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People’s Summit Missed Opportunity To Match Strong Movement Politics With Bold Electoral Politics

The People’s Summit in Chicago was a remarkable gathering, which made it possible for parts of movements which supported Bernie Sanders to confront the question of where to go next now that the Democratic presidential primary is over. Principles of justice, solidarity, and action framed much of the discussion at the summit. However, the summit largely avoided the issue of the two-party political system in the United States and how those who made the Sanders campaign a success should confront it.

Though the People’s Summit invited individuals months before the event to sign up as speakers, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein hoped organizers might think of her when putting together the schedule. A panel on democratic socialism was designed in a manner, which specifically discouraged talk about third-party politics. The Progressive Independent Party, a grassroots effort to build a coalition between progressive Democrats, Democratic Socialist Party supporters, Green Party supporters, and Sanders supporters, was disappointed there was so little discussion about supporting a third-party effort in the 2016 Election.

The People’s Summit took place over a span of three days in which breakout sessions, breakout trainings, and state meetings between activists, campaign volunteers, and Sanders supporters were facilitated. It was primarily sponsored by National Nurses United (NNU) and also backed by groups like People For Bernie, People’s Action, Food & Water Action, 350.org, Presente.org, Socialist Alternative, the Working Families Party, CODEPINK, the Illinois Green Party, and the Progressive Democrats of America.

Having endured a presidential primary rigged by the Democratic National Committee against Sanders, it is not like the vast majority of attendees were not open to conversation about re-imagining the country’s political system. In fact, quite a few people at the summit still refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton, because they do not view her as much of an alternative to Donald Trump.

But organizers probably did not want to encourage calls for Sanders to run as an independent or Green Party presidential candidate. Sanders has made it clear since the start of his presidential campaign that he did not want to run outside of the Democratic Party if he failed to win the nomination.

Jill Stein’s Campaign Hoped Organizers Would Abandon “Old Party Loyalties”

DIY posters at the People's Summit. Photo by Kevin Gosztola.

DIY posters at the People’s Summit. Photo by Kevin Gosztola.

“We had assumed the Summit would maintain the longstanding Sanders preference to stay within the universe of the Democratic Party. At the suggestion of a friend, we agreed to reach out none the less on June 14,” the Jill Stein 2016 campaign indicated in a statement provided to Shadowproof. “We weren’t surprised the NNU wasn’t able to accommodate this 11th hour request. The NNU replied the same day, saying the program had been finalized and could not add another plenary speaker. They did offer to meet with us after the Democratic nominating convention.”

“As with many such gatherings, there appears to have been a disconnect between the organizers and featured speakers on one hand, and many grassroots activists in the audience,” the campaign suggested. “Discussions seem to have focused on how to make the Democratic Party more progressive and how to build the social movements. But when Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant urged people to vote for Jill, the room broke out in strong applause.”

Stein’s campaign was “very disappointed” that it was unable to address this gathering of progressives and socialists during a “historic moment.” It had hoped, with the DNC’s decision to deny NNU executive director RoseAnn DeMoro a slot on the DNC Platform Committee, the snail pace of counting more than 2 million votes in California, and the decision by the Associated Press and NBC News to call the primary for Clinton the day before six states went to vote, organizers might abandon “old party loyalties.”

“So many Sanders supporters are pouring into our campaign, we thought our perspective would be of interest to the rank and file activists at the Chicago gathering,” the campaign added. “We do appreciate the offer by NNU to meet in the future to talk about next steps. The California Nurses have endorsed Green Party presidential candidates in the past, and Greens have always greatly respected their leadership in promoting single payer health care and in mobilizing for climate action.”

Democratic Socialism In Defiance Of The Democratic Party

A point of contention developed around a panel called “Democratic Socialism In a New Time,” which was planned to educate people in attendance who were possibly unfamiliar with concepts of socialism. It featured sociologist Frances Fox Piven, Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin Magazine, and Socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant. Charles Lenchner moderated.

Panel organizers established a frame in advance that disregarded the next months of the 2016 Election. What may or may not happen was viewed as unimportant to the discussion. Nevertheless, Sawant believed it was critical to address the threat the Democratic Party has historically posed to the working class as well as social movements.

“How can we build our movement on the basis of continuing to tie ourselves to what is the second-most pro-capitalist and anti-socialist part of the world, which is the Democratic Party?” Sawant asked. “How is there any possibility of moving forward on our political revolution if we continue to tell people that all those of you, all those tens of millions of you that are angry at the corporate establishment, angry at both parties and rallied behind Bernie—that now we’re going to ask all of you to do the thing that made you angry, which is support the corporate establishment?”

“No, I think that is a bankrupt strategy to present to working people, especially young people who want to fight back,” Sawant stated.

To cheering and applause, she spoke about how she was elected and re-elected to the Seattle City Council because she defied the Democratic establishment. She said ever since she arrived at the People’s Summit she had people stop her at every step to say they were excited about what she has done in Seattle. She broached the issue of whether Sanders supporters should vote for Jill Stein and whether Sanders should run on the Green Party ticket against Clinton and Trump.

That prompted Lenchner to take the step of scolding Sawant for speaking about the future of the movement and the Democratic Party during the panel discussion. He said, “The purpose of this session is not to persuade for and against what we ought to do over the next month. It’s to persuade for or against whether we ought to be organizing explicitly as socialists, and I don’t think the answer to that depends on the specifics of what we’re facing in the United States right now, 2016. It’s a larger question. We shouldn’t only see that question through the prism of this specific moment.”

