Zack Exley on (Maybe) the Only Problem in the Sanders Campaign

Just days after it became clear that Bernie Sanders will almost definitely not win the Democratic nomination, former senior advisor to the Sanders campaign Zack Exley appeared on the Personal Democracy Forum stage to share lessons learned over the past year, or “how we can again unleash the power of the many.”

His talk focused on the plight of Sarah, from Overland Park, Kansas—a hardworking mother struggling to get by because shit is broken—and others like her. “I want to be clear about what unleashed the power of many in this campaign,” Exley said. “It’s that people are getting screwed.” Twitter reactions ranged from appreciation for “real talk” instead of “happy tools digital triumphalism” and criticism for the self-congratulatory tone that made it sound like ‘no one has ever been inspired or organized before.’

His words fell on well-versed ears; most Personal Democracy Forum attendees are familiar with the many ways low income Americans are “getting screwed,” even if they are not intimately familiar with that experience. And there was no acknowledgement that similar fears and struggles are sending voters straight into the Donald Trump camp, or analysis as to what makes the fears of Sanders supporters differ from Trump supporters.

It wasn’t until an afternoon panel on decentralized organizing that Exley drilled down to any specifics in terms of tools or strategies.

In response to moderator Allison Fine’s question, “how do you build structure into a decentralized movement?,” Exley replied, “Really difficultly.”

According to Exley, by the time he got involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign overseeing distributed organizing, the “tyranny of the annoying,” was already in full swing. The tyranny of the annoying, Exley explained, is the principle that in every group of 100 fantastic people there is always one person intent on destroying the organization: trying to lead when they shouldn’t lead, intentionally undermining other organizers, or otherwise tearing the group down from within.

When Exley started working with the campaign, there were already a number of local groups on Facebook and Slack—and already many of them were dealing with a problem child.

“It wasn’t the only problem” in the campaign, Exley said. “I’m still shell-shocked by it.” He paused. “Maybe it was the only problem come to think of it.”

The optimal size for a Slack organizing channel, Exley said, is about 30. Anything bigger than that and the channel starts to break down because there aren’t very many moderation tools (and because the larger a group gets the more likely it is that someone annoying will crash the party).

Exley argued that new tools don’t replace old tools but are always expanding the realm of possibility. “The horse was a new tool,” he said. “That’s how empires were created.”

“Railroads,” he added, “made America one unified organization. Whole new organizations grew out because of this new technology.”

“But new tools are coming faster and faster and they’re becoming harder to use and harder to tweak,” he said. “I can see if we just change a few of these features, it will allow us to do more at a higher level faster.”

As a one-time computer programmer, Exley says it’s frustrating to recognize that and not to be able to do anything about it.

After the panel, I followed up with Exley for more specifics on what features he’d like to see added to organizing tools. He said he would like more moderation options on Slack, and the ability to nominate or anoint a Slack channel leader.

Although many of his comments were in the past tense (as some noted on Twitter) Exley did not offer a campaign postmortem, nor did he speculate extensively about “what’s next,” although he did plug the campaign Brand New Congress, which he helped start along with other former Sanders organizers.

Exley said the Brand New Congress campaign will seek to break many of the organizing structures that election campaigns that came before have been built on—beginning with compensation. Exley told Civicist after the panel that there will be no difference in terms of responsibility between paid and unpaid volunteers. When I asked why pay anyone, he said because they have some money, and because they want to win. When I asked how they would decide who got paid, he said he wasn’t quite sure yet. He said the people “I want to pay”—he is not part of the current leadership team of five and so is not in charge of these decisions—”want to work full time and don’t have any other way to participate” without financial compensation.

“So like need-based salaries?” I asked.

“Not salaries.”

“Need-based compensation, then?”

“No, more like need-based support.”

And Exley reiterated his belief that “the revolution will not be funded.” The money, he said, needs to come from the people—from the bottom not the top.