Bernie Sanders addressing a big crowd in Tacoma
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to a huge crowd inside the Tacoma Dome on Monday, February 17th, 2020 (Photo: Rennie Sawade/NPI)

Edi­tor’s Note: We are pleased today to wel­come our friend Shasti Con­rad to the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate to share her thoughts on chart­ing a path for­ward in the wake of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s 2020 nom­i­nat­ing sea­son. Shasti is the first woman of col­or to serve as the Chair of the Mar­tin Luther King Junior Coun­ty Democ­rats. She has worked for three Nobel Lau­re­ates and for Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders over the last four pres­i­den­tial cam­paign cycles. Most recent­ly, she was the Nation­al Direc­tor of Sur­ro­gates for the Bernie 2020 campaign.

In the after­math of Bernie Sanders sus­pend­ing his sec­ond pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, the crush of autop­sy reports has been over­whelm­ing. What went wrong? What does it mean for the pro­gres­sive move­ment? Where do we go from here?

I’ve been sur­prised and at times deeply dis­ap­point­ed by many of the twists and turns this time around. I did not expect to be where we are now, and I don’t think any can­di­date or seri­ous pun­dit pre­dict­ed the road we trav­eled to get here.

I can­not say with absolute cer­tain­ty where we are headed.

Still, as some­one whose first polit­i­cal job was with Vice Pres­i­dent Biden, fol­lowed by a West Wing role in the Oba­ma White House and two pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns with Bernie Sanders, when I think about the future, I bring all these expe­ri­ences to bear.

Through­out the cur­rent cycle, poll after poll has shown broad and often over­whelm­ing sup­port for the poli­cies and ideas Bernie cham­pi­oned: A Green New Deal. Can­celling stu­dent debt. Health­care as a right for all. Once writ­ten off as pipe dreams, these are ideals near­ly all of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls embraced in part, if not entire­ly, and that Democ­rats in local and state pri­maries across the coun­try, in red states and blue, hold cen­tral to their campaigns.

The par­ty has moved to the left, and so many jus­ti­fi­ably cred­it Sen­a­tor Sanders and mil­lions of orga­niz­ers across the coun­try for the change.

This year should have been the year the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty nom­i­nat­ed a bold pro­gres­sive leader to be the next Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.

But here we are. In the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic, try­ing to get young peo­ple, women, and peo­ple of col­or to ral­ly around Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden.

If any­thing, the pan­dem­ic is show­ing us how pro­gres­sive poli­cies are need­ed in times of crises and hard­ship. Wouldn’t you feel bet­ter know­ing that your health­care wasn’t tied to employ­ment and that we had a sol­id safe­ty net in place to get us through these times? As a mil­len­ni­al, what a dif­fer­ence life would be with­out stu­dent debt hang­ing over­head and block­ing any chance of build­ing a nest egg to pre­pare for uncer­tain peri­ods like this. After recent stim­u­lus checks, Uni­ver­sal Basic Income does not seem quite so out­landish an idea any­more, does it?

And some­how “they” found a way to send that mon­ey pret­ty quick­ly, espe­cial­ly once the Nar­­cis­­sist-in-Chief could put his name on those checks.

Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans – a major­i­ty in most cas­es – agree with us that pro­gres­sive poli­cies make sense. NPI’s own research has demon­strat­ed this.

More Amer­i­cans today embrace pro­gres­sive poli­cies as the best path to a more per­fect union. Still, the result of our cam­paign and of pro­gres­sive cam­paigns of the past sug­gest oth­er­wise. I believe that on the ques­tion of why pro­gres­sives have not had greater elec­toral suc­cess is not a ques­tion of pol­i­cy, but on how we orga­nize and grow. It is the inter­nal dynam­ics of how we all move togeth­er that we have to work through before we can win the high­est office in the land.

I have also seen how the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment often views pro­gres­sives as the kids who will even­tu­al­ly learn that the world sim­ply does not work the way they hoped it would. There is a sense of want­i­ng to tamp down the hope­ful­ness and ide­al­ism that is at the core of poli­cies that aim to cre­ate a bet­ter world for the most mar­gin­al­ized. At one time, those of us work­ing for Oba­ma were con­sid­ered the upstart pro­gres­sives who were too young to ‘get it’ and would nev­er win.

But now those kids have grown up and are in a posi­tion to be the lead­ers shap­ing the agen­da. We can hold on to the hope and ide­al­ism Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma instilled in us, or we can react to set­backs by with­draw­ing from activism.

