The Bernie Sanders campaign has reached an important goal. When he announced his candidacy for the presidency last week, Sanders set as an ambitious goal to recruit one million volunteers. He has now reached that mark. This is important because we need grassroots efforts to really change people’s minds. Top-down campaigns based on TV, newspapers, and the internet are fine but they tend to only target the existing voter pool and ignore all those who have become disenchanted because they think the system does not work for them. Progressives need to go into every nook and corner of the country to get the message out. He has also received $10 million in donations.
Similarly Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her race for Governor in Georgia, has also come out with a template of how to widen participation in politics. She was able to recruit a lot of new voters that enabled her to almost win an upset victory in heavily Republican Georgia. She laid out what she had done in a speech.
“We accomplished extraordinary change in Georgia,” Abrams began. “In 2014, 1.1 million people voted on the Democratic side of the table. In 2018, 1.2 million African-Americans cast their ballots for me. We tripled the voter turnout rate among active non-Latinos. We tripled Asian Pacific Islander voting rates. We increased youth participation rates by 139 percent. . . And when people got afraid that my identity politics was going to cost me the white vote, I am proud to announce that I received a higher percentage of white voters than anyone since Bill Clinton in the state of Georgia.”
“I do not regret a thing I said. I do not regret the campaign I ran,” she said. “More than once I’ve been asked, well, what would you do different? And I say this: the campaign that we ran, we turned out 1.9 million voters, 800,000 who had never thought about voting in a midterm election. We turned them out in communities where they had never seen a candidate. And we did it in a way that treated them with authenticity and respect; that valued their voices and gave them a real choice in this election — and it worked — except for voter suppression.”
Abrams detailed how a litany of intentional administrative barriers thwarted her base at key stages of the process — voter registration, ballot access and counting votes. But first she described how she intentionally talked to her state’s voters, no matter their partisan affiliation or agenda, which she said was key to prompting them to vote.
It is a telling statistic that in the last presidential elections, 63 million voted for Donald Trump, 66 million for Hillary Clinton but an astounding 100 million did not vote. Instead of both parties trying to pry away a couple of million voters from the other camp, hard to do in this era of entrenched views, it would surely be far more productive to tap into the pool of non-voters, and Abrams and Sanders are trying to do just that.
Not that that is going to be easy either. Many of these people have rightly concluded that current electoral politics is a game played by elites that does not work for them. Those voters are right. They have been deliberately discouraged by an oligarchic system that fears them and what they want and works hard to prevent them from showing their power, either by institutional blocks or by political leaders repeatedly disappointing them by their actions not living up to their words, with the Republicans focusing on the former and the neoliberal Democratic party establishment focusing on the latter.
Sanders and Abrams are not the only ones who have realized the latent untapped power that lies with disenchanted voters. I wrote last year about grassroots efforts around the country that have taken the radical approach of actually going out to meet the people who never vote, actually listening to what they say, designing political platforms that address those needs, running candidates who truly believe in those goals, and are willing to buck the party establishment that is terrified of losing control
The last election saw the emergence of many such anti-establishment candidates, several of whom won their races. But apart from the high profile congressional races, the lesser-known story is that a lot of progressives were elected in down-ballot races for state and local offices, precisely because of the efforts to reach new voters. This has created a new template for how to run for office but do not expect the Democratic party establishment to embrace it. These people hate democracy because they are beholden to the big-money interests and will try to thwart these insurgent efforts by any means. That the new people are upsetting the political-media establishment is apparent in the way that they are being disparaged as ‘not ready’ or ‘naïve’ or should ‘wait their turn’.