Which path to take from the People’s Summit?

June 20, 2017

Tyler Zimmer writes from Chicago about the questions raised by the second annual People's Summit held earlier this month--and who had answers for which ones.

CAN THE Democratic Party be reformed from within by radicals following the lead of Bernie Sanders? Or is an independent alternative rooted in labor and left movements necessary?

Those were two big questions underlying the discussions at the People's Summit in Chicago--where there was unanimity among attendees on the need for a radical break with the status quo, but debate, sometimes sharp, on what kind of break and where to go from here.

This was the second year that the People's Summit--a political conference convened by a coalition of labor and left-leaning political organizations, with the National Nurses United (NNU) playing a leading role--was held.

As with last year, the gathering drew thousands of people from across the nation, ranging from rank-and-file nurses and other union workers to left-wing journalists and unaffiliated young leftists energized by the Bernie Sanders campaign.

The political moment has changed considerably since the first People's Summit, held at the end of the presidential primary season last year. But if anything, the defeat of Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and the ascendancy of Donald Trump have underlined the importance of left-wing reforms such as Medicare for All and tuition-free higher education--and intensified the resolve of activists to fight for them.

Bernie Sanders speaks at the People's Summit in Chicago
Bernie Sanders speaks at the People's Summit in Chicago (National Nurses United)

Yet along with the spirit of opposition to the status quo, there were questions about what path to take after the summit.

ONE YEAR after Sanders' presidential bid was sabotaged and snuffed out by the conservative machinery of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), a growing number of people--and even a few of the conference's most visible figures, such as National Nurses United President RoseAnn DeMoro--expressed some degree of skepticism about whether the Democratic Party is worth saving.

This flowed from the searing criticisms of the Democratic Party establishment shared by speakers from the front of the conference and attendees in the audience.

Sanders himself set the tone. "I am often asked by the media and others, 'How did it come about that Donald Trump, the most unpopular presidential candidate in the modern history of our country, won the election?'" Sanders said during his keynote address to the conference, as chants of "Bernie would've won!" began to reverberate through the crowd.

"My answer," he said, "is that Trump didn't win the election, the Democratic Party lost the election."

Sanders, along with the vast majority of speakers at the People's Summit, share the belief that the Democrats lost in 2016 because the party clings desperately to an unpopular pro-business agenda that has resulted in staggering economic inequality, the largest prison population in the world, environmental disaster--the list goes on and on.

Praising the performance of the British Labour Party under left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, Sanders pointed out that Labour did well in a general election held on the eve of the People's Summit "not by moving to the right, not by becoming more conciliatory--they won seats by standing up to the ruling class."

This particular criticism of the Democrats was a consistent theme throughout the weekend.

When introducing Sanders before he spoke, DeMoro underscored the ways that his presidential campaign had "been rejected by those who control the [Democratic] Party and their moneyed interests." Summing up this sentiment, Nina Turner, a former state senator from Ohio who was among the first politicians to publicly endorse Sanders, quipped that the unofficial slogan of the Democratic Party had become "#NotWokeYet."

But if conference attendees were united in their rejection of the aggressively neoliberal agenda of the Democratic Party, they were deeply divided on the question of how to move forward. There was a sweeping consensus that we urgently need to build a left alternative to Trumpism and neoliberalism, rooted in unabashed class politics. But there were a variety of views among attendees on how to make that happen.

Thus, for all their fiery criticisms of the Democratic establishment, the vast majority of speakers from the front, including Sanders himself, encouraged attendees not to abandon the Democratic Party, but to work to transform it from within.

Again and again, speakers urged those frustrated with the right-wing tilt of the DNC to either run for office themselves or help campaign for a Democrat who shares Bernie's political perspective. They pointed to recent electoral wins, such as those of Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Ro Khanna in California, as templates for more victories to come.

Others seemed to speak directly to the "Democratic establishment," as if to say: "You better listen to us, or else we'll come after you in the primaries."

But is this strategy likely to produce the desired outcome? Certainly a number of conference attendees weren't convinced.

ALONG WITH many others over the course of the weekend, Sanders celebrated the impressive showing by Jeremy Corbyn--and correctly identified that Britain's Labour Party did well because Corbyn shifted it sharply to the left, instead of creeping right as the Democrats have done for decades, by putting forward unapologetic class politics.

