What's Next for the Movement Behind Bernie Sanders?

Posted June 1, 2016

MP3 Excerpt of a talk by Charles Lenchner, co-founder of the group, "People For Bernie"


In the days before Bernie Sanders launched his campaign to compete for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, mainstream journalists and pundits gave the independent Vermont senator’s effort very little chance of succeeding. They said his self-described democratic socialist agenda was out of step with most Democrats and America. There were many on the left that also believed that Sanders’ decision to run as a Democrat was misguided given the belief among many progressive activists that the Democratic party was a captive of special interests like, Wall Street and Big Pharma. In a column titled, “Bernie Sanders’ Phantom Movement,” Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges declared, “The Democrats, like the Republicans, have no interest in genuine reform. They are wedded to corporate power.”

Despite the enormous rallies, passion and energy that the Sanders’ campaign has unleashed across the country, especially among young people, it appears that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on her way to win the Democratic party nomination. With that reality sinking in, many long time progressive activists are asking what’s the future of the Sanders’s movement? To answer that question many Bernie supporters will be attending “The People’s Summit” meeting in Chicago, June 17 to 19. Others like Socialist Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant initiated a petition calling on Bernie Sanders to run as an independent presidential candidate, possibly with the Green Party.

The question of what’s ahead for the hundreds of thousands of people who have joined Bernie’s campaign for a “political revolution,” was discussed at the Left Forum conference in New York City on May 21. There, a group of activists, including Socialist Alternative party member Kshama Sawant, exchanged their ideas in a panel titled, “What Next for the Movement Behind Bernie?”. Here, we present an excerpt of a talk by Charles Lenchner, co-founder of the group, “People For Bernie,” one of the sponsors of the Chicago People’s Summit. (Rush transcript.)

CHARLES LENCHNER: I just want to take us back a year. A year wasn't so far ago. A few little vignettes, one was a meeting of what we might call the non-democratic party electoral left in Chicago, which I think was May, a year ago. I wasn't there. You might correct me. At this meeting, a lot of folks got together, and essentially got together and declared a commitment to fighting for more candidates like Kshama Sawant who would run and win outside the two-party system and advance left causes. A lot of these folks were really angry at Bernie Sanders for running as a Democrat and many of them have signed a letter which will live in infamy, explaining to him why he was wrong to run as a Democrat. Given last night, where 90 percent of folks at the plenary acknowledged that they were voting for him, it seems kind of crazy to look back and see how so many of those folks didn't see the writing on the wall, that running inside the Democratic party is precisely what got Bernie so much advantage and it's how he got socialism to be the topic at dinner tables large and small in every demographic. That's a huge victory.

So, the second thing I remember is this feeling that was taking place in May and June like, "Bernie Sanders, pretending to be a socialist and a leftist when he's really just a modern European, or something like that." One person expressed himself and said that a vote for Bernie Sanders means you have blood on your hands because his position on the Middle East and this gentleman's. And I was thinking to myself, "You know, this is the United States, this is the heart of the global empire; a mainstream European politics would be a massive improvement. How can we get there as fast as possible?" And yet, at the same time, his near victory is demonstrating the limits of mainstream politics in the Democratic policy. It is a fact that the establishment lined up for Hillary Clinton. It is a fact that they used the DNC or the Nevada state party chair, whatever methods and shenanigans they could to try and tilt the balance and he's still doing better than 40 percent. What that shows is not how stupid it is to fight the establishment; it's how weak the establishment is. Just imagine if we could create more battles of this scale and in state levels and district levels and city council levels where we could show again and again how weak the establishment actually is.

There is such a large population in the country that has decided with their feet, with their votes that they're going to show up for a truly radical, revolutionary agenda. And they're doing it from all walks of life. One of the problems with these people is they're not quite as politically pure and experienced as we are, which causes all kinds of problems. They don't know the right lingo, intersectionality, sometimes they do things they shouldn't, like act as if they might throw a chair. Of course, they didn't throw a chair, we gotta work on that. This is a huge movement. Millions of people are basically saying, "OK, we're here. Now what?" So we have a choice. We can either tell these people how they're doing it wrong, who they ought to join, what the ideas are that we would like to pour into their brains, or we can do what an organizer does – be one with them. Figure out what these grassroots leaderships need from us. Are they building organizations? Are they collecting dues? Are they founding new groups that could use our support? Are they running candidates we've never heard of before? Do they need technical help? Do they need money for us to fundraise? Do they need us to pay a little bit less attention to what we're already doing and little but more to what they're doing, even if it's new and imperfect?

So along those lines, I would say for after this primary is over, after the general election is over, I would say that those of us who have the most experience, call it status privilege in the left, what we ought to do is take a look around and figure out who are we going to support? Who do we elevate? Who do we lift up? Millennials? People of color? Folks from red states? People in communities that don't have a thick web of infrastructure like New York or San Franscisco or whatever. That's what we need to do. And I would suggest that one of the most important things we ought to take into consideration is that the decisions being made by these local people, these local leaders, is not going to flow from thought leaders on high down to the grassroots as perceived wisdom. It ought to flow from the bottom on up.

Learn more about the debate on what’s ahead for the Bernie Sanders’ campaign by visiting People For Bernie at peopleforbernie.com and The People's Summit at thepeoplessummit.org.

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