The People's Summit Failed Because it Didn't Include the People
What's that you say? The People's Summit was a failure? Surely you jest. By many accounts it was a roaring success. It had a group of "all star" speakers that were given rock star treatment by the three thousand activists and progressive media who came from all over the country to attend this major event. In the words of one admirer, Kate Aronoff of Rolling Stone Magazine:
On display last weekend was more than a growing preference for progressive candidates. Even more so than the Sanders campaign, the People's Summit was a coming-out party for a new kind of politics, one in which voting is just one option among many for how to shake down the old guard.
Yes to shaking down the old guard. But what was the mainstay of the agenda the People's Summit promoted to accomplish that goal? For the most part it emphasized a takeover of the Democratic Party from within. Tobita Chow, "founder of the Chicago-based People's Lobby and an organizer with Reclaim Chicago," explained succinctly the dominant strategy that the leaders and organizers of the People's Summit promoted:
"There's been a big movement toward understanding that electoral campaigns have to be part of a strategy of the left," Chow says. "The Democratic primary system needs to be a field of struggle for us."
He adds, "We need to do what the right has been doing much more effectively than us, which is to run movement candidates at all levels of governments," citing the Tea Party as a model. "We need to do the same thing… take out establishment Democrats, but also start to make the rest of the party scared about the threat that we pose to the establishment."
Aronoff goes on to describe an event that was well funded and slickly produced, even calling it a "Davos for the left." And it did pull off the one big thing the Summit's organizers pushed hard to achieve - over 800 attendees signed a pledge to run for office. But for which party? The Democrats, of course. The head of the Green Party, Jill Stein, was excluded from the event because… the "political revolution" doesn't include the possibility of third parties. Nope, we just need to put pressure on the Democratic party. And elect more Democrats to office, just better ones.
Excuse me, if I stop to point out that I've seen this movie before. And it didn't end well. In 1974, following Nixon's resignation, a bunch of fresh-faced young Democratic candidates were elected to Congress. Idealistic and full of new ideas they pushed against the "old guard" to make major reforms. However, their revolution didn't last.
By 1980, many of them were already out of office, either by choice or because they lost their bid for re-election. Those that remained gradually became absorbed into the party establishment. After three straight Republican presidential administrations, they were ripe for a takeover by the Democratic Leadership Council, a group that wanted to move the party away from its traditional roots among the working class toward one that was more business-friendly. Viva la revolución… not.
Now, four decades later, the Democratic Party is in thrall to corporate money, whose influence peddlers lobby for corporate welfare and cuts to the safety net. It's filled with neo-liberal economic ideologues pushing austerity at a time when we suffer from the greatest wealth and income inequality gap in our nation’s history. Yet, we're being told that the best way to keep the “revolution” alive is to actively support and vote for "more and better" Democrats, because the Democratic Party is "worth saving." With all due respect, that argument doesn't hold water.
I have a great deal of admiration for Bernie’s most significant surrogates, from Tulsi Gabbard and Nina Turner to Rosario Dawson. I also respect the role played by the independent journalists and others who promoted Sanders rather than ignore him.
However, the Sanders' campaign itself wasn't responsible for a lot of his success. He benefited from a groundswell of independent volunteer groups that sprang up across the country. Bernie, for all his rhetoric, actually ran a fairly traditional, top-down management style campaign. Without the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who independently organized themselves to support his candidacy, he would have gone nowhere.
And that's the problem I have with the People's Summit. It was exclusive, limited to only a few people compared to the millions of Sanders’ supporters. The summit event also employed a top-down management style. The new stars of the progressive movement, from Naomi Klein to Josh Fox, were all there, and coverage of the summit was provided by popular indie news media outlets such as The Young Turks.
The People's Summit's agenda was tightly controlled. It didn't allow for any real dialogue between the ordinary people who volunteered and worked for Sanders, and this relatively small group of hand-picked activists and “movers and shakers.” Kate Aronoff of Rolling Stone Magazine entitled her article, "The Political Convention Where Bernie's Revolution Reigns," but it wasn't a "political convention" at all, not in the way I understand that term. In effect, the People’s Summit was a pep rally, and we all know pep rallies are big on inspiration but often short on substance.
I'm not the only person to make this critique. Kshama Sawant, the first socialist elected to Seattle's City Council, expressed a similar view of the People's Summit in an article published in Counterpunch on June 24th:
The stated purpose of The People’s Summit last weekend was about the way forward. The event brought together an estimated 3,500 people in Chicago. The enormous potential to build a powerful movement was clear, with so many coming together eagerly looking for how to continue a political revolution.
Unfortunately, the answers to the key questions facing Sandernistas were not on offer: discussion of who to vote for in November was shockingly kept off the agenda, Jill Stein was denied a chance to speak, concrete strategies were not put forward (except to support “down ballot” Bernie Democrats), no organizational forms were proposed, and audience participation (by “the people”) was excluded.
