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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Role of Grassroots Activism

Charles Chamberlain, Executive Director, Democracy for America
Philadelphia, PA
July 25, 2016

Date: 07/25/2016 Location: Philadelphia, PA Description: Charles Chamberlain, Executive Director at Democracy for America, talks about the role of grassroots activism in elections at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. - State Dept Image

5:30 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Welcome again to the Foreign Press Center’s briefing center at the Democratic National Convention. I have a few generic housekeeping announcements to make first. Our events are on the record. They are being livestreamed on, and both a transcript will be posted there and a video will be posted to the DVIDS hub []. Please mute your cell phones at this time and state your name and publication for the transcript. Be mindful of our single microphone. Unfortunately, we had some technical challenges, so we have a microphone that will be coming either from your right or to your left. And be patient and then state your name and publication so that we can get your name in the transcript. And lastly, our speakers’ views are their own and do not reflect official U.S. Government policy.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce Charles Chamberlain, who is the executive director of Democracy for America. He’s here today to discuss the role of grassroots activism in the 2016 election. Without further ado, here is Charles.

MR CHAMBERLAIN: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me here today. So Democracy for America is a national grassroots organization with over a million members nationwide. We’ve endorsed candidates up and down the ballot for the last 12 years; we’ve elected over 860 candidates to all levels of office, from local school boards all the way up to the presidency.

This year, we endorsed Bernie Sanders after a member vote. Over 270,000 of our members voted, and 88 percent of them asked us to endorse Bernie Sanders for president. From that point on, we went all in on the campaign. Our members participated in raising over $1.8 million for Bernie Sanders. Our members participated in over 115,000 phone bank shifts, helping to create over 75,000 phone calls during the primary. That’s the largest number of phone – sign says 79 – 75,000. I mean 75 million phone calls in the primary. That is by far the most amount of phone calls ever made in a presidential race, and that was just the primary. And it’s certainly a signal to the power of grassroots organizing and what can happen. Our members knocked on doors. Over 5 million doors were knocked on for Bernie Sanders during the primary. That’s 5 million doors. That’s a lot of doors.

So what you see from the Bernie Sanders supporters, from the political revolution that he’s building, is we saw a great deal of energy – the passion. In fact, I think you’re seeing some of that passion out in front of the Democratic convention now. I think we’re going to see some of that passion on the floor of the convention today and tonight and the rest of this week. But that passion is based in a belief that we can make it so that we have a country that represents the people, that represents the people better, that actually delivers on real reforms that will help take this government back from the rich, from the powerful, and put the power back in the hands of the people.

The biggest thing that Bernie Sanders did with this movement is he helped lead it – a movement that was already existing that’s fighting for a middle class that can actually succeed; one where we have a minimum wage that’s $15 an hour, something that people can live off of; where we can expand social security so that grandparents and the elderly and the sick can get the money they need to be able to pay the bills and the doctor and not have to choose between food and rent. This is a revolution that works to expand access to college education through debt-free, tuition-free college, making it possible for everyone to be able to go to college in this country.

All these ideas are not new ideas. These are ideas that, in fact, actually were popular in America before and on some level have been done before. But at some point over the course of the last several decades, they’ve been pushed out. They’ve been pushed out for decisions that have benefited large corporations over and over again, and over the ability for it to benefit average, regular working Americans. So that’s why there was a huge amount of movement here, a movement that was able to be built around Bernie Sanders. But literally the slogan of “Not me, us” – that’s the reality. It was never just about Bernie Sanders. It was always about building a political revolution that could fight for real change.

Now, at Democracy for America we’re really aware of that. We’ve been working on the fight against income inequality. For over three and a half years, we’ve been focused on it exclusively, but in our 12-year existence we’ve fought about it over and over and over again to try to expand wealth for the middle class. That’s why originally we fought over a year ago to try to get Elizabeth Warren to run. We ran a “Run, Warren, Run” campaign and asked Elizabeth Warren to run as a champion on income inequality. So when Bernie stood up, it was quite exciting. It was someone here who was ready to actually do the hard work it took to lead.

And what you saw is you saw him motivate the grassroots over and over again. And in fact, we won 22 states. We won 22 states, with many of those states – probably I think, 15 or maybe 20, actually maybe all 22 0f them – after the media had already said we were dead, said we didn’t have a chance, said there was no way we could win. And the reason we were able to win was because of that grassroots activism, because of those phone calls – 75 million phone calls to voters. That kind of connection is what made it so it’s possible for us to break through a media environment that was saying over and over again that our campaign didn’t have a chance.

