Sara B., one of the founding members of Bay Area for Bernie, wrote to me recently:
I got a chance to speak to the official campaign last week! I had half an hour with Zack Exley, who’s on Bernie’s digital team, as he drove to a wedding. (Fun fact, Zack and Claire just moved to Vermont from the Bay Area.) We took the opportunity to introduce ourselves, and let each other know what our teams have been up to so far.
Zack confirmed a suspicion I’ve had this whole time – the campaign is swamped managing the explosive growth and excitement they’re experiencing. He said that he and Claire joined the team two weeks before the July 29th house parties, and that they have twelve people in the Vermont campaign office headquarters, total. I figured that was the case, because the same thing basically happened to us here in the Bay Area. Except where we’re interfacing with locals, they’re interfacing with the whole country. This is a great problem to have, and despite the back-up in merchandise deliveries and slow responses, I think Bernie’s campaign has been doing an admirable job.
I told Zack how Bernie’s event submission page and volunteer management software was a curveball for Bay Area for Bernie, but a welcome curveball. We’d been trying to develop our own volunteer management software at the time, so the campaign saved us a ton of work. He told me that he’d been experiencing a fair amount of pushback from other organizers – people who demanded that the campaign provide volunteer lists for their zip codes, or people who were angry because they felt like the campaign was moving in on their turf. I recognized what he was talking about, because already we’ve heard local complaints about us protecting e-mail data integrity, and talk about “revolt” because we don’t always respond as fast as some may prefer.
I wanted to write this blog post to talk about the structure that this campaign is going to have to use to succeed. There are two or three paid staffers in Vermont and a few help desk volunteers keeping tabs on events in the Bay Area. Bay Area for Bernie has a small group of people with jobs creating resources, organizing events, and designing, ordering, and delivering supplies locally in their spare time. None of us have the capacity (or the money) to oversee or manage much of anything.
Most campaigns operate in hierarchical structures. Actually, most organizations in American society operate in hierarchical (or vertical) structures. Anyone who’s worked in the corporate world is familiar with the CEO who makes decisions for the whole company, which are then disseminated downwards through layers of management. These are the easiest organization structures to manage, because the authority to make decisions is located in one person at the top. Hierarchies are expensive, though, because it’s costly to hire layers of middle management. If the Bernie campaign were a hierarchy, this is how it would look for the Bay Area:
The thing about hierarchies is that they remove accountability, transparency, and direct engagement. CEOs are protected from criticism and the consequences of their decisions by the layers of managers in between themselves and the people their decisions affect. Workers at the bottom of the chain aren’t supposed to think about the consequences of what they’re doing, they just have to jump when they’re told to jump. Any ideas they have for improving the organization have to move upward through the chain of people for a decision-maker to hear them, which doesn’t happen often. When it does, credit doesn’t usually go where it’s due. I find organizations like this stifling.
But thank goodness, that’s not how this is going to work. Bernie’s committed to not taking big money, and while that means he doesn’t have the financial resources to create a hierarchical organization, he does have the people resources to foster a team-based (or horizontal) organization. The costs of this structure are that it’s difficult (although not impossible) to scale, authority and decision-making ability is disseminated among many groups and individuals, and it requires a team culture to function well. But that’s what we’re shooting for, right? A grassroots political revolution on the Left is going to require us to work together as a team.
Everyone involved in this campaign, from Bernie 2016 to Bay Area for Bernie to the local Bernie groups to individual people, is not a level in a pyramid but a node in a network. Each node is autonomous and self-directed, but has resources to share. No single node has much individually, but together we have a huge, diverse pool of talent, expertise, and labor. If we become good collaborators, the campaign will be flexible, adaptable, and able to grow without sacrificing the ability to empower individuals. Each node can determine its own priorities. People can participate to their preferred level.
To borrow a phrase from Black Lives Matter, we can make this movement leader-full (as opposed to Occupy’s leaderless movement). We all have a stake in this, and Bernie’s made it clear that he depends on us to organize just as much as we depend on him to lead. Instead of getting tetchy with each other about who gets to cover the local farmers market, or who gets access to private, personal data, let’s recognize that this political movement is bigger than any single participant, even Bernie himself. We all have a part to play, and we’re all in the same boat together.