Harmony and Dissonance: Two Meetings of the Democrats and the Left

For Democrats and progressives concerned about whether their disparate forces can come together this November to defeat Donald Trump, and whether they can continue to prod the Democrats leftward in the coming months and years, two conferences held this past weekend offered some hopeful signs.

In Chicago, the “People’s Summit” convened by National Nurses United and attended by 3,000 Bernie Sanders partisans, focused its attention not on this year’s Democratic divisions but on how to build a left-liberal infrastructure over the next several years. In Long Beach, at a meeting of the California Democratic Party’s executive committee, backers of both Sanders and Hillary Clinton signed on unanimously to a compromise resolution that called for reducing the number and power of super-delegates in future Democratic presidential contests, and for electing all future delegates in primaries rather than caucuses.

As the Chicago conference, which I attended, wound down on Sunday, George Goehl, the co-director of People’s Action, a community organizing group that had been one of the conference’s key sponsors, noted with satisfaction that, “It wasn’t about Bernie. It wasn’t about Hillary. It was about what we’re going to do.”

In plenary sessions, workshops and informal meetings, attendees discussed ways to continue building and expanding Sanders’s revolution, with a focus on running candidates for office. The more seasoned activists among them, from such groups as People's Action, the Working Families Party (WFP), and Progressive Democrats of America, suggested strategies to “push, pull, and frighten the Democratic Party to move left,” in the words of WFP Co-Chair (and Communications Workers of America official) Bob Master. Such a trajectory could involve forming statewide coalitions of progressive groups—including, as Master told a conference workshop, “some that were not part of Bernie’s campaign”—that would build signature national campaigns around two or three key issues over the next two years, such as free college tuition at public universities, a financial transaction tax, or criminal justice reform, while recruiting and training thousands of candidates for local and state office, and mobilizing voters to stave off a Republican victory in the midterm Congressional elections of 2018.

Not without reason, activists hope that Sanders would permit the use of his list of donors and volunteers to build support for such endeavors.

Clinton figured in the conference chiefly as She Who Must Not Be Named. Though many younger Sanders supporters have willed themselves to believe that their candidate still has a chance to wrest the nomination from her, the fact that virtually no speaker bothered to attack Clinton was nonetheless a kind of tacit admission that the battle for the nomination is actually over. Some leading leftists—CUNY sociologist Fran Piven among them—did say in their presentations that they’d be voting for Clinton, and gave persuasive reasons why. These included not just the myriad dangers that Donald Trump presents, but also the ways in which a Democratic left could build during a Clinton presidency that it couldn’t under Trump’s. A number of younger attendees audibly objected, booing Piven’s comments.

One way to look at the divisions in the Sanders universe is to see them as an American version of those that used to split the German Green Party, which over time divided into two factions: the Realos and the Fundis (realists and fundamentalists). But the Chicago conference also made clear that much of this division was between activists who’d worked in electoral politics before and those who hadn’t. A number of the younger Sanderistas I spoke with had little to no conception of what most of today’s Democratic activists actually believe and do, conjuring up images that would have more accurately reflected the party at the height of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council’s influence in the 1990s.

It’s precisely for that reason that the meeting of California Democratic Party’s executive committee last weekend was so important. Many of the Sanders supporters, who included the roughly 200 of the 500 delegates that California will be sending to the national convention, came to Long Beach apprehensive that the party’s established leaders would connive to thwart them, fairly or not, at every turn. Indeed, during the final negotiations over a compromise resolution on national party rules, Sanders activists filmed the proceedings to document what they feared would be the ultimate sell-out. That the Bernie Backers ended up unanimously supporting the resolution—as did Clinton’s supporters—may provide some pointers for party officials and both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns as they head to Philadelphia.

The compromise resolution actually began as five separate resolutions on how the national party should nominate its presidential candidate in 2020 and beyond. One of the resolutions was authored by Christine Pelosi, a super-delegate to the upcoming Philadelphia convention and the daughter of the Democrats’ House leader; others were authored by Sanders supporters. The executive committee asked Eric Bauman, who chairs the Los Angeles County party, and Daraka Larimore-Hall, a Sanders delegate who is also a state party official, to work with Pelosi on developing some common language. The resolution they came up with called for the national party to recommend the abolition of caucuses and the creation of primaries as the means by which every state would select its delegates—a position that runs counter to the preference of some Sanders supporters. It also called for a major scaling back of the number and power of super-delegates. This will be achieved by eliminating the position for elected officials, who could attend national conventions as honored guests (or, if they chose to run, as elected delegates); and preserving the position for members of the Democratic National Committee elected at the quadrennial national conventions, but requiring them to cast their votes for the presidential candidate who carried their state. When this resolution was brought to the floor, it won the approval of every Sanders and Clinton supporter in the room.

The California meeting wasn’t all kumbaya: Some Sanders delegates were clearly (if predictably and preposterously) unhappy at the selection of Governor Jerry Brown, who’d endorsed Clinton shortly before the state’s primary while effusively praising Sanders, as the chair of the state’s delegation to the Philadelphia convention. But familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt; it can also build trust when that trust is earned. The many progressive organizations and unions that have been active in support of Clinton’s campaign can help build that trust by acknowledging that Sanders moved the party to adopt stances that they had been seeking for years. These include his successfully pressuring both Clinton and President Obama to abandon the kind of Social Security cost-cutting recommended by Obama’s Simpson-Bowles Commission in favor of actually increasing Social Security benefits, and persuading Clinton to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In that spirit, progressive unions can fund the candidate development and voter mobilization endeavors that groups like People's Action and the WFP will be undertaking. Taking a lesson from Christina Pelosi, the Clinton campaign can work with the Sanders forces on party rules and platform planks acceptable to both sides. Perhaps the younger Pelosi and Larimore-Hall—an African American Sanders social democrat who is both a party officer and (more Bernie than thou) a political consultant who develops voter turnout programs for the social democratic parties of Northern Europe—can be enlisted in efforts to bridge the party’s gaps.

In both the 1930s and 1960s, left social movements and strategically savvy Democrats combined to enact landmark progressive reforms. The two meetings of the past weekend suggest that if they can muster the political smarts that the times require, those two groups may be able to do it again.  


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