Winning Power and Advancing a Radical Agenda Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

This year’s People’s Summit shows it’s not enough to have good ideas. The left needs a strategy to win.

Kate Aronoff June 15, 2017

Supporters of U.S. Senator and former Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders cheer during his speech at The People's Summit. (Photo by Jim Young/AFP/Getty Images)

This year’s People’s Sum­mit, the sec­ond annu­al con­fab for pro­gres­sives from around the coun­try, kicked off with a bang. On Thurs­day, the night before the weekend’s events began, Jere­my Corbyn’s Labour Par­ty unex­pect­ed­ly kneecapped British Prime Min­is­ter There­sa May’s out­right Con­ser­v­a­tive major­i­ty in the U.K. Parliament.

“Trump didn't win the election. The Democratic Party lost the election."

For many of the conference’s 4,000 atten­dees, Labour’s upset was val­i­dat­ing — and proof-pos­i­tive that a rad­i­cal agen­da along the lines of that party’s ambi­tious man­i­festo can form the back­bone of a win­ning strategy.

The les­son for Democ­rats com­ing out of the U.K. elec­tion should be pret­ty plain­ly clear,” says the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Party’s (WFP) Joe Dinkin, which is that the way to take the right wing out of the major­i­ty is to give peo­ple a plat­form to believe in and a pol­i­tics that will actu­al­ly improve their lives.”

What exact­ly that agen­da should look like and how we should push for it remain open ques­tions for the loose con­stel­la­tion of pro­gres­sives and Bernie Sanders sup­port­ers who gath­ered in Chica­go this past week­end. But, if one thing was made clear at the People’s Sum­mit, it’s that there are more peo­ple than ever in recent mem­o­ry ready to make sure such an agen­da gets implemented.

Nel­ly Tor­res, a 34-year-old orga­niz­er from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, is one of them. Like many of the Summit’s atten­dees, she got her start in pol­i­tics work­ing on Sanders’ pri­ma­ry cam­paign. I knocked on doors until I couldn’t walk any­more. My legs were swelling, so then I made calls,” Tor­res told In These Times, not­ing that she lives with a dis­abil­i­ty that makes it dif­fi­cult for her to be on her feet for extend­ed peri­ods of time.

What [Bernie] was talk­ing about, and what res­onates with peo­ple, is the racial and eco­nom­ic injus­tice that has been hap­pen­ing in our com­mu­ni­ty. In Lan­cast­er, there’s a large pop­u­la­tion of Black Lati­nos. But they’ve been dis­en­fran­chised, ignored and silenced. What drove me to Bernie was that I felt like I was in a cor­ner, and I felt like he looked to me and said, Come on out. Be a part of this con­ver­sa­tion. Be a part of this move­ment. It’s not just me. It’s you.’”

As a new­com­er to polit­i­cal work, Tor­res found a cama­raderie at the People’s Sum­mit that made her 11-hour dri­ve from cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia well worth it. There’s a sense of fam­i­ly among all these peo­ple work­ing to do the right thing and make a democ­ra­cy that works for every­body,” she says. Since the pri­ma­ry, Tor­res has start­ed orga­niz­ing with a group called Lan­cast­er Stands Up, which is work­ing to chal­lenge estab­lish­ment Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans in the area.

Like oth­er atten­dees, Tor­res — a life­long Demo­c­rat — is fed up with the way her par­ty has been run for the past sev­er­al years. The [Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee (DNC)] betrayed me as a mem­ber and as a vot­er. I have real­ly strug­gled with my iden­ti­ty in this par­ty, and I real­ly didn’t want to be in it any­more. But some­body like Bernie speak­ing to these issues and say­ing we have to fight back, that’s the only thing that will keep me in this par­ty,” Tor­res said. I’m done with the cor­po­rate Democ­rats. I’m done with Democ­rats [who] are silent. They are con­tribut­ing to a sys­tem that does not work for me, does not work for my fam­i­ly, and that does not work for my com­mu­ni­ty. It doesn’t work for our country.”

Ire toward the Democ­rats’ estab­lish­ment wing was pal­pa­ble at last year’s Sum­mit, and it has only grown stronger since. The 2016 con­fer­ence served as a kind of an emo­tion­al pick-me-up and inau­gur­al reunion for the thou­sands of peo­ple who had just spent months try­ing — and ulti­mate­ly fail­ing — to make Sanders the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee. It was a spir­it­ed gath­er­ing, if some­what mut­ed by the fact that many of the same atten­dees who had, for months, railed against Clinton’s ties to cor­po­rate inter­ests were brac­ing them­selves to back her in the gen­er­al election

This year, of course, Don­ald Trump is pres­i­dent. And the gloves are off when it comes to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment. The cur­rent mod­el and the cur­rent strat­e­gy of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty is an absolute fail­ure,” Sanders thun­dered in his keynote speech Sat­ur­day night, one of his strongest indict­ments of the par­ty yet. Trump did­n’t win the elec­tion. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lost the election.”