At the Summit’s first session, Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! opened by telling a cautionary tale of 1968, when some activists refused to vote for establishment Democrat Hubert Humphrey, ending with a warning not to repeat the “mistakes of the past” (translation: not voting Democratic).
Juan Gonzalez learned the wrong lesson from 1968. I remember the Nixon years, an era filled with widespread protests from a variety of anti-establishment groups. Their actions and protests changed public opinion about the War and other issues as well. Nixon and hawks on both sides of the aisle in Congress certainly felt pressured by these so-called "radicals." Nixon took to responding with excessive and even deadly force against protests. Ultimately, however he was forced to negotiate a peace treaty because a majority of the American public came to oppose the war.
The Nixon years were also an era of major legislative achievement the for the left. The Clean Air Act was signed into law in 1970, and the EPA established. Worker safety protections became law in 1971 when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created. In foreign policy, major breakthroughs in our relations with China under Mao and the Soviet Union occurred, lessening the risk of nuclear war.
I don't know what a Humphrey administration would have accomplished. Would it have ended the war sooner? Not necessarily. The Democrats of that era had a strong hawkish wing, because they feared right wing attacks that they were soft on communism. Democrats were much more conservative than people remember. Would Humphrey have pushed through Congress environmental and worker safety laws better than the ones Nixon signed? No one will ever know, but I suspect the fact that a traditional Democrat like Humphrey was not elected President held far more significance for the Democratic Party than it did for the country as a whole.
In truth, political parties rarely lead the fight for major societal change. Take FDR. Everyone views him as a heroic leader for progressive change, but when he first took office, he was more inclined to follow a conservative path. The "New Deal" was originally just a slogan. Only when faced with massive civil disobedience did the FDR we revere today change from an essentially conservative politician to one willing to do whatever it took to ease unrest in the country and adopt progressive policies to move it forward.
Henry Wallace and progressive Democrats in Congress kept FDR aware of these protests, which helped them outmaneuver their more moderate colleagues. This combination of outside protest and inside maneuvering led to passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, which, Cohen says, "radically changed the economics of American farming." [...]
In time, FDR recognized that his ability to push New Deal legislation through Congress depended on the pressure generated by these protesters. As the protests escalated, Roosevelt became more vocal, using his bully pulpit to lash out at big business for its greed and selfishness.
Today, a lot of Democrats, especially the Clinton wing of the party, are as conservative as many Republicans. There’s little real difference between the two parties on important matters such as support for “free” trade agreements, less regulation of Wall Street, an ever more invasive national surveillance state, energy policy that still promotes fossil fuels at the expense of renewables, and support for an interventionist, militaristic foreign policy. We just witnessed the Democratic Establishment refuse to include in the party's platform most of what Bernie fought for in his campaign. No ban on fracking, No Single Payer health care. No rejection of the odious TPP. Even making a few symbolic gestures were considered by them a "bridge too far."
In light of all that, I'm not sure 1968 is particularly relevant to this election. It sounds to me like Mr. Gonzalez is making the exact same argument the Hillary campaign is already using against Trump, the same one Jimmy Carter tried to use against Ronald Reagan. The old "vote for me because I'm less crazy and evil than the Republican" appeal to fear, instead of running a positive campaign focused on issues that concern most Americans.
Frankly, it strikes me as the usual approach the left has been asked to accept for years - back Democrats while trying to change the party from within. While I wish all the best to those who choose to pursue that goal, I haven't seen it be very effective over the course of my nearly six decades on this planet. And does anyone really believe that, if we support Hillary after the convention, she'll give a damn about our demands when she occupies the Oval Office in 2017?
I suggest to you that blanket support for Democrats, especially Clinton, for which Juan Gonzalez implicitly advocated at The People’s Summit, is the wrong way to go if we want to keep this movement viable and strong. Democrats have held the presidency now for 8 years. While we can blame Republican obstructionism for a great deal of the gridlock in Washington, we can hardly blame them for those pro-corporatist, anti-progressive policies that Obama and many Democrats in Congress support. Trade deals like the TPP and TTIP are just one example. And who can forget the grand bargain on entitlement cuts. We were lucky that deal never came to fruition thanks in large part to GOP Tea Party crazies in Congress.
An independent, bottom-up grassroots movement carried Bernie as far as it did. That movement is not based on support for Democrats. It arose organically because Sanders advocated for progressive policies that many, many people found attractive. The vision of America he presented appealed to people who otherwise would never have involved themselves in any political campaign. “It’s not about me, it’s about you” is a powerful message that energized millions.
To conclude, we do not need a new set of elites to set the agenda for what should happen “next” in this political revolution of ours. What we need is more dialogue and engagement with the people who are the beating heart of this movement. All possible options should remain on the table, including third parties. If our voices are stifled, this movement will die. The political revolution Bernie called for is about us, not any particular politician, no matter how charismatic. No one path to achieving our goals can or should be imposed by the few on the many. For me, the best approach to maintaining and growing our people's revolution is to allow as many of us at the grassroots level as possible a voice in how to fight for what we all want. This political revolution is supposed to be to about restoring democracy, after all, isn't it?