The populist uprising championed by Senator Bernie Sanders, now America’s most (only?) popular politician, gathered at the People’s Summit in Chicago last weekend. Over 4,000 activists redoubled their commitment to move from “resistance to power.” That commitment poses a direct challenge to the Democratic party’s leaders.
A front-page report in The New York Times (“Democrats in Split Screen: The Base Wants it All; the Party Wants to Win”) summarized the perspective of the party’s political establishment. The party’s elected leaders and operatives have “a cold-eyed recognition” of the need to “scrounge for votes in forbidding districts” if Democrats are to take back a gerrymandered Congress. Their model is 2006, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, headed by Rahm Emanuel, purposefully recruited centrist challengers who focused on raising money and ran by tailoring their views to fit their district.
Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in the special election in Georgia’s upscale 6th District, which Newt Gingrich once represented, exemplifies the strategy. Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide, has run boldly against corruption and wasteful spending and for clean air and clean water. He opposes raising taxes on the wealthy, and also opposes “any move” toward a single-payer health-care system. He sells decency against division and unity against the “partisan circus.” Buoyed by the activist reaction to Trump, he has raised $23 million, much of which comes in small donations, in what is now the most expensive House race in history. If the Democratic Party has its way, it will recruit more Ossoffs to compete in suburban upscale Republican districts.
That contrasts starkly with the movement energy displayed this weekend at the People’s Summit. Sanders roused the crowd by arguing that “The current model and the current strategy of the Democratic Party is an absolute failure.” The party must “decide which side it is on.” Repeating his call for grassroots rather than money politics, he urged activists to compete everywhere in the country, and to “knock on every door.” He insisted, “We have won the battle of ideas and we are continuing to win that battle.” He called on the party to stand for fundamental change: Medicare for All, tuition-free college, full employment, ending big money in politics, an end to mass incarceration, and more. This wasn’t a protest meeting. Activists shared plans on taking over their local and state Democratic parties, on recruiting and running candidates at every level.
These activists are continuing to build, and they are focused not only on protests but also on competing for electoral power. Buoyed by the stunning showing of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the British election, Sanders stated that the movement for justice is growing worldwide. He noted that he won more votes of people under 30 than both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined, and said “what that means—our ideas and our progressive leaders—is that we are the future of this country.”