U.S. Progressive Movement Looks to Broaden Agenda Beyond Trump Resistance

Posted June 14, 2017

MP3 Interview with John Nichols, national affairs correspondent with the Nation magazine, conducted by Scott Harris


Some 4,000 progressive activists came to Chicago, June 9-11 for the second annual People’s Summit conference. The gathering, largely linked to the movement that supported Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, came to Chicago to discuss strategies to move the nation’s progressive activist groups “beyond resistance to a building a broad people’s movement for a just world.”

Speakers at the conference included: Danny Glover, Eve Ensler, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Van Jones, Linda Sarsour, Nina Turner – and, of course, Bernie Sanders, who gave the event’s keynote address. Among the topics debated were how progressive activists and candidates should interact with the Democratic Party that many still resent for the DNC’s role attempting to marginalize Sanders during the Democratic primary campaign. The discussion about electoral politics focused on both crafting a compelling progressive policy platform and running grassroots campaigns for local office.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with John Nichols, national affairs correspondent with the Nation magazine and author, who participated as a panelist at the People’s Summit. Here, Nichols talks about the potential of the progressive movement to make electoral gains, and the conflicts within the Democratic Party between newly-energized activists inspired by Bernie Sanders and centrists who fear a hard left agenda will alienate independent and moderate voters.

JOHN NICHOLS: What was really striking about these couple days was the amazing diversity of folks there. Economically diverse, racially diverse, ethnically, people from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of experiences and where they came down was a remarkably shared agreement that we desperately need a new politics in America. Not just to stop Donald Trump. I mean, that was the universally accepted necessity, that Donald Trump is a horrible president doing terrible damage. And nobody's got any kind of uncertainty about that. But, there was also a deep, deep concern about the politics that made Donald Trump possible. And, what we need to get beyond it. And I have to tell you without a question that the people who got applause – where there was mention, you had incredible bursts of applause – will really struck you. There was tremendous energy, tremendous excitement as regards to Jeremy Corby's success in rebuilding the Labour party and pushing it forward dramatically in Great Britain, last week.

There was tremendous excitement about Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the new mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. He was there, gave an incredibly impressive speech, a very powerful speech on Friday night. Christie Ann Pellegrino, an elementary school teacher who was just elected to a traditionally Republican state legislative seat in New York, in a district that voted 23 percent for Donald Trump. He won it very easily. This woman, who is an absolute, unapologetic progressive, took the Assembly state seat – in a case where the Democrats haven't done it forever. There was an excitement about the people that are coming up and winning elections and forging this next politics. So it's very exciting. I have to tell you. It was, in this moment, where is so much depressing news, so much to be disappointed about, so much to be angry about, what the People's Summit really was was a celebration of the possible.

BETWEEN THE LINES: As I mentioned to you before we went on the air, and many of our listeners may have seen this article - the New York Times article that came out after the People's Summit in Chicago - was very critical of the progressive wing of the Democratic party that was allied with Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign as "holding back," as they termed it, mainstream centrist Democrats from winning critical elections by advocating a hard left agenda that can't attract moderate, independent and Republican voters who may be on the fence. John, I know you read that. What do you make of mainstream media like the New York Times, and their analysis that the left and a left progressive agenda just can't win elections in America.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, these are the same people who said that Bernie Sander was a two or three percent in 2015, and he would never get any traction at all.

That he would probably not even win any states except Vermont and be an asterisk to the campaign. A footnote. They got it totally wrong. He was not only stunningly successful coming from virtually nowhere. He really helped to redefine the direction of the Democratic party on a host of issues. A $15 wage is now the central message of the Democratic party. It was not that at the start of the 2016 campaign. Absolute commitment to climate change and a host of other issues, a much more militant and engaged politic.

So, I mean, they got that wrong. These are the same people who told you Jeremy Corbyn was going to suffer the worst defeat ever, just be totally wiped out, that the Labour party in Britain would be destroyed by going left. Again, and again, mainstream media gets the story wrong. And the reason they get it wrong – I mean, a lot of people think it's some kind of desire to dismiss the left. It's not always that. Some of these reporters from mainstream publications are really interested, engaged people who want to tell a decent story. But they're stuck in the past. They live in 1985 or something like that. They have this fantasy that our politics will be defined by some Reagan-Mondale division and if you're a little bit too liberal on a couple of issues, you'll scare away all kinds of voters.

Well, we've pushed so far beyond that. And the reason we're pushed beyond that isn't because of politics. It's because of economic and social changes that affect politics. We're 30 years into globalization in a form that is radically changing how all of us relate to the rest of the world – what we understand, how we engage. We're 20 years into a digital revolution that is changing everything about how we communicate with one another. Everything. These things are now a part of our politics. And for someone to say, "Well you just can't be too bold on wanting to end mass incarceration. You can't be too bold on wanting to end the Drug War. You can't be too bold on saying we have to have a $15 wage." Again and again, they tell you you can't do that. They're wrong. They're fundamentally wrong. And, if the Democratic party doesn't figure this out and become a party of the 21st century instead of the 1980s, it will continue to fail.

For more information visit John Nichols, The Nation Magazine at thenation.com/authors/john-nichols; The People’s Summit website at thepeoplessummit.org.

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