Is ‘Our Revolution’ the Way To Build Transformative Politics?

August 28, 2016

Bill Curry and Paul Jay discuss the objectives and controversy around Bernie Sanders's launch of 'Our Revolution'

Bill Curry and Paul Jay discuss the objectives and controversy around Bernie Sanders's launch of 'Our Revolution'



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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

On Wednesday night Bernie Sanders spoke to something like 2,600 people in house parties across the country announcing the formation of a new organization called Our Revolution, or OurRevolution.com, and here’s a little bit of what he had to say in his speech.

BERNIE SANDERS: Real change never, ever takes place from the top on down. It’s not some guy signing a bill. It always takes place from the bottom on up, when millions of people come together and demand fundamental change in the country.

JAY: The very day this organization was announced, the day of that evening, about 8 of 13 staff members of Bernie Sanders who had been assigned to work on Our Revolution quit, and it became quite a controversy. In fact, in many ways the controversy overshadowed the announcement of the creation of the organization. The next morning, after Bernie made this speech, there was a debate on Democracy Now. Claire Sandberg, one of the staff that quit, and she was the digital organizer, I believe, and Larry Cohen, who used to be the head of the communication workers union, was a senior Sanders adviser, and is now going be chair of the board of this new organization called Our Revolution, they had a debate. And here’s a little bit of that.

CLAIRE SANDBERG: Jeff has gone on the record admitting that he wanted to form the organization as a 501(c)(4) for the express purpose of accepting billionaire money, which of course flies in the face of what all of our supporters are so excited about, that we were taking the country back from the billionaire class without the use of billionaire money, $27 at a time.

LARRY COHEN: There will be no contributions from billionaires, and I guarantee that. And I think it’s unfortunate that staff left.

SANDBERG: Specifically it shows in a legal structure for the organization that it already prevented us from doing effective organizing for candidates like Tim Canova, who has talked about how we have left him hanging, which is true. As the group was formed as a (c)(4), we legally couldn’t coordinate with Canova, couldn’t return his calls, couldn’t mobilize thousands of Bernie supporters locally in Miami or across the country to participate in his field operation.

COHEN: The key is that all of us on this board believe that we will mobilize millions of people. We’re not here to run campaigns. That would be a different kind of organization. We will mobilize millions of people against the TPP.

JAY: So the controversy is focused around Jeff Weaver, who was the campaign manager for the Sanders campaign and has now been appointed the executive director of Our Revolution. And now joining me to discuss all of this is Bill Curry. He’s a columnist for Salon.com and he was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton. Thanks for joining us, Bill.

BILL CURRY: Great to be with you as always, Paul.

JAY: So if I understand it correctly, and I’ve talked to various people sort of on background who are close to people who resigned, as well as close to people in the campaign, and from what you can glean from the newspaper articles about all of this, there seems to have been two main points of contention between the staff that quit and Jeff Weaver, who’s now the director of the organization. The reason all this matters is not that do we want to get into, you know, every campaign has a soap opera. I’m sure anyone examined the Real News, you can find all kinds of people that will say things that they don’t like around this place.

But it seems the debate goes to heart of what at least the people that quit thing is the mission of this organization, and how it’s going to execute. The fight took place originally, if I understand it, during the campaign itself about how much money to put into television advertising versus how much money is put into grassroots organizing, ground game and online activity. And a lot of the young staff wanted more resources on that online, grassroots side. And Weaver was very much in favor of spending a lot of money on television advertising. And that fight seemed to be taking shape, that it was going to repeat itself in how Our Revolution was going to conduct itself.

And that goes to the same, I think it’s connected to this point, of why they created this as a (c)(4), a 501(c)(4). Which, for people who don’t know, there’s various forms of nonprofit organizations, or tax-exempt organizations perhaps is the better term. And a 501(c)(4) is tax-exempt, but if you donate to it you do not get a tax receipt as opposed to, for example, the Real News is a 501(c)(3). If you donate to the Real News, and this is, of course, I might as well use it. It’s a plug for donating. If you donate in the United States you do get a tax receipt if you donate to the Real News.

CURRY: Tax deduction.

