An enormous crowd gathered in the amphitheater in front of City Hall in Oakland, filling it to the brim, spilling out across the grassy lawn behind it and into the street. Some supporters were still waiting in a line that had formed several hours earlier and snaked along a couple dozen blocks. More than 20,000 people had come here, about a week before the California primary, to see Bernie Sanders speak.
The vibe before the rally was overwhelmingly positive and hopeful. A drum corps played in the street, while enterprising vendors hawked Warriors gear (they were playing their climactic Game 7 of the NBA Western Conference finals that night, heightening the electric sense of anticipation even further) alongside anti-Trump and bootleg Bernie shirts. (My favorite of the latter featured the Pabst Blue Ribbon with the name of the beer replaced with "Bernie Fucking Sanders.")
As they waited for the candidate to arrive and the main event to begin, a three-piece band stood onstage and played a spare rendition of "We Shall Overcome."
The gospel hymn that became an iconic anthem of the Civil Rights Movement is weighty with history and struggle. To invoke "We Shall Overcome" on behalf of a presidential candidate would be dicey in any venue. To do it in the quickly gentrifying black mecca of Oakland, in front of a crowd that was much whiter than those that typically gather for rallies in the city, is dicier still. To do it in a place officially named Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, after a Japanese-American civil rights leader, and informally known to many locals as Oscar Grant Plaza, after a black man killed by police while handcuffed on a Oakland subway platform — let's just say it would have made me uncomfortable for a black man to use this song in this context. And though the band was fronted by a black woman, Bernie Sanders, as you may have heard, is a white guy from Vermont.
It did remind me of the fact that Sanders and his supporters see themselves as part of something more significant than a mere campaign. They see themselves as the vanguard of a political revolution whose ultimate goal isn't Sanders becoming the nominee, or even becoming president. These are just a means to an end. What they really want is to rewrite the American contract, to usher in a new liberal order as transformative as the New Deal.
The problem is that, barring some unforeseen cataclysm, Bernie Sanders isn't going to win the Democratic nomination, much less a national election. Sanders has pulled into a statistical tie in some recent California polls, but even a resounding win in the state can’t make up his deficit in the delegate count.
If his political revolution doesn't want to stall out, it has to change. Sanders's movement has to remake itself if it wants to have a chance to remake America.
The primary challenge Sanders has ahead of him isn't to ensure the party unifies behind Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump will do most of that work for him. For all that has been made of the procedural and rhetorical hardball Sanders has been playing in order to get the nomination, his justification for his tactics — scrounging every pledged delegate and superdelegate he can find, deriding closed primaries, and alleging of corporate media bias — isn't that Clinton is an illegitimate candidate. It is that a Donald Trump presidency would be, in Sanders's words, "a disaster," and that the best way of averting that disaster is for the Democrats to nominate Sanders.
Sanders will certainly endorse Clinton eventually, and he'll certainly ask his supporters to put aside whatever grievances they have with the Democratic Party and the primary process in order to stop Trump. The Sanders supporters I spoke to said that nothing was more important than preventing a Trump presidency. "I would vote for an empty beer can over Trump," said Fabian Magaloni, a photographer from Alameda.
The specter of Sanders supporters throwing the election to Trump by staying home, casting their vote for a protest candidate, or voting for Trump himself sounds less and less plausible the more you think about it. Of course, some voters who supported different candidates in the primaries don't support the party's eventual nominee in the general. This happens every presidential election, and it isn't even necessarily a bad thing. All it really does is signal that a candidate had some early appeal with people with weak connections to the party.
No, the question Sanders has to answer has nothing to do with preparing his supporters for the election. It's about preparing them for what comes after that.
"I would say this is my first involved election," Floyd Hill told me at the rally. When I asked him what his plans are for staying involved in the political process, he says he'd like to, but he's not sure what he should do besides stay informed and voting every two years. "This is all very new to me," he said. Sanders is the first candidate Bryce Cloke, a St. Mary’s student, has felt personally invested in as well. "Bernie is the first candidate that I've done anything like phone banking or knocking on doors or spreading the word for," he said. But while he's all in on Bernie, he added that the most important thing about the Sanders campaign is not the man at the center of it. "It's not him, it's about us."