What Lenchner asked Sawant and people in the audience to do is talk about socialism in an abstract sense and detach it from the current political situation, which immensely frustrates Americans since there are no easy answers. His remark stood in stark contrast to the People’s Summit because it was explicitly held to confront and take advantage of a “movement moment.”

As Sawant said, “If we want to have our voices heard, then we have to cut that umbilical cord and finally build our own party of the 99 percent.” To apply concepts of democratic socialism when running for office, as thousands of Sanders supporters are interested in doing, or to wield such concepts when engaged in activism, there must be attention paid to meaningfully challenging the Democratic Party.

Disappointed Two-Party System Was Not Discussed More Formally

National Nurses United station promoting "Robin Hood tax" at the People's Summit. Photo by Kevin Gosztola.

National Nurses United station promoting “Robin Hood tax” at the People’s Summit. Photo by Kevin Gosztola.

The Progressive Independent Party, a new grassroots effort to create “long-term, truly viable third-party,” had two representatives at the People’s Summit. Araquel Bloss, the founder, said the sponsors and organizers “did an amazing job” presenting powerful panelists, “sparking conversation between organizations, and honoring both our past progressive heroes and those who have risen to fight for us today.” But Bloss was also disappointed that “dismantling the two-party system was not discussed officially at the summit, and it was quite obviously the elephant in the room.”

“Direct conversation about any third-party effort was completely absent although many established third parties had booths outside the main hall to hand out materials and answer questions,” Bloss stated. “Many of the questions raised by the People’s Summit were not answered during our time together. How do we stay united? Where do we go from here?”

Bloss added, “We will continue to develop systems to unify the progressive movement and third parties through a coalition-based approach. We will continue to work towards gaining ballot access so together we can run candidates of any party affiliation who hold progressive values. We must not lose this historic moment of progressive enthusiasm.”

While Theresa May, a Sanders supporter from Oakland, thought the event was “impressively run,” she too was “disappointed that there was almost no discussion of the two-party system and alternatives to it from the speaker presentations or the speakers in the formal sessions,” except for Sawant. But she noted there was plenty of discussion about alternatives with people she met at the summit. “I don’t think many people let the structured sessions dictate what they should be talking and thinking about, at least not the people I was talking to.”

Because summit organizers avoided open discussion about alternatives to the Democratic Party, the result was expressions of discouragement, frustration, and powerlessness.

Becky Bond, senior adviser to Sanders 2016, said, “It’s a terrible place we find ourselves in, I think, especially after fighting so hard and so long to have us be in a different position right now, where we have a democratic socialist who would have crushed Trump.”

“When it comes to the general election, if you’re going to spend the next five months signing up to volunteer for the Clinton campaign and doing phone banking for her, you’re not building anything,” said Tobita Chow, chair of The People’s Lobby. “You’re not building your organization. You’re not building this movement. The movement is urgent, right? We cannot afford to waste five months like that.”

Dominique Scott of United Students Against Sweatshops confessed, “I’m so discouraged about the moment that we’re in right now. The fact that it is my first election to get to vote in—I was too young last time. I am distraught that the two choices that I get are two people that do not represent me and do not represent the things that I need.” The audience cheered Scott loudly and brought the conversation to a pause.

“With that being said, I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, and Trump is a really hard place. And Hillary Clinton, with the evils that she has done to poor people, to black folks, decimating welfare programs, exacerbating the mass incarceration problem, that has now placed us as the most incarcerating place in the world, that has now put black people in a place where they are now incarcerated at levels that are pre-Jim Crow. What are we supposed to do?” Scott asked.

It was universally agreed that activists should continue their struggles without paying any attention to the complaints of the Clinton campaign, which may argue grassroots mobilizations challenging Clinton must be put on hold until after Trump is defeated so they do not weaken their campaign. Why not match bold movement action with similarly bold action in the electoral arena?

Actress Rosario Dawson, a strong supporter of Sanders, told summit attendees she did not like the “idea of just picking between two people for president. I want more choices, and I’m capable of deliberating through those choices.” She called for a major pushback and received applause.

Juan Gonzalez posed the question: “Do we seek to reform the system, transform the system, or overthrow and replace the system?” Overthrowing and replacing the system received the loudest and most vibrant reaction.

Hundreds of thousands of people have turned their backs on establishment politics in the United States. They need some place to go, and a way to avoid being trapped by the avalanche of lesser-of-two-evils politics, which will try and suffocate them over the next five months.

The Democratic Party was rightly condemned for its embrace of neoliberalism, as well as its support for humanitarian interventions and the massive corruption on display during the presidential primary. But this is part of the DNA of the Democratic Party. This is how the elites of the party will respond every time the people seek to transform it into a party of the working class.

Over 11,000 have signed up to run for office or “volunteer for other Sanders supporters who run.” How do supporters expect the Democratic Party to respond to these candidates?

Do people want to be in a perpetual battle with cold-blooded politicians devoted to maintaining a capitalist structure that serves wealthy campaign contributors and corporations, which own parts of the U.S. government? Or do people want to build an alternative that can grow and prosper, especially in this historic moment when movement politics has shown it can make a huge impact on how elections unfold?

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."