Several political parties on the left met in the US capital last weekend, September 8 through 10, to discuss third party electoral strategies and the potential to form a new coalition party representing the interests of the majority of Americans. The People’s Convergence Conference was hosted by the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party campaign, Socialist Alternative, and the Progressive Independents Party.
The first day of the conference began with a rally on the National Mall. After the rally, the group of around 150 conference attendees marched to the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) where they delivered 50,000 petition signatures requesting that the Independent, political icon leave the Democratic Party to join a Party of the People. They also sang the happy birthday song to his staffers in lieu of his presence.
The conference attendees and those who followed on the livestream were connected by a distrust of the two major American political parties. Lezlie Cox, Southwest Regional Coordinator for Draft Bernie campaign, was there helping plan and execute the conference.
“It’s obvious that the two corporate parties aren’t going to do anything for people, they aren’t going to do anything that’s going to help anybody,” Cox said.
This sentiment was expressed repeatedly in speeches, panels, and casual conversations at the conference.
Brana was a communications staffer for the Democratic Primary campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders. After the primary loss, when the rest of the Sanders’ Campaign team were transitioning to support Clinton, join Our Revolution, or end their campaign season early, Brana and a few other staffers branched off to start their own campaign.
He reasons that the campaign is timely because political parties outside of the two-party system have historically been the driving force behind social progress in the United States. This has happened by pushing the other parties left on an issue like labor, women’s, or civil rights or by taking power. Notably, he has argued, the Republican Party was formed as a reaction to a pro-slavery platform undertaken by the Whig party against the wishes of their voting base the mid-1800’s. The Republican Party, led by Lincoln, formed as an abolitionist party and swept the next Presidential elections in 1860.
The conference was not without divisiveness. The Green Party showed up with several organizers, including their 2012 and 2016 Presidential Candidate Dr. Jill Stein. They also brought a message of, “Why reinvent the wheel? Come home to the Green Party.”
Stein, in conversation with me, and I am sure everybody else she spoke to, encouraged me to join the Green Party and avoided discussing the Draft Bernie plan. In her final comments on a panel about Progressive prospects in 2018 and 2020, she told the audience that the most important thing for our movement going forward is unity. This came after a half-hour of unresolved back and forth between speakers, the audience, and Greens about whether the Green Party could be the vehicle for Progressive voices moving forward.
The Green representatives expressed a willingness to be flexible, but warned the audience that the defamation and marginalization experienced by Green candidates would also be applied to any candidate from a significant outsider party.
Charles Douglas, a member of Draft Bernie from Boone, NC, told the Green representatives that, in order for him to consider joining his political activism to their vehicle they would need to change their name, because, he argued, popular support would be built from an economic message and the Greens have been associated with radical environmentalism for too long.
“We picked the word ‘convergence’ very specifically because this is about bringing together our fractured movement and trying to bring us together, unite us around the cause of starting a new party and around the need for Independent politics because we have lived the results of the attempt to reform the Democratic party for the past year and years before that and it’s not pretty,” said Brana in a Facebook Live interview with Theresa Joy of Truth Against The Machine.
The conversations held at the conference ran the gamut of aspirational, conciliatory, supportive, and oppositional. One audience member, when given the microphone, aggressively questioned Brana’s strategy being reliant on Sanders. Many in the left think that the foreign policy of the Vermont Senator is hawkish, and some felt betrayed by his willing-endorsement of Hillary Clinton after the primary loss.
Brana responded to the questioning by agreeing that the left must be as critical of their favorite Senator when he is on the wrong side of issues, as they are of establishment politicians who are generally on the wrong side of the issues.
The biggest name speaker at the conference was Dr. Cornel West, who delivered his pro-third party message on the Saturday evening at the Draft Bernie Town Hall. He expressed
his disappointment in Sen. Sanders for endorsing the Democratic Party Candidate Hillary Clinton despite evidence that the DNC acted in her favor in the primary.
Dr. West opened his speech on a common theme at the conference, saying, “I would not want to be any other place but here because this particular gathering prefigures what is needed as the two-party system continues to degenerate, and our fellow citizens begin to see the unbelievable limitations and blindnesses of the corporate-wing of the Democratic party that is still in the driver’s seat.”
Other speakers and panelists led discussions about news media and its place in left wing activism, case studies of protests and third-party histories, contemporary campaigns on issues such as pipeline resistance and single-payer healthcare, and racism in the era of Trump. There were also appearances from popular figures such as Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, investigative journalist Jordan Chariton of The Young Turks, and Lee Camp, the presenter of the comedy-news show Redacted Tonight.
On the first night of the conference Eljeer Hawkins, a member of Socialist Alternative and a medical technician in New York City, spoke to the audience about the social and political environment faced by this third-party movement. He is listed on the website Great Black Speakers as an expert on issues of social justice and race in America.
“If this new project is to be born,” said Hawkins, “It’s going to be born from lots of different factors. There’s going to be splits inside the Democratic party, there’s going to be new initiatives like this that will also inform the conversation about a new party, but I think, concretely, people learn from going through the highways and byways of this question.”
Hawkins argued for optimism by connecting the unexpectedly strong Democratic Primary performance of Sanders with the city-level electoral victory of Sawant and the rapid growth of Democratic Socialists of America in the wake of the Trump Presidential victory.
In the aftermath of the conference the main solid plan that I heard from the organization is that future conferences will be organized. I spoke to several attendants who were excited to bring what they had learned in the conference back to their communities and to plan future conferences. As Stein said, they could all agree that unity was important. The questions will be; Whose unity is most important? Who will drive the party forward? And what platform will they be able to agree on?
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