By Medea Benjamin
Even if you attended the 4,000-strong Peoples Summit in Chicago on June 9-11 organized by folks from the Bernie Sanders campaign and National Nurses United (NNU), you might have missed the most significant moment of the gathering. It was a seemingly offhand comment made by NNU Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro during the Saturday evening session when Bernie Sanders spoke to an adoring crowd, but a comment that adds kindling to a potential 2020 fire.
The audience in the packed Chicago theater included volunteers for a new effort called Draft Bernie for a People’s Party. They waved Draft Bernie signs and throughout Sanders’ speech, urged him to launch a new party.
The group is made up mainly of young staff and volunteers who worked on the Sanders campaign but were so disillusioned by the Democratic Party that they are determined to start a new one. They are sympathetic to and want to collaborate with the Green Party and other existing third parties, but they want a new, fresh progressive party like the European ones that captured the public imagination and made sweeping gains. While their focus right now is getting Sanders on board, they say they’ll build a People’s Party even if he refuses to join.
At the end of Sanders’ rousing address at the Summit, he was joined on stage by his wife Jane Sanders, whose Sanders Institute was launched this weekend, and by NNU’s RoseAnn DeMoro. DeMoro looked directly at the Draft Bernie people in the audience and grinned. “We’re going to take a few questions but I want to thank all the Draft Bernie people here,” she said. Then came the zinger. “I’m with you,” she added, as she turned around to look at Bernie and his wife. Then she pivoted back to the audience, “Nurses, are we with them?” As they roared their approval, DeMoro turned to Sanders again. “I always say: ‘heroes aren’t made, they’re cornered.”
“It was amazing,” said Nick Brana, Draft Bernie founder, who was former national political outreach coordinator for Bernie 2016 and former electoral manager for Our Revolution. “We knew that RoseAnn was supportive but had no idea that she would announce that support publicly, on stage, with Bernie Sanders standing next to her and in front of thousands of cheering fans.”
I don’t think most people in the audience realized the potential significance of the DeMoro’s endorsement. Her union has about 150,000 members and spent about $1 million on the Sanders campaign. It’s one of only six national unions that backed Bernie Sanders for president. Under DeMoro’s leadership, the nurses have become heavyweights in the progressive world, championing everything from universal single payer healthcare to a Wall Street tax to pay for free college education. Just imagine if DeMoro could get her whole union to back a new party, and leverage that to get other unions and progressive institutions on board.
Throughout the summit, speaker after speaker railed against the Democratic Party. TV personality Van Jones trashed Hillary Clinton’s campaign for failing to connect to working-class and minority voters. "Let's be honest," Jones shouted. "They took a billion dollars, a billion dollars, a billion dollars, set it on fire, and called it a campaign!" Author Thomas Frank said Democrats signed off on Wall Street bailouts, mass incarceration, and the Iraq War, giving up everything the party supposedly stood for. Former State Senator Nina Turner, who had the crowd on their feet during her entire speech, said the Democrats would have to follow the people to the left, or they’d be left behind.
But criticizing the Democrats and ditching them are two entirely different things. There are certainly sincere leaders still determined to change the party from within. The Summit heard from Congressman Mark Pocan, a progressive champion who was recently elected co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. And most of the Summit was focused on getting more leftist Democrats elected, from former NAACP head Ben Jealous running for Maryland governor to the dozens of attendees running for city councils and state houses.
Getting Bernie Sanders to break with the Democrats is a long, long, long shot. And even if he agreed, creating an effective third party in the US “winner-take-all” electoral system is a treacherous path littered with dead bodies, from Ross Perot’s Americans Elect to the Tony Mazzochi’s US Labor Party.
But for those who see the Democratic Party as unfixable and the existing third parties as ineffective, what have they got to lose?
Medea Benjamin, cofounder of the peace group CODEPINK, works with both the Green Party and Progressive Democrats of America