This is a sentiment that I’ve encountered often among people who were previously unengaged in politics but have been drawn in by the person and policy of the Sanders campaign. They are hopeful, positive, and willing, but they don't know exactly how they should direct their political energy. Even faithful Democrats whom Sanders excites aren't sure what they plan to do next, despite knowing that supporting his vision means more than just supporting his campaign. Staying involved in a presidential run is easy -- there's a clear, concrete goal, with a limited horizon, simple and actionable steps, and the motivation of constant feedback from the news cycle. But many nascent movements, even those that are born from winning campaigns, are strangled in the cradle by lack of direction after the election is over.
Noreen Magaloni (Fabian Magaloni's wife), a teacher from Alameda, described herself as having always been politically engaged, faithfully voting in every election. Although she won't be as enthusiastic if Clinton wins, she'll nevertheless vote for her over Trump. But there's a difference between avoiding catastrophe and making change. "Things will just go on the same [if Clinton wins]," she told me.
Sanders has revealed people's widespread dissatisfaction with the political status quo, and he's shown that there's a constituency both inside and outside the Democratic Party for the robust liberalism that he offers. But for his fledgling grassroots movement to avoid withering after the election, Sanders needs to figure out how to keep his supporters mobilized. Dissatisfaction with the system and the outcomes the system churns out needs to be channeled into either working outside the system or becoming a part of the system to change it from the inside. Engaging once every four years is not enough.
The most obvious way of doing the latter would be to join a party and ask that his followers also join that party. He could announce that his joining the Democratic Party was more than just a marriage of convenience -- he's running for their nomination, after all — but it might be difficult to look credible doing this, given both his long history as an independent and the attacks he has levied against the party's establishment. Even if he managed to convince enough people that he was for real, throwing in with a major party would damage the outsider image that drew voters to him in the first place. The Green Party might be a better fit. Its progressive politics are surely a closer match for Bernie's policies.
Tina Kimmel, a longtime Green Party member who is running for the county council of the Green Party of Alameda, agrees with that assessment, pointing out that the Green Party and Bernie Sanders have a similar natural constituency. She likes Sanders so much that she decided to register as a Democrat to vote for him, giving up her ability to vote for herself in the process. Kimmel was at the Sanders rally in Oakland to pass out Green Party voting guides and perhaps lure in some people who were introduced to progressive politics by the Sanders campaign. "We need new blood," she told me with a smile. "We're sort of sad and tired from always losing." Whether siphoning off fresh millennial blood from the Bernie Sanders campaign would be enough to pump new life into the Green Party at the national level is an open question.
But there’s yet another path this revolution could take. I think Bernie has better options than hitching his independent wagon to a specific political party (or forming his own). He and his supporters might be better suited to working, if not completely outside the system, at least adjacent to it. One way to do this would be to start a grassroots community organizing network — nonpartisan in order to maintain Sanders's independence — with a focus on working-class issues. The group could make voter registration drives its centerpiece, but also work on lobbying for affordable housing, an increase in the minimum wage, and health care access in lower-income communities.
This organization could be paired with a political arm for the explicit endorsement of political candidates, building legislative support at multiple levels of government that could vote in policies aligned with Bernie's agenda.
If this description sounds familiar, that’s because this was basically the portfolio of the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). At its peak, the organization was large, well organized, and quite successful, but it shut down in 2010 under a wave of controversies both real and fabricated. Some of the local organizations that were once under ACORN's umbrella have soldiered on, but part of what made ACORN successful was the way it was able to coordinate local organizing nationwide. ACORN's demise leaves a hole that Bernie Sanders definitely has enough pull to fill.
Another idea, which could even complement Sanders's ACORN redux, would be to start a liberal version of the blandly named American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. ALEC is a conservative organization, composed of both legislators and lobbyists, that essentially functions as a national clearinghouse for state and local conservative legislation. For example, if organizers or lobbyists for a state want to push a voter ID law, they can get one off the rack from ALEC. Or if legislation is introduced that would increase regulations on businesses, ALEC flags it, alerts the legislators in that state, and lobbies to make changes to make the legislation more palatable to conservatives. Liberals hate ALEC for its shadowy methods, and the shady way that it mixes politicians and lobbyists, but mostly because it's quite effective. A liberal version of ALEC could, say, design legislation for local affordable housing standards, or draft laws that would strengthen unions. It is partially the attractiveness of Sanders's policy ideas that has drawn such support, and beginning to implement those that work at a local level would be a fruitful next step.
Whatever Sanders decides, if he wants this to be the beginning of a movement rather than the end of a moment, he has to be able to harness and focus the excitement that his candidacy has stoked. It's not over the next few months that the legacy of Bernie 2016 will be forged, but over the next years and decades. Singing "We Shall Overcome" is one thing. Figuring out how is another entirely.