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Progressive organizers, activists, and politicians gathered this weekend in Chicago for the Second Annual People's Summit and delivered an emphatic message to the Democratic Party that lost to Donald Trump: We are the future of this country, and only our people's movement toward justice will achieve victory at the ballot box. As keynote speaker Senator Bernie Sanders thundered to a wildly jubilant crowd, “The current strategy of the Democratic Party is an absolute failure. The party must open its doors to all people...when we stand together, there is nothing that can stop us.”
That message carried through three days of networking, breakout sessions, and panel discussions that revolved around supporting progressive campaigns while keeping the pressure up on the streets. Thousands of young and energetic activists roamed the halls of McCormick Place and gathered in meeting rooms to craft a strategy that embraces people and planet over profits. The recent and stunning victory of Jeremy Corbyn's Labor Party across the United Kingdom served as an exclamation point to the cry for a new direction for the Democratic Party.
The solidarity on display at the People's Summit contrasted sharply with the divisive presidential campaign that led to defeat last November. The democratic establishment strategy of courting corporate cash rather than running on a populist platform has resulted in the party losing over 1,000 seats while having President Obama in the White House. Even though Hillary Clinton outspent Donald Trump by a 2-to-1 margin, she still lost to the worst presidential candidate in history. Political analyst and columnist Thomas Frank lamented on the final day of the summit that progressive hopes have been sacrificed on the alter of money.
“The Democratic doctrine of reaching out to the wealthy is now dead,” he said to loud applause. “They reached out to the center and the right and still lost. They have betrayed people like us in every imaginable way. Democrats have given up what they stand for piece by piece, and what we have left to show for it is nothing.”
Frank, author of the best selling book What's The Matter With Kansas? and the more recent, Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People, has spent years researching the question as to why Democrats failed when the conditions for success were great following the economic downturn of 2008/9. “Our principle is solidarity,” he said to his progressive audience. “The Democratic Party principle is the opposite. It's meritocracy. They're not interested in populism. You can't build a movement of the common people if you hold the common people in contempt.”
But rather than dwell on these failures, participants at the summit focused instead on seizing power into their own hands through a new wave of progressive candidates, as well as continuing to keep their people's revolution alive through demonstrations and disruption on the streets. Besides having such progressive heroes in attendance as journalists Amy Goodman, John Nichols, Naomi Klein, and David Sirota, the People's Summit also showcased candidates who have won down ballot on a platform focused on justice and equality for all.
Larry Krasner, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney who made a career out of defending poor people and activists for 30 years, recently won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia District Attorney and is all but sure to win the general election in November. With some of the people he defended over the years in attendance at the People's Summit, Mr. Krasner told a roomful of future progressive candidates that you can win on a platform of people power so long as you have a credible message and are a credible messenger.
“The Democratic Party doesn't seem to understand this,” Mr. Krasner said. “You've got to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”
Mike Sylvester, a union organizer for 20 years and devoted father, shared his strategy for success while running openly as a socialist for State House representative in Maine. As he would go door-to-door campaigning for long hours, he would remind himself that he was running for office for the future of his kids. That focus on purpose sustained him through the necessary sacrifices one makes while running for office.
“You also need to know what you are running for,” Mr. Sylvester told the future candidates around him as they scribbled notes. “Name it, know it, and then plan how to win on it. Build a coalition and get the message out.” The missive of taking power into our own hands sounded throughout numerous conference halls. The need for organizing at the grassroots level, whether for a political campaign or for fighting such critical issues as climate change, inequality, and racial injustice, was repeated again and again.
While several other progressive politicians shared their recipes for success, the People's Summit belonged to Senator Bernie Sanders. His image appeared everywhere at the summit, from huge banners hung in the main hall to t-shirts, buttons, and posters adorned on the walls. His alliance with National Nurses United, whose members traveled from California and elsewhere to attend the summit, created a unifying message of care and compassion for our fellow citizens. The Sanders Institute and Our Revolution, both of which are spin-offs of Sanders' presidential campaign and seek to empower progressive leaders, played a critical role in putting on the summit.
Many of the faithful waited for hours to get a choice seat for Senator Sanders' keynote address, and he did not disappoint. Delivering a combination of stump speech and fiery rhetoric, he had his audience leaping to their feet as he emphasized that what seemed impossible five years ago is now becoming reality. When he cited recent state victories for a $15 minimum wage, free higher education, and single-payer health care, the crowd went wild, chanting “Bernie! Bernie!”
“It's not Bernie,” he shouted back. “It's you. It's us.”
Stressing the importance of the Labor Party's victory in the UK, Senator Sanders stated that the movement for justice is growing worldwide, and that his campaign here in the United States earned more votes from people under 30 years of age than both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. “What that means – our ideas and our progressive leaders – is that we are the future of this country,” he called out.
Even though a number of young people shouted out for Bernie to run in 2020, the real future of the party appeared the next morning at 8:30 am to completely galvanize a crowd just waking up from a long evening of celebration. Former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner not only took to the stage to give a blistering speech on revolution and justice, but also she moved freely through the crowd, seizing military veterans and children alike to walk at her side as she inspired all to rise up in these “revolutionary times.”
Quoting Nelson Mandela, Ms. Turner hollered, “All change seems impossible until it is done. People are asking for a hand up, not a hand-out.” This image of using our collective hands to hoist one another up to a level of equality ran throughout her speech. “With these hands we will rise up,” she preached with a passion that ignited her audience into wild cheers and clapping. “We have two hands: one to reach forward and the other to reach back.”
Echoing the words of Larry Krasner and others, she reminded the Democratic Party that they're supposed to stand up for the people on a consistent basis and not just when it is advantageous. “They only want to see the African-American community every four years. You can't just talk the talk. You've got to walk the walk...you have to care more about the next generation than the next election.”
With the crowd chanting “Run, Nina, run,” the progressives in the room embraced Ms. Turner's firebrand of populism with the same enthusiasm with which they have cheered on the Sanders campaign. In one sense, the People's Summit strove to pass the leadership baton from Bernie Sanders to a whole new generation of outspoken candidates like Sam Ronan, who ran a quixotic campaign for DNC chair, or activist Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who just became the new mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. All of these young leaders vowed to support one another in upcoming elections and to retake the Democratic Party.
Conspicuously missing from the summit was any discussion of voter suppression and our failed electoral system. With the United States ranked worst for electoral integrity in Western democracies, this is an issue that can't be ignored if progressives wish to win at the ballot box. Malfunctioning voting machines, long lines at polling stations, and the purging of legitimate voters from voting rolls continue to plague our elections and diminish faith in the system. Many also expressed disappointment that there was practically no discussion of the bloated military budget which consumes vast sums of taxpayer money which could be used for more progressive ideals.
Despite that, thousands of fired-up activists left the People's Summit committed to turn resistance into power. Whether they succeed in pulling the Democratic Party to the left remains to be seen.