Photo by Jake Bucci.
“This political revolution started before Bernie Sanders got here, and it will continue after his campaign.”
Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, delivered these words to some 3,000 attendees at the People’s Summit, a gathering in Chicago this past weekend of student organizations, civic groups, and unions allied with the Sanders campaign.
The summit, first proposed by the labor union National Nurses United, was organized to continue the momentum generated by Sanders’s candidacy. Though Sanders himself was not present, his presence was felt. The crowd was full of “Bernie 2016” T-shirts, buttons, and hats. Photos of the senator and his rallies were displayed on screens throughout the convention center.
While Bernie Sanders has apparently fallen short of capturing the Democratic nomination for President, most of those gathered at the summit were cheerful about all they had accomplished so far.
“I’m looking at a sea of positive people,” remarked activist and Daredevil actress Rosario Dawson, a member of the opening panel. “I mean, how is this losing?”
Sanders’s supporters have reason to be optimistic. That a self-described democratic socialist could come within striking distance of a major party’s nomination has shattered assumptions about American politics. Sanders has moved Hillary Clinton to the left on such issues as fracking and the minimum wage, helped shape the Democratic National Convention’s platform committee, and inspired scores of young people and new voters to get involved in politics.
But Sanders’s greatest impact was to prove that many of his most progressive proposals, described as “radical” by pundits—including a $15 minimum wage, free college education, breaking up large banks—are well within the American political mainstream. As bestselling author Naomi Klein said at the summit:
“They told us that we couldn’t get here, that we would have to cover up our ideas . . . sneak them in under the cover of night, but no . . . these ideas are deeply popular.”
Others pointed to what they saw as the enormous potential of Sanders’s corps of donors, volunteers, and supporters. Keeping them consolidated, organized, and active was one of the major focal points of the summit.
In fact, as many speakers pointed out, the groundswell of grassroots activism which propelled Bernie’s campaign didn’t begin when he announced his candidacy last May. Organizers at the summit traced the lineage of the “political revolution" to protest movements including Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Fight for $15. Sanders merely created an opportunity for these groups to come together behind a single, “revolutionary” candidate.
Now that Sanders’s presidential campaign appears to be ending, many are wondering whether his followers will remain united and committed to their cause. One panelist, Shaun King of the New York Daily News, predicted that Sanders’ activists and volunteers wouldn’t disperse and move on, as has happened to so many other campaigns, like the failed candidacies of Gore and Kerry, and even President Obama’s successful 2008 campaign. As he put it, “Never before, after a victory or a loss, have people said: ‘I’m not finished, we’re not finished.’ ”
Organizers at the summit laid out a roadmap of how progressives could gain more ground. One strategy was to focus on electing progressive candidates to seats on the bottom of the ballot: school boards, city councils, state legislative bodies. This will allow the movement to grow from the ground up.
At a breakout session dedicated to this approach, organizers shared strategies they’ve found effective in electing local candidates. Attendees were polled on how many hours they would volunteer for a political candidate over the next three years; 55 percent of respondents suggested they would commit at least 100 hours.
Audience members were encouraged to consider running for office themselves. In another poll conducted by summit organizers, 36 percent of respondents, or approximately 365 people, said they would seek office sometime in the next five years. Bernie Sanders recently stated in a webcast that nearly 6,700 of his supporters are committing to run in an election.
Another tactic discussed was to capitalize on the solidarity among different protest movements. Many at the summit had experience organizing demonstrations whether for labor unions, Black Lives Matter, wage equality, environmental causes, or protesting war and solitary confinement.
While few people at the summit expressed enthusiasm for the prospect of a Clinton presidency, most seemed ready to embrace the former Secretary of State as the viable alternative to Donald Trump.
As Sanders begins to talk about the importance of beating Donald Trump, and the Clinton campaign courts his support, his best opportunity to keep his followers united is to continue to champion his own policy proposals. As Texas populist Jim Hightower said during the summit’s closing remarks, “We didn’t win the White House, not yet, but we won something bigger: We won the future.”
Tanner Jean-Louis is an editorial assistant at The Progressive. He grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and graduated from the University of Arizona. He will be studying law at Georgetown University in the fall.