But can this left-wing shift be replicated within the Democratic Party? For all its problems, the Labour Party is a membership organization. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party, despite the ruthless opposition of the party's establishment, because the head of Labour is elected on a one-member-one-vote basis.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are more of a bureaucratic cartel than a political party like Labour. Within the Democratic Party, very little of significance is determined democratically. The big decisions about allocation of resources and political positions are typically made behind closed doors by established leaders and big-money donors.

Sanders knows this better than anyone else--he is well aware of the variety of ways that the party's machinery sabotaged his campaign and stymied his supporters at every turn.

The leaked e-mails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta confirmed what many had suspected all along: The Democratic Party apparatus did everything in its power to thwart Sanders and his supporters. As DeMoro put it at last year's People's Summit, the presidential primary was "maligned by massive corruption in the political machinery of the Democratic Party and manipulation by the press."

Despite this firsthand experience, however, Sanders was clearer than he's ever been about his commitment to working to change the Democratic Party from within--and he joined most of the official conference speakers in explicitly and emphatically calling for activists to try to follow that path.

To support his case, Sanders touted recent victories by left-leaning candidates in "down-ballot" races ranging from state senate to city council to school board. It's easy to see how People's Summit attendees would view these small victories as positive, but the bigger question remains: What is the strategy for challenging the commanding heights of the national party machinery when it remains firmly--as it always has been--in the control of the rich?

Unfortunately, nothing beyond exhortations to register to vote and run for office was offered as an answer to this central question. But it's precisely the intransigence and concentrated power of this bureaucratic apparatus that leads to the conclusion that working people and the left need to abandon the Democrats and build a party of their own.

THIS POINT of view was defended by some speakers and a number of conference attendees--many of them young, unaffiliated activists inspired by the left-wing character of Sanders' campaign.

Over the course of the weekend, several hundred people stopped by the International Socialist Organization's booth at the People's Summit--it was clear from discussions there that a substantial number were dubious about the project of transforming the Democratic Party, though there was little consensus about how the left should move forward.

Surprisingly, there were a few moments where it appeared that some conference organizers might be open to a break from the Democrats.

After Sanders finished speaking on Saturday evening, NNU President DeMoro came back on stage to field questions from the audience on Sanders' behalf. When a question about independent politics came up from a member of Draft Bernie--a group led by a former Sanders campaign staffer, which advocates for Bernie to leave the Democratic Party and form an independent "people's party"--DeMoro appeared to express sympathy.

"I'm with you," she said to the audience member representing the Draft Bernie initiative. After a conspicuous glance at Sanders and his wife, DeMoro turned back to the audience and said, "Nurses, are we with them?" As the audience cheered, DeMoro looked back at Sanders and remarked, "I always say heroes aren't made, they're cornered."

But Sanders himself made it clear where he stands. "Look, as the longest-serving independent member of Congress, I know something about that," Sanders said. "Where my energy is right now is in fundamentally transforming the Democratic Party into a grassroots progressive party."

Actually, DeMoro herself sent a different message in her prepared remarks introducing Sanders, when she said: "Bernie Sanders and our movement--and it is the same thing--can save the Democratic Party from itself." And whatever her comments on stage, she was a central organizer of a conference whose main thrust was transforming the Democrats.

"WE'LL SEE where it goes," Sanders concluded in answer to the Draft Bernie activist. But many of us know all too well where this road leads. As Paul Heideman documents in a Jacobin magazine article last year about the failed attempts to reform the Democrats from within during the 1960s and '70s, the Democratic Party is remarkably impervious to left-wing transformation.

Although it may look as if it is even more difficult to build a left-wing, third-party alternative to the Democrats, the People's Summit itself gives us reason to think otherwise.

A growing layer of young activists, after seeing how the DNC treated Bernie, is at least questioning whether there needs to be a left alternative to the Democrats. If the organized left was larger, with a stronger presence in trade unions and in social movements more generally, it's reasonable to think that growing support for an independent left/labor party could be converted into a new political vehicle separate from the Democrats.

As I wrote about last year's People's Summit for SW: "[T]the well-funded, well-attended and smoothly organized event might have served--in a not too distant, but different world--as a preparatory step toward building a new third party of labor and social movements."

There are many good reasons to join a socialist organization in this political period, but making the possibility of independent politics into a reality is surely among the most pressing.

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