JAY: I’m sorry, tax deduction, yes. So let’s start with the second piece. The fight over the (c)(4). Why Jeff Weaver chose to create this as a 501(c)(4). The contention is that he did it, and according to Claire in this Democracy Now! debate actually admitted to people he wanted to do it so he could get dark money, meaning billionaires’ money, which would not be declared where that money came from. Of course, Larry Cohen, who’s now chair of the board, says they will be transparent. Why create this as a (c)(4)?

CURRY: Well, first of all, you have to create some kind of an entity to do this work. As you were pointing out, in a (c)(4), the donor doesn’t get a tax deduction but the organization is tax exempt. And so there are three or four entities out there that the body of federal law make almost inevitable. If you want to run for office you better have a campaign ready. If you want to contribute, you’d better have a political action committee. And then these 501(c)(4)s, since the infamous Citizens United case, have given especially the wealthy and powerful a lot more leeway with which to buy elections.

But the flaw, I think, in the argument of the people who left is that just because the federal law permits an organization to do something, that doesn’t mean that its own bylaws and board membership can’t make it do something else. That seems to be what Larry Cohen was saying, and I pray that’s what they’ll do. For the progressive movement to take undisclosed money, for any progressive movement on any progressive issue to be receiving undisclosed money, and to be disproportionately beholden to the very wealthy, just poisons the very well of the thing.

But just because it’s a 501(c)(4)–Karl Rove has a 501(c)(4). They don’t tell anybody where any of their money comes from. But everybody needs something like a 501(c)(4), and you can have bylaws that mean that you do it the right way.

JAY: But why do a 501(c)(4) unless you want to have money that isn’t disclosed? It restricts how much you can do in terms of political campaigning. For example, as Claire said in this Democracy Now! piece, they couldn’t coordinate any activities with Tim Canova in Florida. You cannot, according to 501(c)(4) rules, if I understand it correctly, helping candidates directly in any way has to be a subordinate part of what you do. It can’t be a primary part of what you do. Whereas Bernie Sanders has been talking and his campaign had been talking that supporting downticket races is one of the main things that they want to do in the next phase. So why restrict that activity through a (c)(4) when you could have had a PAC, or frankly, even a super PAC?

CURRY: Let me just say, I’m hoping that the Sanders people who, for understandable reasons, didn’t turn to this question of progressive movement-building until their own race was over, hoping that they’re still in the process of figuring this all out. I mentioned Karl Rove has a 501(c)(4), and also a 501(c)(3), I think, and I know a PAC.

I used to work at–leave Karl Rove out of it. In the 1980s I was honored to be the political director of the nuclear [freeze movement], and I ran the political action committee. And the freeze movement, very much like the entire progressive community today, had every kind of entity in it. There were church groups. There were all kinds of nonprofits. 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s, all of which could do different pieces. We could all agree on a goal, but many of us couldn’t collaborate on a specific task within that goal. And we had to find a modus vivendi, a way for the entire movement to live together and contribute in common to the cause.

That’s what Bernie’s got to do. And Bernie’s entity can’t be the only entity. But if a year from now it’s only a501(c)(4) I’ll be surprised. If it’s a 501(c)(4) that doesn’t disclose all of its donors I’ll be shocked, and deeply disappointed. My guess is that all these entities, the people who are doing this now, many of whom seem very new, as I began to say before, to this very issue and to all the thorny problems that are entailed, I just assume that they’re going to go through a few more weeks of learning about it. And then it will be up to the board.

Again, I believe that it’s not just about the organization Bernie wants to build. I believe that, and I hope he looks upon this–Bernie’s a self-identified democratic socialist. I hope he looks on this as a democratic socialist would look at any such undertaking and see that all the assets, the donor list, the volunteer list, the assets that were built by the campaign ought to be the common property of the people who built it. And the point here is to find the most effective way to share this with as much of the progressive movement as we possibly can, and in as open and democratic a way as we possibly can.

JAY: Apparently there’s already been some critique of Our Revolution, even though it just began, on whether or not there’s enough consultation going on with local grassroots organizations about which candidate is going to be supported. I don’t know the details of it. There was a controversy in New York, for example. This issue of how Our Revolution relates to all, especially the grassroots organizations that really helped create the Sanders campaign in the first place, is going to be critical whether this is going to be effective or not.

