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.