Donald Trump is president, and Senator Bernie Sanders nearly unseated the beltway-est beltway candidate, Hillary Clinton, for the Democratic nomination. Which leaves both mainstream Republicans and Democrats looking pretty limp and ineffectual. But the populist political appeal of one person—Trump or Sanders—rarely lasts beyond that person.
But even if Sanders couldn’t restructure the Democratic Party, a bunch of his supporters still think his campaign strategy could. These so-called Berniecrats think they can pressure insider Democrats to adopt more progressive policies, like a universal right to education, paid maternity leave, and ending the war on drugs—all that stuff that made Sanders popular with millennials and less so with the establishment and Baby Boomers. So, kind of like a left-wing Tea Party.
They’ve even given themselves a name: the Justice Democrats. And like some mirror-universe version of the Tea Party, the Justice Democrats likewise plan to build grassroots support on the internet. In the wake of the Women’s March and other anti-Trump protest movements, progressives have realized that they still need to mobilize in a way that will garner political power. The Justice Democrats think that a successful YouTube empire, combined with Sanders campaign digital expertise, might be enough to put new, millennially-minded candidates into office.
Though the group has largely disappeared from the headlines, the Tea Party’s success in driving the GOP to power—and to the right—is manifest. The Justice Democrats, a hodgepodge of Sanders-campaign veterans and liberal media types, hope to have the same effect. Right now the group numbers just 12 people, but they claim the digital platform experience of The Young Turk Network (with a YouTube channel that has over 3 billion views), the Sanders campaign, and the popular streaming and YouTubing Secular Talk Radio.
That digital-first approach might confer a few advantages. The progressive base is young and internet savvy, as was clear during the Sanders campaign. Second, the internet never keeps its thoughts to itself. The Justice Democrats are planning to use the TYT and Secular Talk Radio YouTube channels and social media presences to push out videos on everything from policy positions to potential candidates, and they’re depending on their subscribers’ feedback. “We’ll use the digital platform to find a candidates that have the best chance of success,” says Cenk Uygur, co-founder of the Justice Democrats and founder of TYT Network. “Our followers will naturally get excited by some of them, and that gives you some strong evidence of where you’re more likely to be productive.”
And of course, the internet could solve their biggest political problem: money. TYT raised $1.1 million to fund investigative journalism during the Trump administration, and the Sanders campaign raised over $200 million. They’ll need to repeat that performance if they’re to run somewhere between 200 and 400 candidates for the 2018 midterm elections. “Money is how the Tea Party got coopted by the same corporate interests they thought they were fighting,” Uygur says. “You can’t raise money on TV by asking people to go to a website later. And we’re not going to take money from corporations. We’re going to do it with small online donors, Bernie style.”
And Uygur says they won’t stop at a few Vermont or California statehouse seats. “The ultimate goal is to take over Congress,” says Uygur. “The first thing the Democrats will do is beseech us to not primary people,” Uygur says. “They’ll offer some concessions, and our answer will still range from ‘no’ to ‘hell no.’”
That’ll certainly threaten party unity, and make these Justice Democrats unpopular. The thing is, despite the efforts of his mainstream detractors, Trump is POTUS. Protests are in full swing, but progressives still risk apathy or exhaustion from their supporters. “The left needs to take a lesson from the Tea Party and frame these issues in terms of existential threat,’” says Christopher Parker, a political scientist at the University of Washington who has studied the Tea Party. “That life will not look the same for you after Trump is done.” Grim, for sure—maybe grim enough to move the Democrats toward a nascent Sanders wing.