One curious feature of the Bernie campaign is its international support. There is a network of Bernie Abroad sites, which involve Americans with their non-US spouses dialing and texting American voters for Bernie. Some clubs also invite non-Americans with no legal connection to the US to do the same.
“We welcome both American citizens living abroad as well as non-citizens to talk about American politics, do volunteer work for the campaign, etc,” said one organiser.
It’s a strange little netherworld for political support. Not the US liberals abroad so much, but the open door for non-Americans to get involved.
Other groups, even going back to 2016 like the one in Serbia, appear to be a bit more of a non-American outreach affair. (Although few remember, the US intelligence community concluded the Kremlin sought to support Sanders in 2016).
As the 2020 campaign continues, and the resolve around Bernie seems to harden even as his chances fall against ex-VP Joe Biden, it’s worth asking how much momentum is being generated and consolidated with the help of overseas clubs.
Of this momentum, how much is divorced from the reality on the ground in the US.
To be clear: Americans abroad probably make up the bulk of the overseas support. As the law is written however, non-US persons can participate in US elections.
From the FEC:
In general, foreign nationals are prohibited from the following activities:
Making any contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or making any expenditure, independent expenditure, or disbursement in connection with any federal, state or local election in the United States;
Making any contribution or donation to any committee or organization of any national, state, district, or local political party (including donations to a party nonfederal account or office building account);
Making any disbursement for an electioneering communication;
Making any donation to a presidential inaugural committee.
It’s crucial though that the latest amendment to the law,appears to be in 2002. Presumably when the law was written, it was assumed that foreign nationals would be, well, within the US.
Instead, the law appears to provide a loophole for any foreign national who has a strongly held view on US politics, which is many people.
Importantly, in 2002, it would be somewhat hard to imagine a sophisticated coordinated campaign involving foreigners at a large scale in support of one US candidate. Eighteen years ago, that would have involved a lot of scattershot efforts, with long-distance phone calls, and awkward online interaction. We know this because of the kind of online coordination around the anti-globalization movement.
In 2002, we weren’t even at a MySpace-level social media coordination and sophistication.
In 2020, we’re a long way from MySpace, as this excellent article by The Age’s Tom Cowie makes clear. (Ed’s note: People from the great city of Melbourne, Australia are called Melburnians, and “spruiking” is Australian for “to promote.”)
This means that there is no hard barrier between Americans abroad in support of Sanders, and non-Americans abroad in support of sanders.
I don’t question the good intentions of many of the participants. But intentions aren’t the issue, so much as the actions.
A short, incomplete list of groups is here.
And of course, the dank memes that any capable political leader needs.
There are many more, of course. Full map here: https://bernie2020abroad.org/countries/
Even if the majority of people involved in this effort are US citizens, there is no clear line between a globalised get-out-the-vote effort and an influence campaign. It’s about action, not intention.
Some messages include the rallying points like “To expose corporate Democrat bankruptcy and lead our party home!” which seems to me a big call for people who potentially aren’t even Americans.
How would people outside the US feel to get texts and calls from Americans making broad generalizations about their internal political parties?
To a degree any American GOTV effort is an influence campaign — but a domestic one between Americans to achieve an election outcome, between Americans. It becomes murky when people overseas are invited to get involved.
As the rules are written, if Bernie Abroad clubs in Russia and China were active, and they were open to foreigners – how would that look?
All of this is of concern as the Sanders campaign shows little willingness to concede to the reality of the primaries.
So what does the Sanders campaign run on — feelings of “Democrat bankruptcy”? The Sanders message of anger and outrage for US inequality turns seamlessly to one of internal division even as a Democrat, presumably, Joe Biden has to face off with the most corrupt American president in US history.
How is that any different to the multi-spectrum attack on the reputation of Hillary Clinton when she ran against Donald Trump in 2016?