Sunrise Movement demonstration in San Francisco
San Francisco rally led by Sunrise Movement. Photo Peg Hunter | Flickr | cc 2.0

Understanding Sunrise, Part 1: Strategy

Sunrise Movement made climate change a key political issue, but new conditions require new theory and strategy

Editor’s Note:  Our movement for System Change Not Climate Change benefits from introspection as we reach for strategies and tactics to meet the grave ecological, economic, and political crises in which we find ourselves. We look forward to publishing more pieces, like this one, that reflect on the successes and shortcomings of organizational efforts of climate activists.  Although Sunrise Movement is not an explicitly ecosocialist group, it has certainly played a major role in the U.S. Left’s response to the climate crisis. William Lawrence’s piece, originally published by Convergence, provides a rare public in-depth insider’s perspective on Sunrise’s political strategies. Our movement would benefit from similar thoughtful appraisals of other organizations’ efforts to promote a radical Green New Deal in the past few years.

The state of Sunrise Movement, one of the more successful and visible U.S. Left organizations to emerge in the last five years, reflects trends in the broader Left. We hit a high-water mark with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ February 2020 victory in the Nevada caucus. Shortly after, the revenge of the Democratic establishment and the COVID pandemic halted all momentum and put Sunrise into a rear-guard attempt to salvage what could be won in a Biden administration. The underwhelming first year of that administration has left us floundering.

Today, a private and public reckoning is well underway. A new generation of leaders is taking account of Sunrise’s successes and failures, and working to design the next life of the movement. Early Sunrise leaders—of which I am one—are in the process of moving on, and handing over leadership of this youth organization to a more youthful cohort.

As a leader in Sunrise’s development from its founding in 2017 through early 2021, I feel obliged to offer an evaluation of our strategy and methods. My aim is to offer a detailed account of Sunrise’s aims and influences, in order that the next generation of strategist-organizers both inside and outside Sunrise may learn from what we did well, while overcoming our limitations.

You can consider just about every word of this essay as a self-critique and a practice of learning in public. As ever, I write with deep appreciation for all the climate justice fighters who find a place to place their hope amidst the looming dread of this crisis.

Part 1 of this essay, which you are reading now, focuses on Sunrise’s strategy, including our demands, rhetoric, and relation to the US party system. Part 2 will look at Sunrise’s methods of organizing.

I hope these essays not only illuminate our specific choices and why we made them, but demonstrate how the theoretical concepts on which we build our organizations actually shape their development. Sunrise’s successes owe much to the theories underpinning our strategy and methods, and our failures reveal much about where these theories fall short. I hope my reflections on these recent experiences may aid in developing better theory to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Our roots: the youth climate movement

Sunrise Movement, founded in 2017, emerged from a milieu called the “youth climate movement,” which originated in around 2006 as an identifiable force and has ever since encompassed a variety of overlapping, collaborating, disagreeing, forming-and-reforming organizations made up of young people who share in common the dread of climate change and a burning desire to do something about it.

Like previous episodes of youth climate organizing, Sunrise organized around the identity and moral authority of youth, and drew primarily from college students for its activist base. Unlike prior efforts, young people, through Sunrise, were able to place climate change near the top of the national political priority list, and reorient the conversation about climate solutions among the public and at the highest levels of government around a new lodestar — the Green New Deal. How did this happen?

The major climate justice campaigns of Obama’s second term were for divestment from fossil fuels, and against coal mines and pipelines, punctuated by major coming-together points like the 2014 People’s Climate March, the 2015 Paris climate summit, and the 2016 Standing Rock movement. Amid such campaigns, where Sunrise’s founders cut our teeth as youth organizers, late night conversations would often turn to classic themes of left strategy: The dialogue between socialism and anarchism, the pursuit and exercise of state authority versus voluntary social reorganization from below, and levels of tolerance for internal hierarchy within our own organizations.