It was no surprise to us to see the success of this campaign. When you have a good message, when you’re actually running on something that resonates with real people – like fighting for expanding Social Security; raising minimum wage to $15 an hour; holding Wall Street accountable; debt-free, tuition-free college – when you run on real ideas that have a real vision for America, it inspires people. It makes them passionate. It makes them get out there and actually do the work it takes to win. That’s what we saw during this campaign, and we saw it happen over and over again.

But it doesn’t end with Bernie, either. So in a way, today is the end. Bernie’s endorsed Hillary Clinton. We fight together in unity to make sure that Hillary Clinton (inaudible) absolutely the goal. But that’s not the only goal. Because while it may be the end of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president, it is not the end of the political revolution. Our members, the political revolution across this country, is ready to fight for candidates up and down the ballot. That’s why we’re fighting for great candidates like in Washington State Pramila Jayapal, who’s running for Congress; or we have in Stockton, California – we have an incredible candidate running for mayor; or you look in New York, we have Zephyr Teachout running for Congress. Over and over again, up and down the ballot across this country, we have candidates that are ready to fight and actually deliver for the political revolution, and we have a political revolution ready to fight and deliver for them.

So I think as we see, what’s going to happen over the course of the next several years is we’re going to see victories for the political revolution up and down the ballot. But it’s not going to be limited just to the ballot. We’re also taking the Democratic Party back. It’s vitally important that we take the Democratic Party and we remove it from the hands of some of the biggest corporate interests in America, and we return it to the hands of the people, which is why it’s exciting to have on the eve of this DNC Convention to have Debbie Wasserman Schultz be fired for what happened during this primary. That’s accountability. That’s actual real advancement.

We’re going to have a changed and different party moving forward. That’s exciting because we need it. Forty-three percent of the people, 43 percent of the delegates, over 13 million votes for Bernie Sanders’ issues, ideas, and beliefs; it’s time that those ideas and beliefs are fully ingrained into the Democratic Party, and that’s what we’re seeing, both with the new leadership at the top but also with the most progressive platform in Democratic history. They’re all the things I mentioned: expanding Social Security, fight for minimum wage, tuition-free college – they’re all in the platform.

Some of the things that we’re fighting for we’re going to have to continue fighting for. We’re definitely going to make sure we stop the Trans Pacific Partnership deal. It’s a bad trade deal. It will cost American jobs. That’s a fight that we know that we’re going to have to continue to fight. And we may have to fight that fight even with a Clinton administration next – as soon as next year.

But one of the things that is exciting for the political revolution and one of the things that is just reality that we understand, while Hillary may not be the best vehicle for our cause, it’s a heck of a lot better than having to try to fight against Donald Trump at every step of the way. As I’ve been saying over and over again, we’d rather fight the Clinton-Kaine administration from time to time than fight with Donald Trump for everything all the time.

So I think we have an exciting future ahead of us with a lot of victories up and down the ballot, starting at school boards, state legislatures, the House of Representatives, and even taking back the Senate this fall to make sure the Democrats take control with progressive leaders like Russ Feingold. They’ll join great progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who are already there, and Jeff Merkley, Sherrod Brown.

Our side of the party is ascendant. The Warren wing, the Bernie Sanders wing versus the Wall Street wing – the Wall Street wing is dying because that’s not the future of our party. The future of our party rests with the people that are fighting for real change that will build a modern American society that works for the middle class.

So with that I’d be happy to open this up for any questions you have.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Robert Poredos from Slovenian Press Agency. Will you be able to transfer that level of enthusiasm to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign? Because there’s a lot of people angry outside and because of the emails and that stuff.

MR CHAMBERLAIN: Sure, that’s a great question. So I don’t think that the energy transfers exactly, but what I do think is I think that what you’re seeing outside is a small fraction of the people that supported Bernie Sanders. Thirteen million people across America voted Bernie Sanders. They’re ready to make sure that we defeat Donald Trump because they know that the path to victory is within the Democratic Party, it’s with a Democratic president, and it’s not with Donald Trump.

So you ask me are they going to be super excited about it. I don’t know. Are they going to be happy warriors? Probably not. But are they going to be warriors? Absolutely. And are they going to be knocking on doors, making phone calls, and doing the work it takes to actually win? Absolutely. And I think we’re going to see that over the months ahead.

