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Meet the tech-savvy activists trying to take over the Democratic Party

Meet the tech-savvy activists trying to take over the Democratic Party

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How former Bernie staffers and The Young Turks are teaming up against the party’s establishment

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Image: The Young Turk Network
Image: The Young Turk Network

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, several alums of the Bernie Sanders campaign came together with media entrepreneurs from The Young Turks to chart their path forward. Disappointed with the performance of a Democratic Party they felt had chosen a too-centrist position, they decided to seek out and promote candidates from the left using some of the distributed organizing tools that had helped the Sanders campaign punch above its weight.

The group, called Justice Democrats, advocates for policy positions such as Medicare for all, regulating Wall Street, ending “the failed war on drugs,” and bringing about election reform, according to their platform. Meanwhile the group proposes electing individuals to replace “corporate Democrats,” and has criticized Cory Booker, Claire McCaskill, and other US senators on Twitter as #DemsVotingBadly.

These tools helped the Sanders campaign turn this “digital grassroots media” support into $33 million raised in three months alone

The Justice Democrats plan to organize in what executive director Saikat Chakrabarti calls a “distributed fashion.” As the director of Organizing Technology for the Sanders campaign, Chakrabarti worked alongside Justice Democrats co-founder Zach Exley and communications director Corbin Trent to create software to organize grassroots support. Among the platforms they pioneered was map.berniesanders.com, a tool which allowed volunteers to organize events, with planned events appearing on a map for other interested volunteers to locate. Volunteers organized nearly 60,000 campaign events using this software, according to Exley. The tech they developed also allowed for these teams of volunteers to organize without direct supervision from campaign staff, while being on call to assist in official field operations when needed.

These tools helped the Sanders campaign turn this “digital grassroots media” support into $33 million raised in three months alone. “Internet-based campaigns tend to fail to achieve their objectives when they can’t leverage the full capacity of all the people who raise their hands and say I want to be involved,” Exley told The Nation.

The Justice Democrats are partnering with Brand New Congress, a similar endeavor aimed at electing non-career politicians in both major parties by using grassroots support. Their policy goals include getting “money out of politics” and investing “trillions of dollars to rebuild and repair towns.” The group, which intends to be a consolidated resource and fundraising entity for all of its candidates, shares many of its members with Justice Democrats, including Chakrabarti, Exley, and Trent.

“I think that our ability to organize with technology and our ability to set up phone banks and distribute in an effective way is going to allow us to nationalize more effectively.”

While Justice Democrats is still developing their own versions of these strategies and has not had much of an opportunity to put them into play yet — they formed in January and just announced Cori Bush as their first candidate — Cenk Uygur, the CEO of The Young Turk Network and a Justice Democrats co-founder, has already started to use his platform to promote the group. His show alone has over 3 million subscribers, with The Young Turks Network drawing in 80 million unique views monthly and being the most-watched online network among 18–34 year olds, according to Esquire.

“Our goal is to nationalize those races and to really frame a narrative around these representatives that they aren’t just representing their district, which is a very big part of it, but they’re also representing the rest of America with their votes,” Trent said in an interview with The Verge. “So I think that our ability to organize with technology and our ability to set up phone banks and distribute in an effective way is going to allow us to nationalize more effectively. And then hopefully that’ll be something that supports the field operations on the ground of those candidates in those districts.”

On their website, Justice Democrats is soliciting nominations directly from supporters, and have so far received over 8,000 potential candidates. Many of these nominees, who may also be nominated by a team of Justice Democrats researchers, have little experience in the political process.

“They may be civil engineers, they may be activists, they may be nurses, they may be librarians or teachers or principals, but they don’t necessarily have the skills to run a winning campaign,” Trent said. Chakrabarti says they’re looking for people with a good “life record,” such as participating in various forms of activism, or just being well-liked community members.

The group had garnered 217,651 supporters and raised a little over $1 million by mid-March, just two months after they launched

In order to address the lack of political experience, they have established a vetting process that includes a candidate training program and interviews with the Justice Democrats leadership, according to Trent. At least 70 individuals have gone through the process. Among the nominees that the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress have publicly endorsed are Ronjonette Harrison, a foster mom and social worker in New York’s 26th congressional district, and Chardo Richardson, ACLU president of Central Florida and an Air Force veteran.

So far, one candidate has officially taken up the cause of Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats: Cori Bush, a teacher, nurse, civil rights organizer, and preacher who ran for US Senate in 2016, and is now running to represent Missouri’s 1st congressional district in the US House of Representatives. Justice Democrats initially tweeted their support for her on March 13th, and she was announced as a Justice Democrats / Brand New Congress joint candidate running as a Democrat on April 20th. They initially aimed to raise $10,000 by her launch rally on April 30th to get access to the voter file they need to contact voters, soliciting $3 and $7 donations in emails to supporters. By April 24th, however, they had already raised $20,000, and succeeded in getting the file.  

But their goals of beating establishment Democrats and electing a new slate of candidates necessitated aggressive fundraising and organizing. The group had garnered 217,651 supporters and raised a little over $1 million by mid-March, just two months after they launched, but Chakrabarti says it costs about $1 million to run competitively in a congressional race.

“Right now, there’s one basic path to Congress for candidates, and that path goes through big donors and PACs and lobbyists and we’re trying to create an alternative path.”

“If Bernie can raise $232 million in a primary, we think if we can raise somewhere around a little bit more than that for primary season that we can be competitive,” says Trent.

The group is working on growing their slate of candidates in hopes of eventually running in over 300 races, further developing their platform, and growing their infrastructure of distributed teams and campaign staff, according to Trent. A large focus of their endeavors, however, will be fundraising.

“One of the biggest things that we’ve got to do is provide an alternative source of fundraising,” Trent said. “Right now, there’s one basic path to Congress for candidates, and that path goes through big donors and PACs and lobbyists and we’re trying to create an alternative path.”

The team’s next major project is launching the campaigns of eight more candidates with Brand New Congress, the identities of which they have not yet disclosed, other than that they are from states including New York, Florida, Arkansas, and West Virginia. They’re looking to raise $187,574 to buy voter files for the candidates, and they plan on accomplishing that goal by continuing to solicit small donations. They also plan to use their tech-based strategies to “run a presidential style campaign in these congressional races,” which Trent says allows them “to mobilize people from New York to California and everywhere in between to be impactful in campaigns they generally wouldn’t even be aware of, let alone be able to be involved in.”

“We saw this campaign that was grassroots fueled,” Chakrabarti said regarding the Sanders campaign when Justice Democrats first launched. “We’re going to do that same thing, but we’re going to take it forward to Congress.”

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