The statist position was far from a common-sense proposition in those days. This was the era immediately after Occupy Wall Street, and that movement’s emphasis on horizontal organization and refusal to adopt a state-driven reform agenda were still a strong influence on many.

It was in this context that 11 friends and I, beginning in early 2016, undertook a year-long strategic planning process to build what would become Sunrise Movement. We united from the beginning around a shared conviction that only the state, especially the federal government, could spearhead the process of decarbonizing the economy at the necessary scale and pace.

Yes, we do need the state

A few essential influences helped confirm our position on these matters. Especially influential was Naomi Klein’s 2014 book This Changes Everything. Klein described how neoliberal economic thinking had stifled the policy-making imagination on climate change, pointing even the most ambitious climate advocates in the direction of modest market reforms like a cap-and-trade program or carbon tax. When we looked beyond the limited horizons of neoliberal economics, the options for popular and progressive climate policy opened dramatically. Klein pointed the direction towards the all-of-society, government-directed, investment and regulatory offensive that would become known as the Green New Deal.

The environmental justice (EJ) movement, made up of communities of color fighting against pollution, also influenced our approach to federal power. EJ leaders had railed against previous federal climate legislation for being overbroad and inattentive to racial and economic disparities. Cap-and-trade programs, for instance, threatened to further concentrate pollution in poor and Black neighborhoods that lacked the political power to fight back. Certain environmental justice leaders also forged relationships with energy sector workers to popularize the notion of a “just transition” that would do right by workers and whole communities. These were not only moral questions, but political ones. If the first major push at climate mitigation resulted in backlash from below, it could doom the effort.

EJ advocates insisted on an approach to climate policy that put people, not only carbon, at the center. This would necessarily require a more granular view of the built and human environment and a sharper set of administrative tools to get the work done without leaving anybody behind. While most EJ groups trained their focus on a local level, it stood to reason that only the federal government held the authority to lead this work everywhere.

For all these reasons, we saw our prior work of campaigning for divestment, for local and state policy, and against fossil fuel projects, as a necessary but incomplete antecedent to an eventual push for federal policy reform. In early strategic planning conversations, we imagined that this push would take place under a Hillary Clinton administration. After Trump won in November 2016, we changed tack to plan for a window of federal opportunity in 2021—but our big questions from early 2016 remained: How do we get the federal government to address climate change, thoroughly and comprehensively, using the full force of its powers? Under what conditions would such change actually occur? What kind of organized force can we build, using the resources at our disposal, that would help realize these conditions?

Designing strategy to fit our resources

Our resources were modest in comparison to the goals we set out for ourselves—to win federal climate policy in the space of five years, while setting the bar for a longer-term reform agenda. We had to take this into account in designing our strategy.

We had very little power, and we needed a lot of it, quickly. We did have a confirmed network of young people who were terrified of climate change and furious that nothing was being done about it, and we knew that there were more out there. And in spite of some evidence to the contrary, we decided to take a gamble on the near-term political power of this constituency.

We needed a strategy that would maximize the reach and political leverage of a small initial cohort of activists, while riding the momentum from early successes to multiply activity into successively greater numbers. We hoped that this simple cycle could help Sunrise grow into a force capable of reshaping American politics.

To make the most of our small numbers, we designed our demands, narrative, and political alliances to be maximally disruptive to the political establishment and reorient the terrain in favor of climate action. We aimed to do three things:

  1. Change public sentiment and create political urgency through the use of moral protest and direct action
  2. Create space for our ideas in federal politics by aligning ourselves firmly with the progressive faction of the Democratic Party
  3. Help cohere a new, multiracial, cross-class majority for climate action through progressive populist rhetoric

The rest of this essay will outline each of these three strategic objectives and their influences in turn, and then conclude with a look at how it worked out.

Build political urgency with direct action and moral protest

Besides the youth climate movement we grew up in, the second leading influence in the development of Sunrise was Momentum, a training and gathering place for organizers hungry for bigger results.