In fact, if you look at the polling, you see that, in fact, Bernie Sanders supporters are more likely to support Hillary Clinton right now than Hillary Clinton supporters were to support Obama at this point in 2008. We see that. We hear that from our members. We know that’s where they really stand regardless of what it looks like from the protestors outside.

QUESTION: Martin Burcharth, U.S. correspondent for a newspaper in Denmark called Information. I’d like to know – there were two events at the end of this week that caused consternation among the Bernie Sanders delegates – as you know, WikiLeaks and then the selection of Tim Kaine. I talked to some of the delegates. They were very unhappy and they seemed to be some of them saying well, maybe we’re now on the fence, maybe we’ll go for Jill Stein. So that’s one question. Has that taken some air out of the (inaudible) follow-up to my colleague? What does Democracy for America actually plan to do out there in the grassroots? I know you’ve been very strong in other – like 2008, I remember you from then. I remember you from 2012. You have a lot of people going out canvassing. Are these people ready to do the same for Hillary Clinton as they did for Bernie Sanders? Thank you.

MR CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah. The answer to your question is straightforward: Yes. Our members are already out there knocking on doors. They’re already making phone calls. We have elections happening every day – well, not every day, but regularly, week after week, as we’ve gone through this primary in states across America. Coming up in just – in under a month, we have a primary election in Washington state. That’s a perfect example of a very critical primary race where we are supporting Pramila Jayapal against several typical corporate Democrats. This is a classic example of the chance for the political revolution to have a real victory, and they’re already out there doing the work to make it happen – contributing money, making phone calls, knocking on doors, recruiting more volunteers and bringing them in.

In states where we don’t have elections, volunteers are registering voters. They’re registering them now before the deadlines to make sure that we bring as many new people to the polls as we possibly can. And these are Bernie Sanders supporters. These aren’t people that have stopped and dropped out. These are people that are engaged and involved and want to make sure that we win in November – not just to the presidency, but that we take back the Senate, that we flip state legislatures from red to blue, that we make sure that we win important seats in city councils and state legislatures around the country. So the answer is absolutely vital and excited grassroots that are ready to do the work and they already are.

Now, you asked about whether – does Tim Kaine depress the --

QUESTION: Up and down the ballot – that’s what you’re saying, but I want to know about Hillary Clinton. I mean, I understand up and down the ballot that you’re supporting these candidates. That’s fine and that means you’re out in the field. But are they actually going to support Hillary Clinton at the same level of enthusiasm? That’s the question.

MR CHAMBERLAIN: Well, the same level of enthusiasm that they supported Bernie Sanders? No, I don’t think so. But I think if you’re talking about a level of enthusiasm that makes the difference to make sure we win, the answer is yes. Bernie Sanders’ supporters are not going to be voting for Donald Trump.

Now, I think there is a real question about whether or not they all show up at the polls in November. And look, we have a hundred and something days left to make sure that happens, and that’s going to rely upon the power of people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren making the case for why it’s important they show up and vote for Hillary.

But it’s also going to be incumbent upon the political – the Democratic establishment to make sure they embrace the movement. I think the firing of Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the beginning of this convention – an unprecedented event – in response to the emails is exactly the right kind of thing that the Democratic establishment needed to do to prove that they understood that they had made mistakes and that the door was wide open to bring the Bernie Sanders’ supporters in.

MODERATOR: We’ll come back to you. We’ll come back to you, sir.

MR CHAMBERLAIN: I don’t know which question I didn’t answer. That’s why I can’t answer it for you now. What --

MODERATOR: We’ll come back.


QUESTION: My name is Catherine Lankes from the Austrian Press Agency, and I would like to do a follow-up – both of my colleagues, actually, because I’ve spent the past days being out there, talking to Hillary delegates, to Bernie delegates. And the Bernie delegates are fiercely opposed to Hillary, and I don’t see any of them being willing to vote for Hillary or stand up for Hillary or rally for Hillary. So I would – it doesn’t really correspond with what you’re saying at the moment, and I’d be interested in what you’re expecting from this convention, seeing the – what is happening at the moment on the floor. Thank you.

MR CHAMBERLAIN: Yeah. So you have to remember the people that become delegates, the people that actually come and drive all the way to be here and stand outside in 100-degree heat, are some of the most committed, most passionate, most behind Bernie that they could possibly be. So of course, these are the people that are going to have the hardest time letting go. They’re going to have the hardest time being able to heal the process of primary. The reality is it takes time. A hard-fought primary that only ended a month ago – it takes time to heal. And the people that are going to heal last are the people that are on the floor of the convention right now, especially when some of them still have hope that there’s a possibility the superdelegates could choose the candidate that always polled better against Donald Trump.