We must do what we can to stay cen­tral to the dis­cus­sion and push the agenda.

I believe that the roadmap ahead for pro­gres­sives must be tiered and viewed in terms of prag­mat­ic action and philo­soph­i­cal long-term solutions.

Tier 1: Imme­di­ate actions for 2020 cam­paign cycle

First, pro­gres­sive activists need to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly togeth­er to ensure that we get enough del­e­gates to ensure as pro­gres­sive a plat­form as pos­si­ble, both nation­al­ly and with­in every state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

Sec­ond, we need to ral­ly around Eliz­a­beth War­ren for Vice Pres­i­dent. We need a pro­gres­sive vice pres­i­dent and War­ren is best posi­tioned to be that per­son. This will require sup­port­ers of oth­er can­di­dates to put their per­son­al alle­giances aside, ral­ly around the pro­gres­sive plat­form, and make it clear that we will not sim­ply go along with a neolib­er­al agen­da that leaves out the most marginalized.

I know that many pro­gres­sive vot­ers would pre­fer a dif­fer­ent result. If you got trolled on Twit­ter by some­one from a dif­fer­ent cam­paign, I under­stand. It was painful to work as pos­i­tive­ly as pos­si­ble for a can­di­date and be reduced to a prob­lem­at­ic label. But we need to set those feel­ings aside and ral­ly for the pro­gres­sive who has the best shot at work­ing with­in the sys­tem to unrig it.

War­ren fought her way through resis­tance dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion and she is our best shot at get­ting some­one who will stand up for the pro­gres­sive plat­form with­in a Biden Admin­is­tra­tion. Biden has com­mit­ted to a female run­ning mate and the oth­er prob­a­ble choic­es are unlike­ly to ful­ly sup­port pro­gres­sive poli­cies. We will not get all that we want, but we will have a bet­ter chance at get­ting some.

Third, we must move past the divides of the past and think of our­selves as the forty mil­lion-plus Amer­i­cans who have rec­og­nized that the cur­rent sys­tem does not work for the dis­ad­van­taged. Not me, us. And it is a big us.

I gen­uine­ly believe that we are the major­i­ty, but our abil­i­ty to work togeth­er and play the game so that we win has left a lot to be desired.

Peo­ple who are com­fort­able can and do treat pol­i­tics as a game, and we must fight some of this on their terms in order to make progress.

Last­ly, do not take your ball and go home. Every time we give into despair about the bat­tles we’ve lost and walk away, we lose ground. This work has nev­er been easy. Ask any­one who has ever had to fight for their rights. Many peo­ple who start­ed the work to end slav­ery, women’s suf­frage, and the civ­il rights move­ment didn’t live long enough to reap the ben­e­fits from vic­to­ry, but still they fought. This work is long and ardu­ous. But we have to stay engaged to cre­ate change.

Tier 2: Longer Term Adjust­ments Needed

Reframe to win

As 2020 wore on, I real­ized that many Democ­ratic vot­ers and par­ty lead­ers did not want a polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion or swift, bold change. They want­ed a return to nor­mal­cy, of life before Trump. A life where they gen­er­al­ly trust­ed their gov­ern­ment and, per­haps, did not have to pay atten­tion. They could rest in the com­fort of their sin­­gle-fam­i­­ly homes and jobs that cov­ered them just enough to not be in poverty.

The Bernie Sanders cam­paign fol­lowed a mod­el of many oth­er rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­ers by try­ing to cre­ate class sol­i­dar­i­ty amongst the 99%.

If we could all see how the bil­lion­aires were so deeply cor­rupt, and this cor­rup­tion affect­ed every­one else’s lives, per­haps we could tru­ly fight to make the gov­ern­ment more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the rest of Amer­i­ca and lev­el the field against pri­vate inter­ests. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, human psy­chol­o­gy does not work like that.

We are aspi­ra­tional by nature, and we want to believe that we belong with the class that is right ahead of ours… the myth of upward mobil­i­ty. If you have a house with two bed­rooms and one car, you like­ly think you are just around the cor­ner from your friend who has a house with three bed­rooms and two cars.

You are sure he’s very nice, but can’t pos­si­bly be bet­ter than you, and if you just get your lucky break then you too can have what they have.

Van Jones said at one point that peo­ple in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment (and many Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers) want to get back to “nor­mal,” while pro­gres­sives look at that “nor­mal” – the way things have been – as a key part of the problem.

Addi­tion­al­ly, we should rethink the lan­guage we use in describ­ing our move­ment. For many Amer­i­cans, the word rev­o­lu­tion evokes fear and destruction.