Momentum showed case studies from local to national-level campaigns to demonstrate that public protest can raise the salience of an issue, and polarize observers into supporters and opponents. If an issue is highly salient—for instance, listed by voters as one of the top three issues shaping their vote, or most likely to inspire them to action—it is more likely to receive attention from elected officials. Skillful and fortunate protest movements can attract more supporters than detractors, thus increasing net support for reform.

While the public impact of most protests is slim, the rare demonstration can break through to mass consciousness and swing public opinion by dozens of percentage points. Momentum cited contemporary movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, plus many prior efforts, as examples of mass protests that “changed the political weather” and put a tailwind in the sails of reform.

Momentum advised fledgling movements to undertake dramatic and newsworthy protest actions to both polarize and galvanize the country. Sunrise placed such actions at the very center of our strategy. We would use eye-catching and share-worthy protests, using especially the power of our personal stories of climate anxiety and impacts, and aspirations for a better future. Even if 95% of these actions were only seen by a few people, the 1-in-20 viral breakthrough would bring our message to large new audiences of supporters.

Align with the left-progressive Democratic faction

The first years of the Momentum training didn’t have much to say about the American political party system or the role of elections. If anything, it steered clear of elections and party politics, as did most Left organizations in the pre-Bernie era.

Bernie’s 2015-16 candidacy changed the perspective of many, me included, about the potential to reach a mass constituency and build political organization for the left through an electoral campaign.

We wanted to figure out how to replicate that effect in Congressional and down-ballot races and future presidential primaries. We also wondered how best to leverage the power of elected champions for Left campaigns.

Some members of the Momentum community, including people who would go on to lead Sunrise and Justice Democrats, turned to answers in the field of party alignment theory. This body of scholarship describes the interaction of organized constituent groups, parties, and party factions within the confines of the American two-party system. It revealed how small but organized factions of elected champions within one of the two major parties, in alliance with independent political organizations, can punch far above their weight in redefining priorities for their party as a whole. This was exactly the dynamic we were watching play out with Bernie’s primary challenge.

We decided to embrace the progressive insurgency within the Democratic Party, and resolved to make climate justice a leading agenda item for progressive candidates and elected officials.

In so doing, we would not only elect champions who could use the bully pulpit of office to rally more support, but the threat of future challenges could scare more moderate Democrats into upping the ante on climate as well.

Help cohere new progressive populist alliances

But a few champions would never be enough, if our goal was to pass climate-saving legislation in a matter of years. We would need a political coalition capable of calling and ultimately winning majority votes in Congress and state legislatures. Towards this end, we sought to link a set of political and organizational allies who would stand a chance of collectively commanding a majority.

We would do this by following so-called “populist” logic, as described by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Populism is a form of politics that rhetorically and practically positions “the people” against an entrenched elite. Because “the people” are not previously united as a political subject, the job of populist politics is to construct a majoritarian coalition, capable of making a legitimate claim to represent “the people,” by linking diverse groups and their concerns in a “chain of equivalence” that creates a sense of solidarity.

Laclau and Mouffe’s populist logic affirmed and doubled down on the way of thinking about political narratives that we had picked up from Momentum. Momentum suggests that movements adopt popular demands in order to favorably polarize the public into a large number of supporters and smaller number of strong opponents on an issue. Populism describes how to favorably polarize, by prosecuting a favorable narrative conflict between the people and the establishment.

Further influence came from two organized efforts at progressive narrative strategy — the Race-Class Narrative Project, and Marshall Ganz’s work on public narrative. Laclau and Mouffe lay out a pattern of populist communication, but have little guidance on how to apply it in a 21st century American context. The Race-Class Narrative and Ganzian public narrative each offered concrete examples and methods for how to actually tell the story of a big “us” and small “them” in today’s context.

