While presidential elections tend to galvanize people and focus attention, I have come to believe that too much attention is placed on them at the expense of other important political activity. The best hope for progressive politics in the long term is to organize at the state and local levels, and elect progressive people to school boards and municipal and state governments where often the issues are far more concrete and immediate than at the national level. Those lower level elected officials form the backbone of the party structure.
In the past some Democratic candidates like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have run on fairly progressive platforms but after winning, have failed to use the mass mobilization that put them into office to create a party infrastructure that reflected those policies. Instead they turned around and packed the party with the same old lobbyist-backed neoliberals that they ran against, suggesting that the progressive noises they made were mostly window dressing.
It looks like the Bernie Sanders campaign, even though he could not quite make it to the nomination, is planning on using the enthusiasm generated by his campaign to try and create more lasting change. A recent summit held in Chicago towards the end of June and attended by 3,000 Bernie Sanders supporters is one of many that seeks to keep up the momentum despite not getting the nomination.
In plenary sessions and workshops, mentions of Clinton, Trump and even Sanders were scant. Agreeing on the need to support Sanders through to Philadelphia and ultimately defeat Donald Trump, speakers spent their energy hashing out their strategies for 2017 and beyond, discussing the kinds of policies movements should fight for, and how to see them become law. In a survey collected Sunday, more than 800 conference-goers pledged to run for local office, energized by the weekend’s programming and a call from Sanders Thursday night for progressives to do just that.
The Summit was funded in large part by the National Nurses United, with contributions from a number of other convening organizations. The union was the first to put its support, financial and otherwise, behind Sanders last summer, and see the People’s Summit as an extension of those efforts.
Compared to Netroots Nation, a shiny annual conference for progressive non-profit and Democratic Party staffers, the Summit felt less like a networking event than the kindling for a democratic socialism with teeth.
Though present at the Summit, the “Bernie or Bust” crowd was marginal. The more obvious shared sentiment among Summit-goers was not a repudiation of Hillary Clinton but rather an excitement for movement-leaders and ideas to make their way into the political mainstream.
Sanders has also started campaigning for progressive congressional candidates in other races.
On his website, Sanders has already started to make the transition from active presidential candidate to another kind of leader. “This is your movement,” it now says, showing a montage of diverse faces.
And at the urging of his wife, Jane Sanders, he has been talking to his inner circle about launching a grass-roots organization to harness the energy of his supporters. Among aides, there is chatter about who might staff such an organization, which might resemble Democracy for America, the group that former Vermont governor Howard Dean launched following his failed 2004 presidential bid.
In the short term, Sanders has outlined what he hopes to achieve within the party and the Sanders camp has been pushing for progressive changes in the Democratic party platform and has achieved some successes, such as getting the Clinton camp to agree to a federal $15 minimum wage and reducing the eligibility age for Medicare, along with some defeats such as on the TPP trade deal and on the Israel-Palestinian issue, because Clinton is devoted to the Israel lobby and where her supporters defeated (to loud boos) a call for an end to occupations and illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories. On this last issue, she is far more regressive and to the right than even George W. Bush.
The final Democratic platform that was hammered out within the last few days is seen as one of the most progressive platforms in party history and this is clearly due to the success of the Sanders campaign and the need for Hillary Clinton to shift positions in order to appeal to his supporters. She and president Obama have finally come around to speaking out in favor of a public option to health care.
Now that has been achieved, Sanders is expected to endorse Clinton today. Those people who had been calling for months for Sanders to concede and endorse Clinton were pursuing the wrong strategy because if he had done so, his supporters would not have had the leverage to get these concessions on the platform and elsewhere.
Party platforms are just words. But that does not make them insignificant. They can be serve as important markers of where the party members stands on major issues and they can be used to pressure candidates to take steps that they might prefer not to. This is particularly important with Wall Street-friendly, neoliberal, pro-war neoconservatives like Hillary Clinton.
We need to do what William Greider suggested and that is use words as leverage.
An enduring truth, a wise friend once explained to me, is that important social change nearly always begins in hypocrisy. First, the powerful are persuaded to say the appropriate words, that is, to sign a commitment to higher values and decent behavior. Then social activists must spend the next ten years pounding on them, trying to make them live up to their promises or persuading governments to enact laws that will compel them to do so.
Do I think Clinton is being hypocritical when her side adopted some of the language in the platform? Her record would suggest that the answer is yes. But the fact that her supporters opposed the Sanders stances on TPP and Israel-Palestine issues suggest that the platform language does matter and they feel somewhat constrained by them.
We have to use those words to hold her accountable in the event that she gets elected president.