Weeks before party apparatchiks descend on Cleveland and Philadelphia, a key political convention — though one neither sanctioned by the major parties nor followed closely by Beltway journalists — has already taken place. The People's Summit, held in Chicago this past weekend, brought together some 3,000 Bernie Sanders supporters, if not the candidate himself, to plot the next steps in the "political revolution."
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.
"You've got to march," Rosario Dawson advised in Friday night's opening plenary. "And you've got to march to the polls. You've got to have both." News Sunday morning that activists were preparing during the Summit to risk arrest at the DNC this July caused a stir online. But for many attendees, that "Direct Action 101" training — a common item in the activist toolkit — fit neatly alongside the other programming on offer, from instructions on how to run down-ballot candidates, to sessions on funding a more robust welfare state.
Among the unfazed was Tobita Chow, a theologian-in-training, founder of the Chicago-based People's Lobby and an organizer with Reclaim Chicago. He says Sanders' run for the nomination prompted a shift in the weary way his fellow community organizers relate to the ballot box. "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." Organizers of the Summit cited Reclaim Chicago's work — combining direct action, ambitious policy proposals and runs for local office — as a major reason why they decided to host their event in the Windy City, hoping it might provide a model for activists flying in from around the country.
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.
Summit environs likely fed potential candidates' confidence. Held on the shores of Lake Michigan, in North America's largest convention center, the gathering had the kind of production values that tend to elude the American left. (Selfie booths, celebrities and cash bars are not regular features at many scrappy leftist confabs.) Save for odes to revolution, the backdrop for the weekend's plenary stage might well have been taken from Davos. A well-resourced left, it turns out, can be a more attractive one.
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.
The Summit held little back in terms of ambitions. All-conference plenary spaces featured calls to nationalize the banks and for reparations, while speeches from officials like Tulsi Gabbard outlined radical shifts in U.S. foreign policy, and an end to American-led regime change.
"There will be a revolution in this country one way or another," Transparent star and Sanders surrogate Gaby Hoffman tells Rolling Stone. "And if it's not a civil, compassionate revolution like the one that we're talking about here, it is going to be a bloody revolution in the streets."
People for Bernie co-founder and Occupy Wall Street alumni Winnie Wong says National Nurses United was quick to hand over resources and control of the proceedings. "They allowed activists like myself to lead the program and logistical aspects of this and said, 'You guys are in charge. The space is yours,'" she says.
"This is a celebration of the emergence of democratic socialism in America," she adds. "Twelve million people passionately voted for a democratic socialist…. Socialism is here to stay. Don't be afraid of it. Embrace it."
Events like the People's Summit might be the tonal opposite of rowdy general assemblies in Zuccotti Park, but they may well be two sides of the same coin. Sanders' campaign has offered activists, socialists included, more of a taste of power than leftists have enjoyed for at least a decade, and a level of public legitimacy never previously experienced by the scores of millennials who voted for him.
For National Nurses United head RoseAnn DeMoro, the People's Summit was the next stop after testifying at the Democratic Party's platform committee in Phoenix. The meeting, which extended through the weekend, poached would-be Summit guests Cornell West and Bill McKibben, both hand-picked by Sanders to help draft the party's platform. A number of attendees, as well, will go on to become delegates at the convention in July. But building strength in the long term, activists agree, won't come simply from access to closed-door negotiations. Supporters at the summit and elsewhere are now tasked with figuring out what to do with their new-found prestige, and keeping the momentum the campaign generated going into the general election and beyond. While still far off from a coherent platform, this weekend's Summit was a small preview for what a sustained, progressive battering ram on the Democratic Party might look like.
"The Democratic Party is worth fighting for," former Ohio Rep. Nina Turner tells Rolling Stone, harkening back to the legacy of the New Deal and the Civil Rights Act — each pushed through by Democratic presidents facing pressure from popular movements. "But from time to time," Turner says, "you have to shake things up within your own organization."
As she said from the main stage, "We need folks elected to office who actually give a shit about the people they represent!"
Making sure people do indeed give a shit will depend on the kind of force activists can muster, especially post-DNC. Keeping Sanders supporters engaged over the coming months will require a new level of collaboration between the grassroots and more institutional forces, like the nurses' union and the Working Families Party.
George Goehl, the co-director of People's Action, a national network of grassroots groups and another of the Summit's key conveners, laments that the success of Sanders' candidacy caught progressives off-guard, making it difficult to absorb those newly activated by Berniementum into their ranks. This also makes it hard to keep up morale.
"We have to build organizations to catch up with the moment," he says. "There are going to be waves of activity that we have to figure out how to provide the scaffolding. Honestly, we weren't ready." In addition to running candidates, which People's Action has been doing for the last several years, Goehl predicts members will continue the education and base-building work that has been their bread and butter for decades. He says he hopes activists will "recruit people up and down the ballot to run on a big-ideas platform," and become better able to adapt to shifting ground. "Overall, I'm more hopeful than I've been in a long time," Goehl says.
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.
Beyond encouragements to run for office and pledges to push on progressive issues, there were no grand plans presented at the Summit. The nurses' union and People's Action have plans to support future gatherings, and they — along with other groups — are planning a demonstration in Washington this February to welcome whoever gets inaugurated the month prior. Exactly what kind of progressive force greets the next president remains to be seen.
With a younger and more progressive electorate swelling each year, the sea change Bernie's campaign marks in the Democratic Party will almost certainly outlive him. His supporters are fighting hard against the Clintonite wing of the Democratic Party, and for their new order to take its place. "It is war," Wong says. "A line in the sand has been drawn, and we're ready to do battle."