Embrace ambiguity

Jonathan Matthew Smucker was a key interlocutor helping us connect these conceptual pieces. One of his major contributions was to emphasize the utility of ambiguity in political symbols and rhetoric. Here’s how he put it in a blog post elaborating on Laclau:

For a catalyzing symbol to appeal to a lot of different groups at the same time—for a diversity of constituencies and interests to see themselves and their hopes reflected in the same symbol—it must necessarily be ambiguous. The symbol is more about a general, ambiguous direction than it is about detailed solutions. The more you dig into the details—the more you try to nail down the symbol’s precise significance—the more the myriad differences between groups’ particular visions and goals come into focus. You risk emphasizing difference in a political moment that demands an emphasis on universality. You risk exposing fissures in the tentative populist alignment.

This philosophy gelled nicely with the outlook of the Momentum community, which tended to take a “first things first” attitude about getting too into the weeds about policy demands. Why argue now about exactly where to dock on the far side of the ocean, when we’re only just learning to catch the wind in our sails?

Sunrise found our specific-but-not-too-specific catalyzing symbol when we teamed up with Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to debut the Green New Deal.

Our subsequent work for the Green New Deal reflects the populist instincts honed by these influences. The Green New Deal would deliberately link together demands for climate protection, good jobs, and investment in racial justice, and the constituencies invested in each of those issues. It would be specific enough to point the political tailwinds in a leftward direction, but ambiguous enough to avoid premature antagonisms within our political bloc.

Accomplishments: advancing climate justice

Sunrise’s approach has led to major successes that we would do well not to overlook, even while reckoning with its shortcomings.

Sunrise wagered that the progressive insurgency within the Democratic Party could be the ticket to mainstream relevance for an ambitious climate justice agenda. The rise of AOC, and her willingness to partner with us on the Green New Deal resolution, made that a good bet. We followed up that breakthrough by fostering a race to the top on climate policy in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

In 2018, moderate Democrats didn’t seem to regard climate as a top issue. In 2020, climate was a top-three priority for most Democratic Congressional candidates, and Biden closed the general election campaign with a climate emphasis in the final week. Now in 2022, even the most conservative Democrats in the House are proposing that climate policy be salvaged from the wreckage of the Build Back Better Act.

What happened in between? A couple of hot and smoky summers, devastating floods in the Midwest and around the globe, the international Fridays for Future climate strike movement, and Sunrise’s Green New Deal campaign. The fires and floods brought new omens of climate apocalypse, while Fridays for Future demonstrated the massive scale of youth engagement on the issue.

Four people hold a banner reading "Green New Deal Now" against an eerie orange sky.
Northern California residents never saw the sun on Sept. 9, 2020 as wildfire smoke turned the sky an eerie orange. Sunrise Movement activists pointed out the connection between the fires and climate change. Photo by Evan McEldowney/ Sunrise Movement.

Sunrise, meanwhile, applied direct and relentless pressure on the Democratic political establishment with protests and primary challenges. Sunrise’s small but growing cadre of young members put the core principles of the Green New Deal into the mainstream and kept them there. The Green New Deal emerged as a polarizing yet popular vision for the country.

All of the above made climate change and its solutions larger topics of daily conversation, and the urgency of climate action steadily rose among Democratic voters. Although the Green New Deal brand became dicey for centrist Democrats following a Fox News disinformation offensive, the centrists still came to see climate as a winning electoral and legislative issue, owing to the enduring upsurge of climate activism.

Centrist Democratic climate solutions, by whatever name, also started to sound more and more like the Green New Deal itself. The entire party moved away from a narrow, “market-based” approach centered around a carbon tax, and towards a holistic approach including industrial policy, regulation, workers, and racial justice. This process culminated in candidate Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which was described by some as a Green New Deal in miniature (before it was pared away first by President Biden, and then Senators Manchin and Sinema).

That’s what happened on the Democratic center. To the left, the Green New Deal was having other effects, helping to connect constituencies and opening new strategic horizons.

