The new fight for democracy: Here’s how the young ‘uns are knocking down the house

Editor’s Note: The millennials have come of political age. Empowered by new-age media technology and democratic platforms, folks from traditionally marginalised and politically suppressed backgrounds are coming forward to actively participate in democracy. Regardless of the state of politics today or yesterday’s election results, this story gives us hope for a politically responsible tomorrow.

Knock Down The House has been 2019’s most celebrated political documentary thus far. Not only did it make its mark at several American film festivals—two awards at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, one at the SXSW 2018 Film Fest, and more. Moreover, it also left its audience inspired and moved to tears. The film is now being broadcast on Netflix, and continues to tell its tale of hope to millions in the comfort of their homes.

Wait, isn’t it the documentary on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Yes, and no. The 76-minute film is a bird’s eye view into four grassroot progressive campaigns in the 2018 American midterms. They were all campaigns managed by the Justice Democrats, “an American progressive political action committee ” run by progressive liberals and is the offshoot of the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez (AOC), an alumna of the Sanders’ campaign, stood in the Bronx area to be the Democratic candidate, and eventually, the Representative for the House (analogous to the Indian Lok Sabha). 

You might know her from her early 2019 Green New Deal proposal (alongside fellow Justice Democrats, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts) to the House, shifting the largely stagnant narrative on US climate policy from negligence to active interest. Needless to say, she won the election from the Bronx.

Also read: What’s the big deal with the Green New Deal?

The movie is about more. It follows three others who had stood up to form a Brand New Congress, free from corporate funding, that stood for free college education and subsidised healthcare, agnostic to their political affiliation within the two-party system. While the Brand New Congress initiative has now been abandoned, the Justice Democrats midterm election umbrella once housed Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, all fighting their races with completely different motivations than that of AOC. And their fights are just as important in making AOC’s race so historic.

What makes it so powerful?

Not all four won. The documentary describes their losses in painstaking detail as it did their campaigns.

AOC was a bartender struggling to keep her house, Amy Vilela lost a family member to insurance loopholes, Cori Bush was fighting police brutality, Paula Jean Swearengin was pushing for better policy for coal in her district. These are highly fraught political nerves that these newcomers keep bringing up.  Their fight is uphill not only because they’re progressives against the GoP, but also going against several Democratic interests that were shaped by corporate or election-favourable interests. Neither party stands for the interests of the working class, these women agree.

“For one of us to make it through, 100 of us have to try.”

AOC’s words reflect what the documentary subtly highlights. It’s a fight for the underdog over the rich, corporation-bankrolled campaigns like that of her Democrat competition, Joe Crowley. One of the Justice Democrats’ leaders Saikat Chakrabarti describes their role as bringing back accountability in politics.

“We’re OK losing 90 percent of our races, if it means that the ones we win cause the kind of shift in thinking about what’s possible—like Alexandria’s race honestly did,” Chakrabarti told Rolling Stone in 2018. “So that’s a different way of measuring success.”

The film itself started off as a low budget production following AOC in her early days, back when her campaign showed no signs of breaking ground and public donations were scarce. Director Rachel Lears saw a spark in AOC which grew into conviction that she would do great things and grew into a film that sold to Netflix for $10 million last year.

The campaigns, women, and their strength makes for a powerful triumvirate that in turn concocted a potent brew of political inspiration. Whatever your political affiliation, you will be moved by their passion for their causes, and rethink your role in democracy.

Inspiration beyond solidarity

Hundreds of people have appreciated the film since, and the women  have been swept over by the love & support, while The Justice Democrats are enjoying their moment in the limelight. Their campaigns have been more inspiring than your average Tweetstorms.

In India, a similar model of crowdfunded political campaigns began to take root since 2017, also inspired by Bernie Sanders’ anti-corporation funding.

On a phone interview with the founder of CrowdNewsing and , Bilal Zaidi, an ex- journalist, talks about his journey from reporting the 2014 Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) story to fielding Atishi Marlena’s campaign; she had been a critical candidate for the AAP this election season.

The CrowdNewsing platform is most famous for raising 40 lakhs for the families of the Kathua and Unnao rape victims. What started off as a news- funding platform has evolved into a fully fledged Kickstarter for extra-governmental awareness & action on otherwise-sidelined issues.