Rev­o­lu­tions are rarely peace­ful, and pow­er is almost nev­er giv­en eas­i­ly to those demand­ing it. In fact, when you are accus­tomed to priv­i­lege, even equal­i­ty can feel like oppres­sion. I recent­ly fin­ished watch­ing the series, “The Amer­i­cans,” which fol­lows KGB spies in Amer­i­ca dur­ing the 1980s.

As a 1980s baby, I did not have the same cul­tur­al touch­points as folks who lived through the Cold War and who remem­ber the sto­ries of Russia’s breadlines.

The brouha­ha over Bernie’s state­ment about Cuba seemed strange to me, because I am not con­nect­ed to those sto­ries of rev­o­lu­tion in Cuba.

But for oth­er gen­er­a­tions, and com­mu­ni­ties like Cuban-Amer­i­­cans in Flori­da, rev­o­lu­tions are not beau­ti­ful, fun ideas. They are ter­ri­fy­ing bat­tles over ide­ol­o­gy that leave a lot of destruc­tion behind. I under­stand bet­ter, now, how the gen­er­a­tions before mine would balk at a revolution.

I think the bet­ter term to lead with is trans­for­ma­tion.

I believe that we can trans­form this coun­try into one that is about mutu­al sup­port, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and inno­va­tion. One where we look out for one another.

One that is free from cap­i­tal­is­tic greed and abuse.

We often look for heroes, there­fore since the indus­tri­al era, we have looked at busi­ness­men (and I do mean men) as the keys to soci­ety work­ing.

Carnegie, Rock­e­feller, Gates: we are so blessed to have them. They are smarter than us, they work hard­er than us, they deserve their money.

Then they throw some of their earn­ings they make from our labor to good caus­es, and we lift them up as the epit­o­me of Amer­i­can Greatness.

Lis­ten­ing to com­men­ta­tors on CNN and MSNBC peri­od­i­cal­ly bemoan­ing why there would be any need to hate bil­lion­aires is all you real­ly need to know about our addic­tion to want­i­ng to keep them on their pedestals.

In a post-COVID-19 era, we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to uplift those who choose to help oth­ers, such as front­line work­ers. In our nar­ra­tives, we can call them heroes, but we must also make sure that our poli­cies reflect the val­ue we place in them.

Grow­ing up, I was taught the creed: “The first go last, the last go first.” It does not mat­ter what you have, if there are peo­ple who have less than you, it is your job to fight for them. We do this work to use our priv­i­lege to help the most mar­gin­al­ized. Until that sen­ti­ment is more com­mon­ly felt by mid­dle income fam­i­lies, mak­ing them see their futures tied in with the poor, we’ll nev­er be able to have the lev­el of sol­i­dar­i­ty need­ed to wrest con­trol from the wealthy and powerful.

Uplift and ampli­fy women of col­or leaders

For the last four years, I have had to fight to be seen with­in the Bernie Sanders move­ment as a woman of col­or. Exter­nal­ly, I found myself white­washed by big media; inter­nal­ly, I was not always val­ued or lis­tened to.

The loud white men of the move­ment call­ing for puri­ty tests and send­ing snake emo­jis to Eliz­a­beth War­ren made it hard for con­sen­sus build­ing. An inabil­i­ty to com­pro­mise and work with peo­ple on the polit­i­cal spec­trum may give you the moral high ground, but it does not leave much room for the sus­tain­able changes that are need­ed to build a long-term move­ment for insti­tu­tion­al changes.

On the Bernie cam­paign, many of our strongest sur­ro­gates were women of col­or: State Sen­a­tor Nina Turn­er and Unit­ed States Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Alexan­dria Oca­­sio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashi­da Tlaib and Prami­la Jaya­pal, to name a few.

Pramila Jayapal speaking at a Sanders campaign event
Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jaya­pal speak­ing at a Bernie 2020 event (Pho­to: Ruairi Vaughan/NPI)

They were able to ener­gize the base and cred­i­bly speak to the impor­tance of the inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty of the pro­gres­sive movement.

Women of col­or have had to learn how to find the right mes­sag­ing to get done what needs to get done. They have had to open doors that have long been closed. Plat­form­ing and cen­ter­ing women of col­or needs to hap­pen for the pro­gres­sive move­ment to grow into the places it needs to succeed.

Hav­ing observed how remark­able lead­ers oper­ate in rooms of pow­er, I sin­cere­ly believe that in Amer­i­ca, one’s race and gen­der inform how you learn to han­dle your­self. If you have always been in the major­i­ty group, you’re not chal­lenged as often to have to mod­er­ate your­self to make oth­ers feel comfortable.