The Green New Deal resolution functioned as a “chain of equivalence” of sorts, conveying the interconnectedness of various constituencies and issues under the overarching mission of decarbonization. The deliberate ambiguity of the Green New Deal functioned as an invitation for a plethora of people to take up for themselves the project of defining the GND and fighting for it.

The GND was substantial enough to attract the interest of serious policy analysts, while ambiguous enough to invite them to come define it for themselves. It was specific enough in its leftist values to inspire support from across the left-progressive ecosystem, while ambiguous enough to avoid becoming pigeonholed as the territory of one small faction, or prematurely written off as fringe.

Had Sunrise been more rigid about the content of the GND in its very early days, I doubt you would see the proliferation of people stepping up to define it for themselves through platforms like DSA’s eco-socialist Green New Deal, the Red Deal, Red Black and Green New Deal, as well as dozens of local projects and sector-specific Green New Deal proposals.

None of this should be taken for granted. An honest appraisal of Sunrise’s ideological influences must at least tip a cap to these successes, which owe much to the strengths of our ideological foundations. But we can also identify gaps in those foundations.

Sometimes you need ambiguity, sometimes clarity

From the beginning, Sunrise basked in the optimism of the Bernie moment, when one could believe we were only years away from a progressive presidency. Sunrise ultimately endorsed Bernie in 2020 and fought hard for him in Iowa, New Hampshire, and across the country. But Biden’s victory and COVID squashed our momentum and posed new choices.

These choices called for new clarity over ambiguity, which we had deliberately avoided in the past. For instance, would we be satisfied with re-building the kind of social democratic welfare state and industrial powerhouse that ended the Great Depression and won World War Two, or would we need to push beyond that horizon into democratic socialist public ownership?

One reason why Sunrise couldn’t be more decisive after March 2020 is because the political ambiguity that we had previously deployed to strategic effect externally, had been equally necessary for the internal functioning of the organization, where it had helped protect against division over different visions for how the Green New Deal should play out.

We knew this about ourselves, from the beginning, which is part of why we never expected to answer the thornier legislating and governing questions on our own. Instead, we imagined ourselves as a powerful but blunt-force object, a battering ram breaking down complacency and overwhelming the political ramparts with an ocean of young people united in their demand for a future. To take responsibility for the matters of policy and strategic execution, we turned in 2019 to other left-progressive-labor organizations, and hoped to find answers together in a sort of united front. This was undertaken by me and others, to mixed and still-developing results.

Though our experience confirms that ambiguity is a potent political tool, it also offers a caution: There will come a time when political clarity is the tool you need. This is especially true in unexpected times, which we know are always around the corner in the 21st century.

While it’s good that the Green New Deal means many things to many people, Sunrisers will need to decide on all kinds of levels—in local, state, and federal campaigning—what kind of Green New Deal we are fighting for, and what it will take to get there. This will require evolution in our governance structures, and new ideological touchstones.

Limits of the ‘unifying’ narrative

In our rhetoric, while Sunrise at our best has shown the power and utility of so-called “narrative strategy,” we have also received some flak, internal and external, for an overemphasis on supposedly “unifying,” one-size-fits-all narratives and demands, rather than the unique language and conditions of real places. I would take this critique a step further, and suggest that we created an organizing culture that valorized a focus on discourse, words, and voices over attention to the built environment, economic conditions, and human actions.

Interestingly enough, this line of critique resembles a criticism that others have made of Mouffe and Laclau. Green New Deal writer-organizer Thea Riofrancos wrote in 2018 that Mouffe “speaks of discourse as an eminently malleable force, which can magically transform interests and identities,” and this tends to “reduce what Marx called ‘the language of real life’ that is ‘directly interwoven with…material activity’ to focus-group tested messaging in the hands of savvy leaders.”

This, in turn, calls to mind the cottage industry of narrative strategy referenced earlier. While the Race-Class Narrative rests on a strong foundation of historical and empirical research, many now apply it in a cookie-cutter way that lends a focus-grouped feel to progressive narratives. Sunrise has fallen into this at times, though I would argue that we have done better than most.

