The broad lines of the election are clear. Donald Trump will be Trump, with all the risk that poses for the GOP and the nation. Hillary Clinton will carry the Democratic banner, the first woman to be a major party nominee. And Bernie Sanders has at least promised to vote for Clinton.
But will Sanders supporters, energized by his political revolution, follow his lead?
Some pundits worry whether they will support Clinton, shift to Trump, or just stay home. I worry that they will repeat the mistake after Barack Obama won in 2008 – they will stop organizing.
Obama’s slogan was an empowering “Yes, we can.” But the electorate seemed to assume that the new president could single-handedly usher in broad change. Instead, his agenda was derailed by a stalled economy, and he spent most of his political capital passing health reform.
Meanwhile, right-wing donors poured resources into local organizing. The tea party victories in 2010 set the stage for gerrymandered redistricting and a decade of Republican control over statehouses and courts.
The results have been stark. The U.S. House is overwhelmingly Republican even though GOP candidates barely won a majority of total votes in 2014. We have seen the dismantling of public sector labor rights in Wisconsin, assaults on transgender rights in North Carolina and laws restricting voting in a shocking 33 states.
Maybe a President Sanders could have bent Congress to his progressive will. But to move policy, you need an organized public that is willing to support leaders when they do the right thing and to protest when they need to be held accountable.
We have seen the power of such organizing here in California. Community groups pushed a tax on millionaires to stabilize the state’s finances. Labor groups fought for a $15 an hour minimum wage. And immigrant-rights organizers secured driver’s licenses for undocumented residents and health insurance for their children.
Over the last year, I have led a research project looking at how progressives might not just win elections but actually change people’s lives. One key lesson is that too often, “get out the vote” operations parachute in, leaving scant infrastructure behind. Instead, organizations need to get built that can force progress on issues such as job quality and criminal-justice reform.
Another lesson is that timing is everything. The 2010 tea party wave set in motion a political era that drove the states and Congress rightward. This election is critical as it will set up 2020, the platform year for redistricting and political life in the next decade.
So if you supported Sanders – and so many young people I know did – it’s time to lick your wounds. But it’s not time to do what your elders did in 2008 – bottle up that organizing fervor and leave it off the field.
So much of what you want – a more just economy, a more inclusive society and a more sustainable planet – is not up to the politicians, but up to us.
Manuel Pastor is professor of sociology and the director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.