The OurDemocracy principle

Taking a leaf out of the Justice Democrats’ playbook, OurDemocracy is a one-of-its-kind politically transparent system for crowdfunding campaigns. Treading new waters in the Indian ecosystem, Zaidi talks about the complete lack of competition in political crowdfunding, arising from a cultural reluctance of donating to a politician. Charity in India is a well-documented culture, but paying to uphold democratic institutions—be it free and reliable media or the campaign that you uphold—is a new phenomenon. OurDemocracy aims to bridge that gap in India, by creating the platform that lowers the barrier for common people to enter politics.

“The biggest challenge for Indian campaigns still remains the funding”, says Zaidi. When a candidate stands for an election, this platform allows them to test the political waters with reasonable conviction that their supporters are willing to invest in their ideals and policies. The idea is to allow potential candidates to mobilise their campaigns and create a buzz so they can also be picked up by prominent parties and use subsequent party tickets to talk about issues concerning the common people. The multi-party system in India allows for a variety of issues to be raised at several levels. The grassroots dream is alive, digitally.

The underlying motivation for the platform is transparency in the campaigning process. Whether or not politicians take in corporate funding, there’s a necessity to make it open to the public and Election Commission. Status quo cannot change when a single conglomerate bankrolls the Ruling and Opposition Party to keep their interests alive over and above that of the 1.2 billion others. Most of the money, is untraceable as well.

The aim is to make all campaigns hosted on a transparent platform that must comply with strict regulations for free and fair elections.

The process

Anyone can post a cause and a crowdfunded target on the platform. The causes are shared with 25 thousand previous donors and the platform suggests ways to improve on the outreach for the campaign.

The platform works on a 5% fee and allows you to take on several causes and raise funds to sustain their efforts. The goal is to convert most campaigns to their platform and staying afloat while convincing incumbents to switch how they collect funds.

While OurDemocracy itself doesn’t have party affiliations, they only host crowdfunding of candidates and movements with no history of gender violence nor hate speech.

They themselves were involved in three major progressive campaigns this election cycle, that of Atishi in Delhi, Kanhaiya Kumar from JNU, and Pedapudi Vijay, a friend of the late Rohit Vemula, in Telangana.

How effective are these campaigns?

Atishi, Kumar, and Vijay are OurDemocracy’s AOC in 2019.

They’re the face of the new progressive movements in India, and standing on tough platforms against the ruling government, their campaigns have ruffled several feathers. The fact that major political parties take three commoners to be threats that need to be publicly addressed is a sure sign that their messages resonate very strongly with the public.

This in itself is promising and a sure sign of success in the election cycle. Showing proof-of-concept in India in their very first election is important, since the country is looking out for these candidates. This could empower several other in the working class to take on more active roles in future elections.

About these candidates

Marlena is a Rhodes scholar and a political activist & education policy expert, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who campaigned against the Modi government, is a lawyer, and Kumar is a PhD in African Studies. They represent a new era in Indian politics, finding fervour among many young voters and advocating strong policy changes for the poor, underprivileged and underrepresented. They are taking on issues too fragile or unpopular to take on in a federal election, by any national party, but public support has proved how much they believe in these anti-incumbents to change their lives.

From an infamous arrest on a sedition-charge to a tirade of denouncements by several national leaders, Kanhaiya Kumar’s crowdfunding campaign garnered the Election Commision imposed cap of 70 lakh within the span of a week. Whether or not he was publicly dragged through several unflattering news cycles, a student from JNU has now successfully stood as an CPI candidate in the Begusarai Lok Sabha constituency in Bihar.

With 2019 being one of the biggest campaigning years, close to 53 crores have been spent by the major parties to field their candidates. How does a layperson compete with that?

The people have dispersed interests on a variety of issues, and whatever funds can be collected is dispersed according to the social capital of a candidate or the campaigner as well. No amount of media attention can compete with the magnitude of effect large sums of money can do in a large election campaign, such as the Lok Sabha.

However, these campaigns target the youth with online appeals, gaining traction on social media and fittingly, most candidates are younger than 40.

The youth is standing up to contribute as well. Zaidi reports that 65% of all campaign donations are made by those <40. Involving the youth directly is a distinct advantage of this platform. Even though most contributors are men (better than Facebook’s ratio of male: female usage), the outreach and response is better than even Zaidi could’ve imagined.

These progressive movements create a vigour amongst the youth that is unprecedented. And with the rise of several right wing, conservative governments all over the world, these might be the burgeoning left that can stand in effective opposition.

Suradha Iyer is a writing analyst at Qrius

CrowdfundingGeneral Elections 2019Lok Sabha Elections 2019MillennialsPolitical campaigns