Other critics of Mouffe and Laclau point out that navigating differences among the body politic is a bit of a problem for them, as it sometimes has been for Sunrise. The goal of populist political messaging is to invoke different circumstances among the target audiences in order to forge a sense of equivalence among them. Difference is seen as a fact of life, and something to talk about, but only so it can be subsumed into a united political identity of “the people.” This approach, in the words of one scholar, “risks disavowing the concrete political tensions that exist” between sub-groups, and “tends to translate into a privileging of equivalence over autonomy.”

This tendency showed up in 2017-2020 Sunrise as impatience and inadequate support for hubs who wanted to speak in a different voice from the usual Sunrise playbook. Sunrise national occasionally displayed a tendency to over-control the kinds of messages that hubs and spokespeople delivered, rather than truly empowering them to speak in a language suited to their local context. Both hubs and individual spokespeople struggled to translate the focus-grouped feel of the national narrative into a targeted and urgent local narrative that rang true to them and whoever they hoped to organize. This tension was especially acute for members of color, who felt under-supported by the majority-white staff in developing or delivering messages that would connect with communities of color.

A related challenge was in figuring out how to support uniquely localized Green New Deal campaigns without losing the overall coherence and focus of the national movement. As with the other criticisms named here, this dynamic is already the subject of a lively internal reckoning within Sunrise as its young leaders figure out where to go next.

The final self-critique I can offer here is about our alliance with the progressive faction of the Democratic Party. I do believe that one of our best moves was to hitch our fates to the progressive insurgency, especially the upstart Congressional candidates who would become the Squad. But I think a lot of us underestimated the extent of our dependence on Bernie Sanders, and that was to our detriment when we didn’t have him anymore. We didn’t anticipate the degree to which Bernie’s 2020 defeat would presage a widespread demobilization among the young leftists who had placed their hopes in him.

That demobilization, in turn, has made it difficult for Sunrise and just about every other left-progressive group to do very powerful campaigning in Biden’s first year. This is something we could have anticipated, and maybe mitigated, had we recognized the extent to which Sunrise was drafting on the enthusiasm of the Bernie movement.

Theory matters

Throughout this essay, I have aimed to show how the strengths and shortcomings of Sunrise’s theoretical inspirations led directly to the strengths and shortcomings of Sunrise itself. Theory matters.

The next generation of Sunrise leaders will need to understand what worked well about the last cycle, while also finding new theoretical touchstones. In particular, they will need to get a clearer grasp of both their ultimate and proximate ends. What form of social, political, and economic organization do we ultimately seek? What portion of that is achievable in the 21st century? What should we be fighting for this decade? At a national level? What about locally?

The movement doesn’t need full unanimity on these topics — indeed, some local variance may be constructive, and allow for several simultaneous experiments — but its leaders need to be supported with the frameworks to answer these questions for themselves, within some parameters of cross-movement unity.

Spring 2017 was a different time from today. It was possible, wearing one’s rose-colored, “Bernie 2020”-branded glasses, to imagine a social democratic federal governing majority for the 2020s. Sunrise’s strategy was an all-out push to make this real. It was a long shot, but we thought it was our last best chance to preserve a stable climate.

That dream suffered a great blow in March 2020, and is now struggling to survive in the form of the not-quite-dead Build Back Better bill. Meanwhile, the GOP has shown ever more of their true colors, and raised fears of an out-and-out authoritarian takeover. From the vantage of March 2022, white Christian nationalism looks more viable than multiracial social democracy in this decade.

This raises difficult questions about where Sunrise, and all of us, should place our focus. What can be salvaged at the federal level? Can we afford to keep pursuing that angle when the path to power looks so narrow? Can we afford not to, when the alternative is to accept a decade of federal GOP rule and climate inaction? These are questions of the day.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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