You are allowed to be ful­ly who you are.

You are often or com­plete­ly allowed to state your thoughts and opin­ions with­out chal­lenge. You do not have to learn that you have to com­pro­mise to be heard.

As a woman of col­or, I have to eval­u­ate the social and pow­er dynam­ics in every major room I walk into. Even though I have learned to stay true to myself, I have had to devel­op the skills to lis­ten, to com­pro­mise and to com­mu­ni­cate effec­tive­ly to a diverse audi­ence that may not come from my background.

For decades, the end­less work of adjust­ment has been exhaust­ing and has still too often kept me on the sidelines.

Now, as the cul­ture shifts, par­a­digms are start­ing to change. The skills to lis­ten, adapt mes­sag­ing to the spe­cif­ic moment and to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly across diverse per­spec­tives has changed from a defen­sive skill into a major asset.

Being able to build a diverse coali­tion and work along­side peo­ple whose val­ues are sim­i­lar, but whose tac­tics might not be the same, will be essen­tial for pro­gres­sives to build leg­isla­tive major­i­ties and defend those leg­isla­tive majorities.

We are not always com­fort­able with mov­ing from being the under­dog to being the leader of the pack, but we will have to learn how to include those who we may not com­plete­ly agree with, in order to grow the move­ment. I believe par­tic­u­lar­ly that women of col­or under­stand how to nav­i­gate a long­shot sta­tus to being at the table, and they deserve more oppor­tu­ni­ties to do so. As Shirley Chisolm said, “If they won’t give you a seat at the table, bring a fold­ing chair!”

Cel­e­brate incre­men­tal vic­to­ries, keep fight­ing for trans­for­ma­tive change

Pro­gres­sive and Demo­c­ra­t­ic activists get too spun around the axle regard­ing pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics. Every four years, as if we were going all in on the Olympics, we put in every­thing we’ve got to win the big seat. Then, exhaust­ed, many of us lose faith, and wait to fall in love all over again in anoth­er four years.

Mean­while, the Repub­li­cans keep plow­ing through for the downbal­lot races.

As a result, they now con­trol the major­i­ty of state leg­is­la­tures, and they use their major­i­ty there and in the Sen­ate to pack as many friend­ly judges as they can into both the fed­er­al and state court sys­tems. So many of us get caught off guard every time we hear these sta­tis­tics, but it has been true for decades.

We need to have all hands on deck to work to defeat not just Don­ald Trump, but the Repub­li­can ide­ol­o­gy and chaos that helped to elect Don­ald Trump.

We need to win back the Sen­ate and we need to reclaim state legislatures.

Note the dif­fer­ence between how Repub­li­can ver­sus Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­bers of Con­gress, Repub­li­can ver­sus Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nors, and Repub­li­can ver­sus Demo­c­ra­t­ic state leg­is­la­tures regard the lives of those on the front­line of the present pan­dem­ic and look at who they finan­cial­ly support.

There is no clear­er exam­ple of why we must fight for these seats of power.

We need to be build­ing up pro­gres­sive lead­ers for the next gen­er­a­tion, help­ing them to get elect­ed to state leg­is­la­tures, city coun­cil seats, into state and Fed­er­al judge­ships and as coun­ty pros­e­cu­tors. “Not me, us” has to out­live any one leader.

I believe that there is a home for the forty mil­lion peo­ple who vot­ed for pro­gres­sive can­di­dates this cycle and for the major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans who want health­care to be avail­able to every­one as a human right, fed­er­al gun safe­ty leg­is­la­tion, a Green New Deal, and a gov­ern­ment that is built of, by and for the peo­ple. We just have to build it togeth­er, cel­e­brate the vic­to­ries, learn from the defeats to rise above and win next time, and keep fight­ing for tru­ly trans­for­ma­tion­al sys­temic change!

Adjacent posts

2 replies on “Let’s think + act beyond presidential politics to build a progressive agenda for America”

  1. Shasti your sharp clear analy­sis of the real­i­ty is right on tar­get. Your plan for mov­ing for­ward would bring us back to san­i­ty. I think you are a lit­tle like alelieo here, say­ing “Real­ly, guys , the earth goes around the sun.” and years lat­er, when it no longer mat­ters, they’ll say ’ Well, by gum you were right. Sor­ry about that.’

  2. I hope your think­ing becomes preva­lent. We can’t just crawl into our shells. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. 

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