Bad Omens for Bernie's Political Revolution

His efforts to champion progressive grassroots activism have been troubled so far.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Bernie Sanders wants to prove his political movement won’t end now that his presidential campaign is over—and so far, it’s not going very well. An organization set up to carry on his legacy, Our Revolution, has faced legal scrutiny in the press, and a number of key staffers have departed. Meanwhile, Tim Canova, the candidate Sanders endorsed as a challenger to former Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, may be defeated badly in Florida’s upcoming Democratic primary race. Instead of unity and progressive victory, the next phase of the political revolution may be marked by bitterness and disappointment.

Canova certainly seems to feel like reality hasn’t lived up to his expectations. “There are a lot of people who feel disappointed,” he told me in an interview on Wednesday, lamenting that Sanders has not campaigned with him ahead of next week’s primary, despite publicly flirting with the idea. “There are a lot of people in South Florida who wanted Bernie Sanders to come down.”

The Florida primary will be a high profile test of Sanders’s ability to help progressive candidates win. Many Sanders supporters view Wasserman Schultz—who was forced to resign as the head of the DNC after leaked emails showed her disparaging the Sanders campaign—as the embodiment of everything wrong with the Democratic establishment. But the outcome of the race looks likely to demoralize them: Wasserman Schultz is poised to hold onto her seat. Recent polling shows Canova trailing by double digits. “Even her critics say it would take a miracle for the longtime Miami congresswoman ... to lose,” Politico reported earlier this month.

There’s a case to be made that Sanders’s involvement in the race actually put Canova at a disadvantage.“It’s frustrating that the media doesn’t want to talk to me about [the issues], they want to talk to me about Bernie,” Canova said. He also believes that the possibility that Sanders might campaign for him “helped mobilize the establishment” in favor of his opponent, even though the Vermont senator hasn’t shown up.

Sanders undoubtedly assisted Canova in a variety of ways. He injected money into the campaign. He elevated the profile of the race and lent credibility to Canova’s candidacy. Canova cites the senator’s political activism as an inspiration. Yet when asked if Sanders’s involvement in his race did more to hurt than help overall, Canova replied, “Honestly, don’t know. I would have said it helped a lot more than it hurt, [but] in the final week or two, I don’t know.”

Back in Vermont, Sanders introduced Our Revolution in a speech delivered Wednesday evening, noting that the organization will support candidates “from the school board to the United States Senate,” as well as ballot initiatives. The senator devoted considerable time to talking about the primary campaign, leaving the impression that he may be more at ease re-living the past than contemplating the future. Several dozen people gathered to watch a broadcast of the speech in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C.; not everyone left with a clear idea of what comes next. “I’m still not 100 percent sure how he wants to mobilize everyone and how it’s going to work,” said Adriana Gallegos, a 35-year-old D.C. resident. “It was kind of hard to understand what exactly the revolution was about until the end."

Sanders and his allies could end up losing the trust they worked so hard to build. The launch of Our Revolution was overshadowed by the resignation of key staffers who cited concerns over how the organization would be managed and operated. According to its website, the group is operating as a 501(c)(4)—a type of non-profit organization that can accept vast amounts of money without disclosing its donors. In recent years, 501(c)(4)s have earned a reputation as “dark money” groups due to that lack of transparency. That could be concerning to the Sanders faithful. Sanders showed that it is possible to fundraise competitively in a presidential primary by relying on small-dollar donations and shunning billionaires. A post-election organization run on a different fundraising model could alienate loyal followers.

Ahead of the organization’s launch, Sanders’s involvement with Our Revolution raised legal questions. ABC News reported that the organization could be “venturing into uncharted legal territory,” since “typically, 501(c)(4) organizations … are run by political operatives, not elected officials.” During his speech on Wednesday, Sanders attempted to put those questions to rest, clarifying that he will not control or direct the organization.

At least some supporters are willing to give Sanders the benefit of the doubt. “There’s a little blind faith in him that I think he deserves at this point,” said Michael Pattis, a 20-year-old Northwestern University student who came to the watch party. “I’ve been missing Bernie for months now, so just to know that he’s back, and there’s an organization with goals and a platform … to me that’s like finding good in the world,” he said. But he admitted that he has certain expectations. “There’s a high standard they should hold themselves to,” Pattis said of Our Revolution.

It’s too soon to say what will happen in the next phase of the Sanders political revolution, or how long it will last. Some of the candidates Sanders has endorsed have already prevailed in primary races: In Washington, Pramila Jayapal won a Democratic primary after Sanders campaigned with her and helped her raise money; Zephyr Teachout, another Sanders-backed candidate, won her Democratic primary in New York. “There’s certainly a need for groups that are willing to help insurgent challengers,” Canova said. But “Our Revolution is so recent a phenomenon,” he added. “It’s hard to expect it to have done very much yet.”

The biggest test will not be time, but trust: If the organization inadvertently convinces Sanders’s supporters—the same people it needs to volunteer and vote—that it is no different than the political establishment, then they may not be motivated or willing to continue championing a progressive political agenda under the senator’s banner. The way the organization operates may matter as much as the outcome of the individual campaigns and initiatives it throws its weight behind.