Thursday, July 28, 2016

Will Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” lead to a surge of progressive activism on the local level?

On, the first day of the Democratic Convention, I tried to attend a Progressive Democrats of America event billed as “The Revolution Continues: Progressive Candidate and Engagement Training” but it turned out to be pre-empted by a meeting for Bernie Sanders delegates only. The Bernie delegates I saw were overwhelmingly young, enthusiastic and seemed more like a crowd of supporters of a victorious candidate than supporters of the guy who lost.

But then in a sense Bernie won. As he put it: “we produced, by far, the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. Among many other strong provisions, the Democratic Party now calls for breaking up the major financial institutions on Wall Street and the passage of a 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act. It also calls for strong opposition to job-killing free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” These are real accomplishments and progressives owe a lot to the Sanders’ campaign.

On July 25, the streets of Philadelphia were teeming with enthusiastic Bernie supporters. They’ve enlisted in the political revolution. Some see building an alternative to the Democratic Party as the only option and I can understand why. My hope is that they will instead build a strong progressive base within the Democratic Party, and that starts on the grassroots. From Chris Rabb, who recently took on the Philadelphia political establishment and won a state house seat by a decisive margin, in his blurb for my book the Green Shoots of Democracy within the Philadelphia Democratic Party : “The Democratic Party must be genuinely democratic and transparent on the grassroots level if it is to be a force for change on the national level.”

Grassroots organizing was the the theme of of another DNC connected event organized by City Councilwoman Helen Gym and focused on local action. The event was sponsored by groups trying to advance a progressive agenda on the local level: Local Progress; The New American Leaders Project; Young Elected Officials Network; Wellstone. The audience was much more diverse than the gathering of Bernie supporters at the PA Convention Center and many were elected officials on the local level. It was heartening to realize there’s already so much grassroots progressive activism.

Right wing activists have tended to be more focused on local politics than the progressive left. In the 1980s, political analysts were remarking on the skill with which what was then called the “New Right” focused on the grassroots—the party infrastructure at the precinct level as well as low-profile local offices such as school board elections. The right-wing focus on electoral politics continued as the Tea Party, the 21st century incarnation of the radical right, wasted no time getting its members elected to political office. Countering the values and policies of the Republican Party involves just such dedication to the unglamorous work of building a progressive infrastructure at the grassroots. There may be more drama and excitement in national politics but successful national movements must have strong local support. Let’s hope Bernie Sanders’ political revolution takes this local turn.

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