CURRY: Look, there are two precedents that are very much on the minds of the staff who quit and the progressives in and out of the Sanders campaign. One of those is the Obama campaign of 2008. Obama built the largest grassroots political movement in the history of electoral politics, and perhaps in the history of American politics. And then as soon as the election was over he took the whole thing private. He turned a grassroots movement into a Washington-based mailing list, and put that under the jurisdiction of some major donors. And it was one of the original sins of the Obama administration, I would argue. And I don’t think Bernie Sanders certainly has that kind of intention.

But it’s a very difficult thing for someone who has control of a bunch of assets that they think empowered them to realize that the best thing they could do for the cause is to empower everyone else and give up their control. Giving up your own power to create more power for others always turns out to be hard for the people who are asked to do it. I hope they’ll do it this time.

The second precedent, by the way, that goes to your question is the precedent of this election, in which all the organizations virtually who are nominally progressive, and who have stood for progressive interest values and policies for three generations and more, all those organizations who allow their boards to choose their candidates, virtually all of them endorsed Hillary Clinton, even though Bernie Sanders was so much closer and truer to their values and positions. And nearly all the organizations that let their grassroots membership decide, who did it in an open, democratic way, went the opposite direction. When the membership was consulted, they tended to go overwhelmingly with Bernie.

What happened to progressives in Washington is they traded the politics of pressure for the politics of access. And the politics of access works very well for the leaders of the organization, but not so well for the membership, and not so well for the cause. And we’ve been at this now for 30 years, and it’s time for somebody from those organizations, I would argue, to step back and ask, what has all that access really gotten us? Not you, us. All of us.

And so this concern about who gets to make these choices, people want to be like Democracy for America and Working Families Party and MoveOn.org, and make sure the membership makes the decision to use the technology, not just to send targeted messages but to really try to empower the people who are in the organization, that’s a fight worth fighting.

JAY: And what do you make about the controversy over television advertising versus grassroots organizing, where the resources go, the online piece? This sort of goes, I would guess, to the issue of are you fundamentally building a movement, which takes a lot of ground game, a lot of walking on doors and organizing, or are you trying to sway public opinion through TV advertising, which perhaps you could argue is better in an election campaign? Although the people on the grassroots movement online side, they think they did more in terms of actually getting out votes than the TV advertising did, although one would think there’s some data to analyze there. But what do you think of what that controversy represents?

CURRY: Interpreting that data is always highly subjective, and more a matter of art than science, or at least as much a matter of art. I think two things. First of all, I think that Gandhi and Saul Alinsky had it right. I have a very old-fashioned view of this, that there’s a kind of chemical reaction that takes place when people meet face to face. There’s a bonding. People are willing to take risks. People can learn more. I think that every great movement in human history was built on face-to-face contact. Saul Alinsky said you have to at least get them at the door, and preferably at the kitchen table, in order to bring someone in.

And I think that there was a lot of false hope about what the internet could do on its own in terms of organizing. It’s a great tool. You have to make sure it’s the, you know, it’s the servant and not the master. And so I believe in the most old-fashioned stuff, and that is, and that is human-to-human organizing and interaction, if what you want is systemic, long-term change.

And the second thing, I’ll just, is part of what I just said about the technology itself. You know, if you’re a progressive, by definition you’re for new ideas. And if you’re for new ideas, they, by definition, take longer to explain. You know, a 40-odd, 140-odd character tweet or a 30-second ad. An ad can manipulate your hopes or it can manipulate your fears. But it’s all manipulation. If you’re a progressive and have a new idea, new ideas take what, a minute? Maybe two? It takes longer. The very technology we use, that even we progressives use, and the kind of polling and focus-grouping which always has, always is looking in the rearview mirror and never ahead, these techniques are killing us, I think.

And so I’m very much on the side of those younger people who say the resources we have–television is sometimes effective. Again, the data’s hard to interpret. I think that it’s many times overestimated. But there’s no question that particularly in electoral political campaigns, it can often make a difference.

But where this long-term movement building is concerned, what begins here 8:01PM on election day and going forward, regardless of the outcome, is that we need to build a progressive movement. That movement needs to develop its agenda and to refine its agenda so that it can be a majoritarian agenda in this country, and then we have to go sell it. Because, you know, the Quakers say speak truth to power, but it turns out power is very hard of hearing. And it’s not till everybody speaks to it that it changes.