So they’re hopeful and they want to make that happen, but as they see as they come in that, unfortunately, the race is lost and that Bernie Sanders has endorsed the winner, it’s hard. And you can imagine how hard that would be if you’ve worked for the last year of your life to try to make something happen for a candidate that you’ve loved, that you really worked very hard for, that you’re willing to stand in 100-degree heat and protest.

So I think what you’re seeing is you’re seeing a microcosm of some of the most passionate Bernie Sanders supporters, and that gives a very disjointed view of the reality. Over 13 million people across America voted for Bernie Sanders. Our members were many of those 13 million. Our members have told us – 98 percent of our members have said they want to see us support the Democratic nominee and work hard to make sure she gets elected. So that’s a tiny, tiny 2 percent.

If you remember in 2008, the PUMAs – the “party unity, my ass” – those were the people that supported Hillary Clinton that said that if Obama won, they would vote for John McCain. There was times when polling showed that there were as many as potentially 40 percent of them that supported that idea that they would vote for John McCain over Obama. Did that happen? No, it didn’t happen. Because in the end, after time to heal and they were able to – given the space and they were embraced by the party and brought in, they were able to heal and realize what the real goal is here.

And the bottom line is Donald Trump is not going to be the future for the political revolution. Donald Trump can’t deliver on the progressive goals we’re looking for. Donald Trump doesn’t want to have tuition-free college. He wants to charge more, he wants to privatize it, and he wants to make sure that someone makes a profit of it – probably him. And that’s true with every issue across the board. Expanding Social Security? He doesn’t want to expand it. He wants to cut it. If it’s raising minimum wage, he says the wages are too high.

So is Hillary Clinton Bernie Sanders? Absolutely not. She is not. But is she so phenomenally better than Donald Trump that that case – just – it will happen. As people get – as they get more and more time and space, it’s easier and easier to see how important it is to make sure that our victory is going to be her victory.

QUESTION: Hi. Hi, (inaudible) from the Norwegian daily (inaudible). You said that your part of the party is winning and the part – the Wall Street part of the party is losing. Do you have any examples in policy of the reason why you say that? And also you mentioned and many people have mentioned that the party platform is the most progressive ever. How important is the party platform in terms of policy?

MR CHAMBERLAIN: See, you answered your own question with your next question. So how are we winning? We’re winning by having the most progressive party platform in the history of the Democratic Party. We’re winning because we’ve added some 44 senators voted for expanding Social Security when only three years ago we had a president that suggested we should cut it. We are in a place where we are having victories, where we’re talking about conversations. It’s not about whether or not college should be cheaper. It’s whether or not it should be tuition-free or debt-free. We’re not discussing about whether or not we should raise minimum wage at all. We’re talking about whether or not to raise it to $12 or $15.

These are the arguments of the political revolution. That’s not the arguments of the Democratic establishment as it’s been in the past, the Wall Street wing. The Wall Street wing has been the ones that have been saying things like it’s time for us to have Social Security cuts on the table so that we can get other things we want.

QUESTION: Do you have any examples of policy changes that has already happened – not just talk but something that has happened?

MR CHAMBERLAIN: Sure, legit. I understand the question. I would say that we have won races like Elizabeth Warren’s race as the key race. We’ve won primaries across the country that were key and important. If you look at who won in 2014, Al Franken in 2008 barely won his election by only 310 votes. In 2014, Al Franken ran on a populist vision for America and he won by 10 percentage points. Meanwhile, candidates like Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky that ran on the old Wall Street wing, Republican-lite platform, who’s saying I’m not as bad as the other guy lost.

So I think if you look at where our victories are right now, they’ve been electoral. And as the issue victories happen, we’re moving the ball forward. But we’re at 43 percent of the party. That’s a lot more than a lot of people believed. We won 22 states with these issues, and nobody thought that would happen. Was it enough to win? It wasn’t 25 states. It wasn’t over half. So we’re not quite there yet, but we’re on the ascending path.

QUESTION: Thank you. It’s not on. Ole Nyeng. I am from the Danish weekly Weekendavisen. I would ask you, we don’t know for sure if it’s the Russians who’s behind the leakage of the emails, but if it is, how would you characterize Russia’s interference into American politics?

