Summing Up the Summit
On the second People’s Summit, first things first: the politics were great. The old questions about whether or not to take part in elections is settled. The Democratic Party issue is almost settled – downballot races are a priority, and most of them are and will be through Democratic campaigns. The goal of building a third party now was not a subject of major conversation in the course of the June 9-11, 2017 weekend.
Last year’s summit took place before the Democratic convention, where Sanders supporters (Berniecrats) hammered out a left-er, left-ish compromise party platform with the Clintonite old guard for maximum unity against Trump. The big difference politically is that this year the Bernie-or-busters (the ‘Hillary = Trump’ folk) were not encouraged to come. The participants and main organizers - National Nurses United, Our Revolution, DSA, PDA, People for Bernie, UE, People’s Action, Food and Water Watch, among others - side with the Berniecrats.
This year, the political evolution of this contingent of the ‘political revolution’ was represented by the participation of Sanders himself, who was absent in 2016. His Saturday night speech was the payoff after Friday and Saturday’s plenary panels. The main fire in the speech was aimed not just at Trump, but also at the Democratic campaign strategy before the election, and the persistence of its pattern afterward. He derided the Clinton campaign and the DNC for relying on corporate funding and paid consultants whose job is determining which constituencies are worth the dime, and which aren’t.
The heaviest organizers of the 2016 meeting were Rose Ann DeMoro and National Nurses United, which she leads. This year the core was broadened to include the Sanders inner circle, led by Jane Sanders and including her brain trust Sanders Institute and the post-election group Our Revolution. NNU’s organizing mentors and SI’s policy wonks brought their experience to the summit in the style of union political education classes. This combination set the political framework for the weekend.
The politics also came through in celebrity panels (Naomi Klein, Danny Glover…), and in testimonials by activists on the giant IMAG screens in Chicago’s ginormous McCormick Place convention center. Breakout sessions provided focused lectures on key themes, and Q&A and discussion. The interplay covered detailed analysis on the current corruption of capitalist democracy, under-the-surface controversies, and very specific tactical matters.
The giant plenaries emphasized the speakers’ star status. The result was extreme morale boosting, which arguably is more important than fundraising. (The funding provided by NNU made it possible to pretty much avoid pitching for donations altogether.) The speakers were carefully chosen, with the agreement of the core organizing groups, and talks by the likes of Amy Goodman, Van Jones, and Nina Turner, while inspiring and spot on, were uniform in message.
The Sanders platform of opposition to neoliberal austerity, privatization, and income equality continues to set the terms of demands in resisting Trump and challenging the habitual GOP-tailing of the Democratic leadership. He did not hold back on calling out the consultant-driven Democratic campaign model. His response to targeting and ignoring specific constituencies and states based on their presumed allegiance or opposition was to call on campaigners to “knock on every damn door.” Left populism vs. both neoliberalism and the elitist technocratic approach to electioneering that the Clinton crew specialize in.
While the politics concentrated on issues rather than identity approaches, it was noteworthy, if not necessarily important in terms of political direction, that women and people of color taken together outnumbered white guys. This was due in part to the heavy involvement of organized nurses, and to the conveners’ efforts to ensure diversity. Anyone expecting a gaggle of young, arrogant Bernie Bros would be in for a surprise.
The most telling detail that distinguished the summit from a ‘color blind’ or jingoist populist gathering may have been the involvement of Linda Sarsour. She’s a prominent Muslim Palestinian-American activist in NYC who has been targeted with a racist character assassination campaign by a coalition of Trumpsters, turbo-Zionists, and far right billionaires. In short, she is the chosen supervillain for organized Islamophobia. She was given pride of place at the summit, and was warmly welcomed - not a hint of flak.
So the direction is unflinchingly to the left, despite a lot of the participants’ lack of experience and contact with the pre-campaign political left. The numbers – around 4,000, up from 3,000 last year – and the eagerness with which participants discussed and networked, mark a step forward for the left historically. It shows the potential for forming a national opposition that sets its own course democratically.
