by Charles Austin
If you arrived at McCormick Place early on June 9 for the People’s Summit, you might be forgiven for assuming it was a DSA only affair. I got in line to grab my badge around 10 a.m. and just about everybody waiting with me was a DSA member. This wasn’t too surprising, since our trainings began hours before official People’s Summit events, but it set a certain tone for DSA’s high visibility all weekend.
In line, DSAers from Iowa and Tennessee recounted their separate experiences of attending the 2016 DNC as delegates for Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Before hearing their stories, I had failed to appreciate (or at least, failed to put individual faces to) the transformative disillusionment attendees felt at the convention. Sanders’ DNC delegates witnessed a chaotic, divisive mess on the ground, only to see a manicured and stage-managed alternate reality broadcast on TV. This, I suppose, is how politics often feels, and sure, the disorder at the 2016 convention wasn’t on the magnitude of the notorious 1968 DNC, but I still get the impression that it’s galvanized this generation of activists in a profound way.
After registration we settled in for the DSA exclusive part of the day’s programming. This included practice for elevator pitches, regional breakouts to discuss how issues overlap or differ between chapters, and a panel featuring Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara and other DSA notables.
Maybe it goes without saying, but meeting DSAers from Austin, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Lincoln, NE, and beyond reassured me that most comrades came to the People’s Summit with a nuanced understanding of the issues in their own communities and a solid sense of what needs to be done. The day’s trainings left members with actionable takeaways about coalition building, about handling growing pains in new chapters, and in some way these trainings were revelatory, but it felt even more revelatory to realize just how capable DSA members already are to take on the challenges their communities face. It’s sort of a vindication of DSA’s bottom-up approach to see so many capable people from across the country in one place.
And the simple sense that there’s something all of us can do feels charged and consequential at this moment. It’s telling that people aren’t flocking to ClintonCon 2k17 or whatever. In fact, the closest thing there is to a ClintonCon, the Center for American Progress’s invite-only conference, was held last month as a closed-door affair reserved for elite Democratic faithful looking to coronate future party leaders (in attendance: Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand; not in attendance: you and me).
But I guess it’s unfair to say the CAP event was invite-only; you and I had the opportunity to throw down $1,000 for the privilege of attending the after party. And to be fair, we’d gladly reciprocate the offer. The DSA after party at the In These Times office was free, but John Podesta would have been welcome to hand off $1,000 for a PBR or two.
Of course, this inclusionary approach is exactly what sets the People’s Summit in stark contrast to the CAP — and indeed sets apart the burgeoning Sanders-inspired left movement from establishment liberals in general. So far as these conferences are concerned, the medium is the message.
A People’s Summit panel on Saturday, titled “Down-Ballot Revolutionaries,” drove this point home, serving as the antidote to exclusionary CAP-style electoral politics. Newly elected South Fulton, GA, City Councilman khalid kamau spelled out in concrete terms exactly how he put his winning campaign together. In a PowerPoint presentation he walked the crowd through building a campaign on a budget (you don’t need a campaign manager; if you pay one person, make it a field organizer), fundraising (a generous portion of his $26,000 budget came by way of small Our Revolution donations), and voter activation (DSA put together a robust nationwide phone-banking operation for his campaign).
The panel’s message was that any of us could run for office, and the presence of so many newly elected officials in the room — from Pennsylvania, Georgia, Maine — made it feel not just possible but probable that others of us would soon follow in their footsteps.
That evening as Sanders’ speech neared, a different demographic, something like a Bernie Fan Club, stirred from hibernation. This subset of the Summit talks a stranger’s ear off about its volumes of Sanders-inspired poetry. It rambles about the Sanders musicals it has penned.
Its chief political concern is the “Draft Bernie” campaign, a quixotic attempt to drag Sanders kicking and screaming into starting a new party he doesn’t want to start. Its strategy is this: take a politician whose message places the issues above the candidate, and draft him into a cult-of-personality campaign that places the candidate above the issues.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that the starry-eyed Draft Bernie bunch tried its damnedest to disrupt his speech with shouted, pouty interjections. The people whose entire platform hinges on drafting one guy don’t realize that it’s in their best interest not to irritate that guy.
But I guess the power of democracy will sort this out. Maybe I’m wrong and The Bernie Party or whatever will conquer the U.S. House next year and win like 250 seats. They brought the feel of a comic-book convention to a political summit, and maybe they’ll bring it to Capitol Hill next.
After Bernie’s speech, a bunch of celebrities read excerpts of Howard Zinn. Naturally this was the cue for a few dozen DSAers to ditch the rest of the proceedings for drinks.
Sunday morning, Thomas Frank hosted a panel of activists as a sort of convention denouement over breakfast. In part this centered on the authenticity of grassroots movements. Frank recounted being present at the first-ever Tea Party rally in D.C., an astroturf campaign if there ever was one, populated by industry lobbyists and Grover Norquist types from the start. This was contrasted against Linda Sarsour’s account of the January 21 Women’s March, which, for all its initial internal struggles, stands as an authentic ground-up achievement, inclusive and stirring, the kind of thing soft-drink ads want to co-opt.
I caught a bit of this discussion before my volunteer shift at the DSA table. The two-hour shift sprawled out to three or four hours simply because a revolving door of DSAers kept the table bustling and entertaining. As the Summit wound down most booths thinned out, but DSA’s was a hive of activity.
This strikes me as a non-trivial part of DSA’s appeal.
We’re building an organization at the same time that we’re forming a community. The buzz of members caused non-members to gravitate over too, one reason that a healthy number of new comrades enlisted that weekend. And by capitalist standards we had a great weekend: When I left, only one DSA t-shirt and a single poster remained unsold. By our own standards, though, the scope of our success will be measured by how much the movement has spread its message by next year’s People’s Summit, and by how effectively we can bring real change through actions on the ground.
Look. The shadow cast over American life by President Trump’s buffoonish, discolored countenance was unthinkable just a few years ago. But so was The People’s Summit. Our moment’s inescapable politics of the deplorable breathes new potential into Michael Harrington’s “left wing of the possible.” There’s a spark here. So the misery of austerity, of oligarchy, of capitalism goes on pretty much unabated for the moment, but the promise of the People’s Summit is that the seeds of the grassroots are sprouting already, in khalid kamau’s city council seat, in Larry Krasner’s bid for Philadelphia DA, in every person inspired to take action after the summit.
The promise of DSA, then, is that a pragmatic socialism can bring working people radical self-empowerment through democracy and collective action, not tomorrow but today, not when beltway power brokers say so but when we seize power for ourselves. It was nice to breathe that in for three days.