet’s office in Berkeley, CA.

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