“Berniecrats” Capitalize On Sanders’ Wave Of Support

Politicians are associating with Bernie and trying to mobilize his base for their own campaigns

(Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso)
Feb 27, 2016 at 3:26 PM ET

No matter who secures the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, the 2016 election season will be remembered as the time Bernie Sanders and his little campaign that could shook the foundation of the American left. The Vermont Senator’s no-nonsense brand of popular progressivism and “enough is enough” attitude has not only resonated with voters across the country, but also with up-and-coming politicians trying to mobilize the same kind of grassroots momentum that he’s inspired.

Many call themselves “Berniecrats.” They’re a loose collection of small-time politicians running for federal and state offices. Most are Democrats, though the group also counts Independents, Libertarians and Greens among its ranks. In addition to endorsing Sanders for president, they’re echoing his message and tapping into his various support networks both on and offline to rally support for their own campaigns, a Vocativ social media analysis found.

Take Shawn Olson, 45, of Alexandria, Minnesota. He recently took part in an “Ask Me Anything (AMA)” to connect with possible supporters on the Sanders For President Reddit forum. A one-time city council member, Olson is running for his first time to represent Minnesota’s eighth district in the state senate. His campaign is focusing on many of the same issues Sanders’ is: fighting income inequality, raising the minimum wage and improving infrastructure are all part of Olson’s platform. But while he wouldn’t necessarily brand himself as a “Berniecrat”—he considers himself closer to Paul Wellstone, the progressive Minnesota senator who tragically died in a plane crash in 2002—Olson said he is happy to associate with a progressive politician who has somehow managed to bring his left-wing message to the American mainstream.

“I am not running because Bernie is in there,” Olson told Vocativ. “But I am a progressive Democrat, and I’d love to have Bernie at the top of the ticket.”

He says the trickle-down effect of Sanders’ campaign has been noticeable in his district—people that otherwise would not engage in the political process are coming out to support him at rallies and provide small-scale donations for his campaign. As such, Olson said he is doing all he can to promote Sanders’ candidacy in his district.

“If he gets the nomination, it’s the best thing that could happen to the Democratic Party,” he said. “So I’m doing everything I can to promote him on social media… so we can get these damn reforms done!”

While new politicians such as Olson are finding their footing in Sanders’ shadow, more established figures are also joining the fold, pointing to a possible Sanders candidacy as a validation of their long-held political goals and ideologies. Richard “Tick” Segerblom, 67, a Democratic candidate running for his second term in the Nevada State Senate, said he and Sanders overlap on “pretty much everything” (the one exception being the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP), lauding, in particular, Sanders’ passionate embrace of the “socialist” label.

“I think it’s so fantastic that somebody is willing to use that word and get people to think about that European type of democracy,” Segerblom said. “I’m certainly a socialist… my family is originally from Sweden, and I always thought of Sweden as the ideal situation.”

Even though Sanders lost the caucus in his state, Segerblom compared the momentum that Sanders is inspiring to the student movements of the 1960s—an energy he wants to keep up to achieve his education and healthcare goals for his district.

“It’s so fun for me to see the millennials come full cycle and think big and question authority… everything we did they’re doing again,” Segerblom said. “Now, the question is whether we can get them to stay involved.”

This is where the Sanders support base really comes into play: Politicians can interface with one another—Vocativ received a Google Doc that contains information for about 200 “Sanders Democrats—and co-opt and reiterate aspects of Sanders’ message, but at the end of the day, the real power of the Sanders campaign comes not just from his “political revolution” rhetoric, but from those on the ground pushing his message. Now, members of that grassroots movement are using their resources to give lesser-known progressive politicians a boost.

Reddit, in particular, has been instrumental in connecting Sanders supporters with other politicians aligned with his message. Subreddits like Sanders For President and Grassroots Select count thousands of active members, and a dedicated group of moderators and contributors work hard to promote their aims and movements.

Ian, a self-described “high school student from Kansas” who operates under the Reddit handle merpsizzle, is one of Grassroots Select’s moderators. While he notes that Grassroots Select isn’t specifically affiliated with Sanders or the Democratic Party, he acknowledged his page’s cooperation with more Sanders-centric subreddits, as well as its role in helping certain candidates gain a wider audience.

“Multiple candidates have been in contact with us recently looking for a possible AMA or other awareness,” he told Vocativ by email. “For some candidates better name recognition can go very far. For several however we have contacted them as they have been quite busy on their own.”

In addition to Olson, several other Berniecrats have conducted Reddit AMAs over the past couple weeks: Tim Canova, a law professor who is running to challenge former Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 23rd district, took questions on January 16. John Fetterman, the current mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania and candidate for U.S. Senate, did an AMA on February 24.

Even a person like Benjamin Dixon, a progressive podcaster, author and Sanders supporter based in Boston, Massachusetts, has been been talked up on these Reddit forums. Dixon has been interviewing progressive candidates—including Nevada State Senator Segerblom—on his show in order for them to better disperse their messages. While he is unabashedly anti-GOP—the title of his book, after all, is “God Is Not a Republican—Dixon is also actively working against “establishment” Democrats, such as those in the Clinton camp.

“My program is not the Bernie Sanders show. But I have found it necessary to support him directly in a media format because of the way Hillary supporters are playing the game,” he said, adding that members of the mainstream media seem to have no problem attacking Sanders’ message but not endorsing Clinton outright. “My main thing is fighting against propaganda and false narratives.”

Dixon likened the rise of the “Berniecrats” to that of the Tea Party in 2009 in how both surged from a grassroots dissatisfaction—not in ideology (Dixon called the Tea Party’s stances “repugnant”). He said the movement Sanders’ possible candidacy has awakened with the Democratic Party should be viewed as a new normal rather than a passing fad.

“It’s not going anywhere. A lot of people in Democratic establishment are making jokes about the revolution. But I don’t think they realize that the revolution has already happened,” he said. “People have awakened to the fact that our party is not where it needs to be.”

But while Sanders’ ascendence has inspired wide-ranging political action across the country, it remains to be seen if his revolution will be able to lift individual Berniecrats. While Olson expressed confidence he would secure a victory in his Minnesota district, he acknowledged that he has very little competition at the moment. On the other hand, Canova has touted his 9,000 individual campaign contributions as proof of his campaign’s success; in reality, though, he is facing an uphill battle in Florida. In Pennsylvania, Fetterman has staunchly supported Sanders during his Senate bid, but he still appears to be trailing behind his main opponent.

Still, Dixon added that he’ll continue using his show as a platform for like-minded politicians to ensure that this rising tide of progressivism doesn’t recede any time soon.

“It doesn’t stop with the 2016 election. This is only the beginning,” he said.