Socialist Alternative Talks Strategy at the People’s Convergence Conference
Three hundred activists gathered from September 8-10 at the People’s Convergence Conference in Washington, D.C. to discuss what it will take to defeat Donald Trump and what will be necessary to launch a new major political party. The conference, hosted by Draft Bernie for a People’s Party, the Progressive Independent Party, and Socialist Alternative, was highlighted by the Draft Bernie Town Hall (Video) featuring Socialist Alternative Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and legendary activist-scholar Dr. Cornel West. Dr. West also endorsed Socialist Alternative’s candidate for Minneapolis City Council, Ginger Jentzen, that weekend.
Activists opened the conference by delivering a petition with 50,000 signatures to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) calling on him to launch a new “people’s party.” This Draft Bernie movement builds on the work Socialist Alternative initiated in April 2016, when Kshama Sawant launched a petition calling on Sanders to run through the general election as an independent candidate for president and to create a new mass political party that took no corporate money and was fully accountable to working people, the oppressed, and our social movements. The petition gathered 125,000 signatures in only a few months. Today, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the two parties don’t represent them, demonstrating the huge potential opening for a new major party for working people.
Socialist Alternative member Eljeer Hawkins spoke on a Friday evening panel about how to defeat Trump and the right. Hawkins said the immediate task was escalating our resistance to the Trump regime with more organized rallies, strikes, and student walkouts, and uniting our movements into a powerful fist of unyielding resistance to Trump.
“Charlottesville will go down as a day for us not only to remember, but as a day we escalated our struggle against racism and Trump,” Hawkins said. Hawkins and other activists on the panel debated the most effective strategies to defeat the right – including organizing around offensive demands like Medicare for All that can engage the broader working class in action and linking the international failure of capitalism with the rise of right populist politicians, climate catastrophe, and endless war.
Is a New Party on the Horizon?
The main question posed to the conference was the feasibility of building a new major party at this time. Unfortunately, Sanders missed a historic opportunity to launch a new party last year when he ran in the Democratic primary and later declined to continue his run as an independent in the general election. Now the main energy is toward reforming the Democratic Party as we have seen. Despite being blocked by the Democratic Party from winning their nomination, Sanders continues to suggest that reforming the Democratic Party is both possible and sufficient for winning desperately needed reforms – like Medicare for All, free college tuition, $15 an hour minimum wage, or ending our destructive use of fossil fuels.
Socialist Alternative has written extensively about independent politics and the Democratic Party. In January, responding to reinvigorated efforts to “take back” the Democratic Party in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, we explained:
The Democratic Party is tied by a thousand threads to big business and Wall Street. While many reason that the existing framework of the party is valuable and makes reforming it easier than launching a new party, the opposite is true. The Democrats’ existing structures will be used as weapons against Our Revolution and other progressive reformers [e.g., Sanders], as was already on display during the  elections. To even have a chance at seriously challenging the Democratic leadership, Our Revolution and groups like it would themselves need to have a grassroots activist character, with local groups and democratic decision-making instead of the current top-down model. But this would actually point toward the outline of a new party. (Calvin Priest, 1/4/17)
The harsh reality of this challenge was exposed once again this summer, when Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon killed single-payer healthcare in California despite holding Democratic supermajorities in both branches of the California legislature as well as the governor’s mansion. As RoseAnn DeMoro, Executive Director of National Nurses United, said on Twitter on June 27, “This morning, Elizabeth Warren said Democrats should campaign on #SinglePayer. They do! And then when it’s live they kill it.”
The Steps We Should Take Now
Socialist Alternative has argued that unfortunately, at present, the basis for a new party does not exist among the forces currently organized outside the Democratic Party. But important steps can be taken while we engage with the far bigger forces still trying to push the Democrats to the left. One key step can be strategically running independent left campaigns against corporate Democrats, fighting on bold pro-working class demands, and accepting no corporate money. In California, this could take the form of running a grassroots independent left challenge against Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon on the issue of single-payer healthcare, as well as fighting to unseat other state corporate Democrats in bed with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. This and other electoral challenges must be linked to building social movements, including a powerful grassroots organizing effort to fight for Medicare for All and against Trump’s vicious right-wing agenda.
With assaults coming on many fronts from the Trump regime, the focus of most activists is currently on mobilizing to defend immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, civil rights, healthcare, environmental protections, financial and internet regulations and more. The question of a new party is not at present the central question in the minds of broad layers of working people, although the inevitable failures of the Democratic Party to defend against Trump’s attacks and fight for bold, working-class demands, will provoke further and more serious discussions in the future.
As Kshama Sawant explained in the Town Hall:
To truly defeat Trump and the larger right wing, we cannot simply be on the defense, but we need to go on the offense for things like single-payer healthcare, a $15 minimum wage. But to win these bold demands our movements will need to be far more powerful than they are now, and we will need our own political representation. What kind of party do working people need? We need a party that will fight alongside social movements and that cannot be wedded in any way to corporate power, to corporate money. But the question we have to grapple with, sisters and brothers, is that the millions of people who supported Bernie Sanders and are energized, they would like to see that too. But how do we get there? We have to take into account that the majority of people, who support our vision of society, are not there yet in terms of creating a new major party. They still want to test out the idea of reforming the Democratic Party. We cannot isolate ourselves. And while we need to be honest that we don’t think this effort will succeed, we need to meet them where they are, not be dismissive, and unite around concrete struggles. Because we need to remember that these millions of people who supported Sanders are going to be the central force in building this new people’s party.
Finally, Socialist Alternative members participated in a number of other panel discussions, including “How to Rebuild a Fighting Labor Movement,” “Single Payer Health Care: How do we Achieve it?“ and “What Is Democratic Socialism?” For the latter panel (Video), a lively and meaningful discussion took place between members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and SA. These comradely discussions should be encouraged as part of the overall process of clarification of ideas, program and methods among socialists and on the broader left.
The People’s Convergence Conference marked another step in the process of rebuilding the left in the United States, with important debates about strategies for movements, and what will be necessary to build a “people’s party.” Socialists are working in movements and supporting independent election campaigns, like SA candidate Ginger Jentzen in Minneapolis and DSA candidate John Grant in Seattle, to build our power and prepare the ground for an alternative to two parties of capitalism in order to fight 100% on the side of working people. Our struggle, while starting with defeating Trump’s right wing agenda, must also fight for offensive change and for an end to oppression at home and abroad. If you want to be a part of the growing socialist movement, sign up today to join Socialist Alternative.