Sen. Bernie Sanders may be out of the running for president, but many of the core issues he and other progressive candidates have championed are increasingly talked about as necessities in this crisis moment and beyond. Medicare for All, paid sick leave, and various provisions around workers’ rights are all at the forefront of conversation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sanders is working with former vice president Joe Biden on six issue-based working groups in the areas of criminal justice, health care, education, climate change, the economy, and immigration.
This shift in focus emphasizes how for many, the end of the Democratic primary is another page turning in the book of organizing. Many groups are rising to the challenge of helping people not only survive, but thrive in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This shift in the nature of the way people engage in the business of American politics, including electoral operations, is a part of a longer arc of work that has been built over time and may finally be having its moment.
“I think the biggest shift I would say is that we’ve seen […] an abundance of new messengers who are carrying the torch on progressive issues,” said Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders.
For Bhojwani, having people like Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib taking bold stances empowers others to have more open conversations about progressive issues such as Palestine, universal health care, or reducing student loan debt.
Bhojwani sees the diversification of progressive messengers of prominence on the national stage as giving people an opportunity to see themselves as potential candidates. Pointing to the work of her organization, Bhojwani said: “I think we’ve seen a lot more energy in immigrant communities among people who want to run.”
Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder of Pay Our Interns, said the 2020 election cycle has helped showcase the viability of progressive issues such as environmental justice, decarceration, economic justice, and Medicare for All.
“You know pollsters and some insiders were saying ‘this is bad, voters are going to reject it,’” said Vera, pointing to exit polling in several early primary states showing the support for Medicare for All. “And then we started seeing in the exit polls, and [in] even some conservative states, a majority of Democratic voters were actually supportive of it.”
Vera sees things as clearly shifting, but acknowledges there is still a lot of work to be done. “We haven’t seen it fully materialized, but I think it’s getting there as folks on the ground organizing have been talking about these plans and solutions for our communities,” said Vera.
More than diversifying the public faces of progressivism, there is a need to make sure the staff and organizers driving the day-to-day operations are reflective of communities of color as well as people from working class backgrounds. Addressing the lack of diversity in the pipeline for many political jobs, Vera highlighted the importance of having paid internship programs in congressional offices and political organizations. Vera said it’s not just an “equity issue” or doing the right thing—people are losing elections when campaigns are not reflective of the communities they need to reach.
“So our work is about saying, ‘Hey, give people a paycheck while they do the work,’” said Vera. “I guess an internship is about experience. But you need to pay your bills while you make that experience.”
A similar understanding has formed around democracy reform and electoral work that is no longer treated as centering around a singular election cycle but a year-round process. “What I think happened after 2016 is that those of us who had been doing the work with very few resources and very cyclical investment from foundations and donors,” said Bhojwani. “One of the ways in which the landscape changed is we all became better resourced to do electoral work, because suddenly everybody felt that democracy was under threat, not just Black and brown organizers.”
Serving as the New York State director for the Working Families Party, Sochie Nnaemeka took it a step further and said people need to “build for the longer term.”
“We can’t treat elections like Broadway shows, where you strike the set after it’s over,” Nnaemeka said. “You need year-round organizing to recruit, train, and elect working-class progressive candidates—and to fight alongside them after they’re elected.”
Nnaemeka also took a moment to remind people that the wins that were major progressive victories in New York did not just occur overnight.
“Flipping the state senate and winning on tenant protections, driver’s licenses for all and climate wasn’t the work of a single election cycle—it was the work of a decade,” said Nnaemeka. “And that kind of organizing is how we’ll win universal healthcare, a Green New Deal, legalizing marijuana, and more.”
Putting the end of the Democratic primary and the current pandemic moment into context of the overall electoral work and lessons, khalid kamau sees this as an opportunity for a major course correction.
“At the moment that we need the infrastructure of government the most, there is so little left that we cannot cover and protect ourselves,” said kamau.
For kamau, the COVID-19 pandemic and poor government response has laid siege to all aspects of American life, forcing a fundamental reevaluation of the nature of the way everything is done, from K-12 education to providing care for the sick and the elderly. In thinking about the general election and rallying around Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, kamau said he needs more.
“There are things that the people that I represent need,” said kamau. “There are resources that we need from the government to be alive and saying Trump is worse is not a satisfactory answer.”
Ultimately, how progressives choose to show up in this moment depends on where they see their destiny and purpose in relation to potential for progress in this moment.
“This is one of those moments that shows how all of our destinies are intertwined and without big, structural change, we are only as safe as the most vulnerable person among us,” said Nnaemeka. “Collectively, we can no longer afford business as usual. Nobody can be left behind.”