MR CHAMBERLAIN: I think one of the problems with the fact that we allow so much dark money in our system is that we actually don’t know which foreign governments are involved in our political system. They could be supporting super PACs for Donald Trump. They could be supporting super PACs for our own side. The reality is, is that corporate money and foreign money is awash in our system and it’s a problem. It’s one of the reasons why Bernie Sanders, when he was running for president, ran off of small-dollar contributions. What was it, over 8 million donations, an average of $27? Because people, actual people, cared about making sure that we took our government back from corporations, from foreign governments that wanted to spend.

So you ask about Russian involvement in politics. I would say I have a feeling that there’s a lot more than just Russian involvement in our politics. And that’s one of the key reasons why we have to get money out of politics, why we have to make sure that we have public financing of campaigns, and why we have to make sure the majority of campaigns are funded by small-dollar contributions when it isn’t.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible) for the last question.

QUESTION: Hi, David Smith of The Guardian. What do you say to those Bernie Sanders supporters who say look, this is a matter of conscience and principle, I really don’t like Hillary Clinton, I’m going to vote for the Green Party; and how can you tell me that I’m not allowed to follow my conscience and you tell me that we have to accept this, this two-party system, even when both candidates turn me off?

MR CHAMBERLAIN: So the reality is I would never tell somebody to not vote their conscience. They absolutely should. And the bottom line is that I believe that Bernie Sanders supporters understand what’s at stake in this election. And while you see some people that say they’re going to vote for Jill Stein or they say they’re going to vote or they’re not going to vote at all, I think the bottom line is that as they heal from this election, as they seek the stakes are involved, more and more of them are going to get out and they’re actually going to vote on the Democratic ticket. They’re going to vote for Hillary Clinton because they realize that that’s the path forward for us to win.

But I would never tell somebody to not vote their conscience. That’s the key. The reality is that when people vote their conscience, that’s how they become passionate, that’s how they actually do the real work. Volunteers don’t volunteer for things they’re just kind of meh on. They go out there and they work for the things they’re actually passionate for. And so that’s why it’s important to say do what you’re passionate for, vote your conscience, and fight for what you believe in.

And at the end of the day, like I said, that’s going to be Hillary Clinton for the vast majority of the Bernie – the political revolution, because they know that we’re not going to get to where we want to be under Donald Trump. It may be hard to do it, harder to do it under Hillary than it would have been under Bernie, because we’re certainly going to have to fight. We’ve no illusions we’re going to be fighting with the Clinton-Kaine administration probably over economic policy, perhaps over the Trans Pacific Partnership, which is a critical, vitally important issue that we have to defeat. But I’d rather fight with the Clinton administration from time to time than fight with Donald Trump all the time.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ve got time for one more quick one. Let’s go back Martin Burcharth.

QUESTION: Okay, just another question and that is about trade, as you just mentioned. I mean, the fact of the matter is that Trump is very good on trade issues from a blue-collar point of view, blue-collar workers’ point of view, and Hillary Clinton is not nearly as good in their view. And so the question is, isn’t that where – I mean, it’s great that these people are going – Bernie Sanders supporters are going out to support, as you say, and canvass and do all these things, but there’s one problem. That’s the trade issue, right?

MR CHAMBERLAIN: So if you look at the political rhetoric of this season, the reality is that Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton all agree on one thing, and that is that the Trans Pacific Partnership should not go forward. Now, President Obama is still pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership, so we still have a fight ahead of us potentially in the lame duck Congress. But all three candidates running for president have said the Trans Pacific Partnership must be stopped.

And now you say Trump is better on trade. To me, if anybody thinks that Donald Trump is better on trade than Hillary Clinton, then I have a Trump University diploma to sell you. This is not reality. In fact, I’ll throw in a Trump steak. The reality is this is a guy who is a con man who works his day, day after day after day, to make sure the businesses that he run serve his needs. What do we think he’s going to do for America? He’s just going to continue to make sure that the billionaire class gets everything they want while the rest of the workers across this country struggle and fight to get the pennies in the door. That’s not the America I believe in, that’s not the America I’m going to fight for, and that’s not the America that the political revolution is fighting for. And that’s why Donald Trump will be defeated in November, and he’ll be defeated because the Democratic establishment and the political revolution will work together to make it happen.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

MR CHAMBERLAIN: Thank you very much. Really appreciate you all having me here.

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