Yet it would be wrong to call this a new vanguard in the political arena, or even the tip of the iceberg. In fact, it’s only the tip of one of many metaphorical icebergs. The breadth of the anti-Trump polarization is vast. While polls say Sanders is the most popular politician in America (a low bar, in any case), millions more who do not embrace him are either repelled by or disillusioned with Trump.
The mobilizing of the thousands of summiteers was based on connections made at the last summit, and from various social media lists of supporters. This really just scraped the surface of potential participants. Many, many more political and social movement projects have been sparked by the election than were represented at the summit. They each barely know the others exist.
The breadth of opposition is somewhat narrower when the target is broadened from just Trump to include the GOP as a whole, but not that much. The summit was distinguished by its participants’ understanding that our enemy is not just Trump and the GOP, but blue dogs and DINOs like the pro-GOP Independent Democratic Conference in the New York State legislature. Add to that list the machine hacks like Cuomo and Rahm Emmanuel. This is a very sophisticated bunch of people, reflecting the political training of organizers in the NNU and other groups that built the event.
Now for the shortcomings. The Berniecrats generally have not yet grappled with the necessity to work out common ground with the Clinton base. Most of the majority of voters who went for Clinton were motivated less by devotion to their candidate or her party bloc, than by a determination to defeat Trump. They may dream of a second coming for Hillary, but their attachment to the centrist policies that distinguish her from Sanders’s left populism is more tenuous.
The Single Payer issue is a case in point. Medicare for All is now more popular than Obamacare, but remains taboo in the minds of Clinton, Pelosi and other industry-backed Democratic leaders. Breaking the divide will require direct outreach to the majority of Democratic voters, both in clubs and caucuses and at large. That outreach should be more focused on the future, and offer the promise of party unity as long as it is based on tooth-and-nail opposition to the GOP on everything – that is, the same strategy the GOP used against Obama.
Union involvement in the summit remained limited to the few unions that backed Sanders in the primaries: NNU, ATU, UE and APWU. This is both appropriate – it was basically a Berniecrat meeting, after all – but also indicative of a glaring weakness. Unions are the cornerstone of Democratic voter turnout operations. Sanders himself gave a strong pro-labor message when he spoke. But most union leaderships are going to be hard to budge. The Berniecrats must not hold back from engaging Democratic loyalist unions.
Two left labor powerhouses in Chicago, CTU (teachers) and SEIU HCII (healthcare), were conspicuous in their absence. This points up another big flaw: Chicago area outreach. It’s not like foraging for mushrooms – there are more coalitions of progressive groups in Chicago than there are individual groups in most places. Few were approached to take part in the summit. That didn’t affect the high number of general participants, but the significance of the meeting was completely lost to most area activists.
Further, the summit didn’t take on the problem of sorting out a foreign policy that breaks from the inward-looking, xenophobic aspect of populism, left or right. The lack of a mass peace movement enables this. Some of the groups involved have taken stronger stands on questions of war and peace than Sanders has, principally DSA and PDA, but that was not a major part of the summit’s political frame. This leaves the movement in a jam the next time POTUS, the newly empowered Pentagon or a reckless Oval Office insider decides to unleash another atrocity on a helpless people.
While Trump and co., and the bad habits of the Democratic inner circles are the important targets, I found myself worrying about a certain whistling past the graveyard regarding the farther right. Like most of country, the summiteers showed a lack of awareness of the growing threat of far right violence against any public left activity, as well as the epidemic of civilian murders by police and the plague of Islamophobia. We may have no ready answers, but these factors need to be recognized.
These aren’t small problems, and the eager new political movement may have to learn the hard way just how big they can be. But to sum up: It’s a good situation in any case - this movement exists, it’s not just hype or a paper coalition, and it is poised to learn and grow. This reporter says Whew!