Why you should care
Because harnessing grassroots energy is the kingmaking of the future.
The erstwhile NYU film professor looks the part here, with his rumpled button-down and Medusa-like hair. “Audio is the most important thing, because we evolved from prey. We have terrible eyesight,” Arun Chaudhary says. “All our emotional insight comes from our ears.” Those philosophical truisms – albeit possibly biased ones, coming from the former bass player for punk rock band IFarm – aren’t falling on the ears of blurry-eyed coeds, though, but a dozen or so Bernie Sanders supporters. In them, the campaign’s digital creative director has found an avid audience, and a chance to combine his two passions. “It’s way better to be the artsiest guy in politics,” Chaudhary reflects, “than being the most political guy in art school.”
From Oakland and Los Angeles to Brooklyn, Chaudhary has been training filmmakers to take the Bernie revolution into their own (smartphone-wielding) hands. That’s just a hint of Chaudhary’s vision. You might not know his name, but his influence — and thumbs-up — touches almost every official Sanders Facebook meme, Instagram post and viral video. Despite his anonymity, Chaudhary has helped turn an unheralded senator into a digital sensation and prolific fundraiser … for the second time. “The right message and the right moment met technology,” Chaudhary says, of the rise of Sanders and of his former employer, Barack Obama. Obama was Chaudhary’s muse not only during the 2008 presidential campaign but also during his three years as the first White House videographer. If you’ve already sounded the Sanders death knell, don’t tell Chaudhary: He says his candidate is still in it. And regardless of future options, so is Chaudhary: “There are other candidates and causes,” he says. “That’s the joy of building a movement and not just running an election.”
— Arun Chaudhary (@ArunChaud) May 21, 2016
The right social guru and the correct artistic sweep can play an outsize part in launching candidates. “The combination of high-tech targeting and mobilizing people on the ground” is still new, says Sidney Milkis, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Revolution Messaging, the digital communications firm where Chaudhary is a partner, represents much of what both excites and troubles watchers of this election. The question, for some: Will forms like Chaudhary’s drown out objectivity? “Just by the nature of his position, you have to call it propaganda,” says David Greenberg, a journalism and media studies professor at Rutgers University. “That doesn’t mean it’s evil [but] it’s not disinterested.”
Even when Chaudhary is seated, his body hums and jitters, almost electric. “A friend got that for me from Sundance,” he says, displaying the carnival watch on his left wrist that sports a bucktoothed Sanders on its dial. Despite his exhaustion — the wear of the campaign shows in his morning shadow — the 40-year-old still has the enthusiasm you’d expect from an Indian-Jewish kid whose earliest memories include watching the Reagan-Carter debates with his family in Chappaqua, New York (ironically, where the Clintons now live). Chaudhary admired the authenticity of Ross Perot in ’92, and says that both Sanders and Obama are “the same on- and off-camera.” Only bathroom breaks and the Situation Room were off-limits for Obama, while Sanders is more private, notably requiring cameras to be off during his visits with Black Lives Matter protesters and families during the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. “Bernie will say, ‘Look, it doesn’t need to be Gone With the Wind — let’s just get it done.’ It’s always that or Citizen Kane,” Chaudhary says, laughing. “All of these movies are from the ’40s, which is weird, because he’s not 120 years old.”
Chaudhary’s perpetual awe verges on fanboyish. Although polls have his candidate down in California, and history holds no obligation to runner-ups, the flimmaker is undeterred. “The words ‘unprecedented,’ ‘unheralded,’ ‘impossible,’ they keep coming up again and again with this campaign, as we make amazing progress,” he says. The propaganda accusation is one Chaudhary is all too familiar with, so much so that he addresses it without being prompted. “We are here to make the extraordinary mundane. The opposite, to me, is propaganda,” he says. Rutgers’ Greenberg, a former journalist and author of Republic of Spin, thinks that definition “sounds like a rationalization.” While at the White House, Chaudhary started the West Wing Week Web series, and a fawning video of Elena Kagan – which he notes was the work of another White House aide – was criticized in 2010 for circumventing journalists, who weren’t offered an interview with the then–Supreme Court nominee.
Former CNN producer Kate Albright-Hanna, an Obama campaigner who recruited Chaudhary for the 2008 video team, says officials wanted to make WhiteHouse.gov an outlet profiling “the heroes inside the White House.… Basically, ‘We want to do propaganda showing ourselves to be amazing.’ ” She adds that Chaudhary pushed back against that directive: “Arun stayed and fought the good fight of trying to bring humanity to government videos.” Chaudhary met Albright-Hanna as a teenager, while at a Junior Statesmen of America summer camp, where they became pen pals over their mutual love for leftist politics, and Chaudhary still has a Eugene V. Debs poster on the wall of his childhood bedroom. “The word ‘socialism’ is a permanent gift back to America,” Chaudhary says today, crediting Sanders with making the term more socially acceptable.
Like many producers whose formative years came during the ’90s and early aughts, Chaudhary sees technology as the path to further democratizing elections. “Are there limits? Maybe,” he says, before adding optimistically, “We haven’t gotten to them yet.” Even during the Obama campaign, Chaudhary wasn’t able to crowdsource content the way he does now, encouraging media producers to spawn Facebook groups across the country. “This is new, empowering regular people outside the campaign to make political art.”