JAY: I think you probably have to go further. Speaking truth to people who have power might be a little better formulation.

CURRY: Well, in a democracy I think it comes first to the public. I think the power of ideas is greater than the power of money. But because it depends on the power of public opinion, and mobilizing public opinion, I’ve been arguing with people who are wrestling with these questions that you’re raising right now, I’ve been arguing in the last few days, that we’re in an odd situation in which electoral politics isn’t the most important thing. We need PACs. We need every one of these entities to be [strengthened]. We need to find ways to interact and to coordinate our efforts, where we can do so lawfully and effectively.

But the bottom line is that it’s the narrowest function, it’s the public education function, that all the entities can do that is most important right now. I would argue that we need to build public sentiment around strong, clear ideas, as the freeze movement and the women’s movement and the environmental and civil rights and labor movements did in their heydays, and that when we do that, I believe that’s when the change will come.

JAY: Well, one of the great accomplishments of the Sanders campaign–and we’re only having this conversation at all because of how much the campaign actually did accomplish, to, I think, to everyone’s surprise, especially Bernie Sanders, that it actually contended as well as it did. But one of the great accomplishments was on the side of the money, that the fact that you could raise so much money in small amounts and contend with the kind of money that Clinton raised, it’s a game changer. So what happens to that fundraising potential as we move ahead is a critical question, whether it’s Our Revolution or not, a different organization.

But Sanders is the one with the lists. His campaign has got that tool, that machine, and whether that gets used to help all the downticket campaigns he’s talking about, I mean, I don’t see a better way to do education in this country than around election campaigns. That’s when people seem to be receptive to hear these ideas. And so I don’t think you can connect, disconnect movement building from electioneering or public education. They’re kind of inseparable.

CURRY: You know, as I have many times argued with my friend Ralph Nader, I see almost the opposite. I think that elections are, in many ways, the hardest time to educate. And again, I don’t think any of the movements I’ve talked about did virtually any of their educating during elections. The media–when I was in college I wrote a paper about this, a million years ago, about the fact that I just looked at Time and Newsweek and a couple national newspapers, and showed that all the–the amount of time they spent on their front pages talking about policy in a presidential election year was reduced 75 percent. And it was all replaced with horse race and fundraising and baloney.

JAY: But that’s their choice. They don’t–we don’t do that at the Real News. You don’t have to do that. Because if you–ordinary people, you know, that’s when they talk politics, is when there’s election campaigns on. Otherwise entertainment culture and everything else kind of–hang on a sec.

CURRY: Again, I would just, I would just say that I’m–I would just challenge the idea–. And I’m not sure I’m right about this. And I know that the truth embraces pieces of each of these, of perspectives. But to some degree, back in 1980, ’79, 1980 in my region, and I helped, I went around to all the progressive organizations and helped persuade them to form PACs. They didn’t even have PACs until then. And I ran the second-largest independent PAC in the country, and that’s the nuclear freeze movement.

I look upon, back on those days with some regret, especially the first part. Not so much the freeze. Because when we formed all these PACs and went so heavily into electoral politics, I think we stopped some of the most important educating that we did. And above all, I think we began to be colonized by the Democratic Party, so that some of these progressive movements did turn into Washington-based mailing lists, and did lose contact. I know they do too much of it.

And I, myself, question its effectiveness. But at the very least–so my urging to people is that we find out, find ways (c)(3)s, (c)(4)s, whole other, church group–there’s a whole other set of ways to do this. Some of these are floating [ad hoc]risies. The most effective grassroots movements of the last ten years have been around the wages in the beginning in the fast food industry, and cutting over to the referenda on raised minimum wage, and above all the same-sex marriage movement. And neither of those involved any elected officials, or any PACs whatsoever. All of them involve mobilizing public opinion the way we used to.

JAY: Well, that’s a long conversation. Because I think especially on the issue of gay–.

CURRY: It is a long conversation. And I don’t mean you can only do one. You’ve got to keep doing both. I’ve spent my life in politics. No hiding it. So I believe deeply in it. I know you have to fight these campaigns through. But I think we gave up a lot of other things that are very important, require more of our attention and energy.

JAY: All right, thanks for joining us, Bill.

CURRY: Oh, my pleasure.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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