But it wasn’t just Sanders’ devo­tees who cheered on his mes­sage. Also rep­re­sent­ed at the Sum­mit were many of the mil­lions of Amer­i­c­as who have flood­ed into mass protests such as the Women’s March, and who form part of the ide­o­log­i­cal­ly ambigu­ous mass most read­i­ly known as The Resistance.”

The WFP’s Dinkin saw the Sum­mit as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for these new recruits to sharp­en their under­stand­ing of pol­i­tics and to get more deeply involved in grass­roots orga­niz­ing efforts. Is The Resis­tance even a left move­ment? The answer is they don’t know,” Dinkin says. Peo­ple usu­al­ly don’t come into pol­i­tics with well-formed ide­olo­gies, and that’s why train­ing and com­mu­ni­ty and polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion are so impor­tant. But there are a huge num­ber of peo­ple who want to do things.”

Break­out ses­sions through­out the week­end instruct­ed crowds of nurs­es, baby boomers and col­lege stu­dents on the ins-and-outs of neolib­er­al­ism, while oth­ers got schooled in non­vi­o­lent direct action and the kind of big orga­niz­ing” that was cen­tral to the Sanders campaign’s abil­i­ty to gar­ner 13 mil­lion votes. Fol­low­ing Sanders’ speech, actors and musi­cians took the stage to recre­ate the songs and speech­es of left polit­i­cal fig­ures rang­ing from Muhammed Ali to Eugene V. Debs.

Along­side the skills train­ings and big name speak­ers on dis­play were the birth­pangs of the post-Bernie, mid-Trump pro­gres­sive Left, now nego­ti­at­ing how to blend move­ment and elec­toral pol­i­tics in a polit­i­cal cli­mate for which his­to­ry offers few scripts. As beguil­ing as Trump’s pres­i­den­cy is, the Amer­i­can Left’s recent his­to­ry com­pli­cates mat­ters fur­ther still. The move­ments that emerged in the wake of the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis large­ly retained the New Left’s ambiva­lence and, in some cas­es, open hos­til­i­ty toward the prospect of tak­ing state power.

In one of the most infa­mous exam­ples of this trend, activists from Occu­py Atlanta shunned civ­il rights vet­er­an and Geor­gia Con­gress­man John Lewis from speak­ing at their encamp­ment for fear he would extract polit­i­cal cap­i­tal from it. For mil­len­ni­als and move­ment vet­er­ans alike, wag­ing fights for polit­i­cal pow­er en masse is rel­a­tive­ly new terrain.

Since the end of Sanders pri­ma­ry bid, this divi­sion between move­ment and elec­toral pol­i­tics has begun to erode. At least with­in the walls of the lake­front con­fer­ence cen­ter where the Sum­mit was held, there was a gen­er­al con­sen­sus that win­ning elect­ed office up and down the bal­lot is crit­i­cal. Less clear was how exact­ly these seats should be seized: How can elect­ed offi­cials remain account­able to the social move­ments whose poli­cies they’re try­ing to put into place? What does build­ing a grass­roots-led elec­toral infra­struc­ture look like? What does it mean to trans­form the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty into an insti­tu­tion that acts in work­ing people’s inter­est? And is this even possible?

The con­fer­ence offered no agreed-upon answers to these ques­tions, though cer­tain camps under the broad post-Bernie” umbrel­la have their own strong opin­ions. After a small but audi­ble crowd of Draft Bernie” stal­warts inter­rupt­ed the Ver­mont Senator’s Sat­ur­day night speech, Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed Pres­i­dent — and con­fer­ence orga­niz­er — RoseAnn DeMoro issued her own endorse­ment of their cam­paign, quip­ping that Heroes aren’t made: They’re cornered.”

For many, though, spec­u­la­tion over 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates seem tan­gen­tial to the project of ensur­ing there’s a move­ment that can win once it takes power.

Some elect­ed offi­cials are now in the process of sort­ing these ques­tions out for them­selves. In the last sev­er­al months, a slew of pro­gres­sive and left-lean­ing can­di­dates have been elect­ed to local office. This sum­mer alone, that list has includ­ed New York Assem­bly­woman Chris­tine Pel­le­gri­no, Jack­son, Mis­sis­sip­pi may­or-to-be Chok­we Antar Lumum­ba and the like­ly incom­ing Philadel­phia Dis­trict Attor­ney Lar­ry Krasner.

Just 28, Car­los Ramirez-Rosa was elect­ed to Chicago’s City Coun­cil in the spring of 2015, well before this most recent wave of down-bal­lot chal­lengers won their seats. He spent time as a stu­dent orga­niz­er with the Unit­ed Stu­dents Against Sweat­shops and with the Illi­nois Coali­tion for Immi­grant and Refugee Rights before com­ing to pol­i­tics. And next to his Twit­ter han­dle sits the red rose emo­ji now near­ly ubiq­ui­tous among the social media avatars of mem­bers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, which Ramirez-Rosa joined a few months ago.

I am a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist,” he says, but cau­tions against using the label as a start­ing point when talk­ing to vot­ers. We’re at a time where we can talk about what our val­ues should prop­er­ly be labeled as … but we get too caught up telling peo­ple that they should vote for social­ism. We first need to talk to peo­ple about what it is that they’re expe­ri­enc­ing: What do they need, and how can we build a polit­i­cal pro­gram that speaks to that? And then we can say, Oh, by the way. That’s demo­c­ra­t­ic socialism.’”

Above all, Ramirez-Rosa says, he wants the left to win. The sit­u­a­tion is so dire and the two paths before us are so clear: either we are going to save this plan­et and cre­ate a social­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly just world, or we are going to lean into a Trump admin­is­tra­tion that’s lead­ing us down the path to — in many ways — fas­cism. I think that means we have to be ruth­less­ly effective.”

That view is what fuels his ecu­meni­cal spir­it about polit­i­cal par­ties. All pol­i­tics is local. In Seat­tle, the elec­torate sup­port­ed a Social­ist Alter­na­tive can­di­date and elect­ed Kshama Sawant. In my work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood that I rep­re­sent, we could win three demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries and elect three demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists to state rep­re­sen­ta­tive seats whose dis­tricts over­lap mine … much soon­er than we could win a race with a third-par­ty candidate.”

Run­ning as a Demo­c­rat hasn’t soft­ened Ramirez-Rosa’s views on the party’s sta­tus quo. Chicagoans know bet­ter than most how cor­rupt a Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment can become, with the city hav­ing long been a lab­o­ra­to­ry for Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine pol­i­tics. Rahm Emanuel’s neolib­er­al­ism looks a lot like Trump’s right-wing reac­tionary poli­cies,” Ramirez-Rosa says. “[His] response to crime is the same as Don­ald Trump’s: Let’s spend more mon­ey on police and let’s lock more black and brown peo­ple up. Their response to pub­lic edu­ca­tion is the same: They want to pri­va­tize it and ensure that the mar­ket is mak­ing more mon­ey off of the com­mons.

To avoid a creep into the machine, Ramirez-Rosa enjoins, Let’s elect peo­ple from with­in our base, whether they be immi­grant rights orga­niz­ers, orga­niz­ers with the move­ment for black lives, or envi­ron­men­tal­ists. Let’s elect those folks to office and let’s make sure that we have the peo­ple pow­er to hold them account­able and to help them push our agen­da for­ward.” He’s doing this in his own dis­trict via the Unit­ed Neigh­bors of the 35th Ward, an inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal group made up of his con­stituents which he hopes will hold him account­able to the promis­es on which he campaigned.

The New York Times Alexan­der Burns and Jonathan Mar­tin had a dif­fer­ent read on what kinds of pol­i­tics were find­ing voice at the People’s Sum­mit. An arti­cle released on the Summit’s last day cast the Chica­go gath­er­ing in oppo­si­tion to Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lenger Jon Ossoff’s cam­paign in Georgia’s 6th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, despite the fact that Sanders and sev­er­al of his for­mer sur­ro­gates have endorsed Ossoff.

Burns and Martin’s open­ing lines paint a stark pic­ture: Democ­rats are fac­ing a widen­ing breach in their par­ty, as lib­er­al activists dream of trans­form­ing the health care sys­tem and impeach­ing Pres­i­dent Trump, while can­di­dates in hard-fought elec­tions ask wary vot­ers mere­ly for a fresh chance at gov­ern­ing.” In oth­er words, want­i­ng to win and want­i­ng to trans­form the coun­try are mutu­al­ly exclusive.

Yet the kind of puri­ty pol­i­tics the Times’ authors imag­ine seemed large­ly absent among the atten­dees I spoke with. Many shared a steely-eyed prag­ma­tism about their approach to Bernie-aligned pol­i­tics. Clin­ton­ian and Blairite third-way lib­er­al­ism have now suf­fered blows on either side of the Atlantic, after all. Bernie Sanders, on the oth­er hand, is the country’s most pop­u­lar politi­cian. Vast majori­ties of Amer­i­cans sup­port a wide swath of pro­gres­sive poli­cies, and Jere­my Corbyn’s Labour Par­ty just pulled off an elec­toral coup by run­ning on an open­ly redis­trib­u­tive plat­form. Why should mod­er­ate cen­trism be con­flat­ed with Machi­avel­lian realpoli­tik in 2017?

[Sanders’s] poli­cies were treat­ed as though they were myth­i­cal and unat­tain­able and rad­i­cal,” Tor­res says, but these are things that oth­er coun­tries have been doing, and suc­cess­ful­ly. I’ve thought for a long time now that my gov­ern­ment doesn’t rep­re­sent me. But now I’m start­ing to see peo­ple come out and say that it’s okay to dream big.” she adds. “[The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty] has to wake up if it wants to have a future. If not, we’re going to keep suf­fer­ing and keep losing.”

As Dinkin puts it, One of the fail­ures of the neolib­er­al imag­i­na­tion is the instinc­tive belief that the more mod­er­ate pro­pos­al is always the more pop­u­lar one. When peo­ple say we have to pur­sue the pos­si­ble and not the aspi­ra­tional, that’s often cov­er for them not hav­ing the same aspirations.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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