CHICAGO — Over three long and boisterous days, from Friday to Sunday, 4,000-odd proudly left-wing activists organized along Chicago’s waterfront with a simple goal: transforming the United States as quickly as possible. The headlines focused on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) speech, but the focus of the conference was on a “movement” that, according to the activists, is happily identified with the senator but not limited by him.
The left is going local. In the halls, when there was buzz about a politician not named “Bernie Sanders,” it often concerned an office far, far from the political spotlight. It was Christine Pellegrino, who took a deep red Assembly seat in a New York special election; it was Larry Krasner, the new DA nominee from Philadelphia. A breakout star of the conference was Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the new mayor of Jackson, Miss., whose father had briefly held the office only to pass away before implementing a progressive agenda.
The elder Lumumba’s victory had been heralded by socialists who were simply not used to winning in the South — but this year his son, with the backing of Sanders’s group, won a landslide election. His agenda: “Social justice, economic democracy, and making sure people had a voice.”
“We are going to rescue ourselves,” the mayor told attendees in a Friday night speech. “We won’t allow places like Jackson, Mississippi, to become havens of oppression. We’ve made the decision that we’re gong to be the most radical city on the planet.”
Like the Indivisible movement, less ideological than the left and more focused on restoring a pre-Trump consensus, the Sanders left is working to reverse-engineer what the right has done for decades — turning up when there’s no presidential election on the ballot. The idea of transforming electorates is hardly new, and hardly unique to the left; Barack Obama, who has shrunk in the left’s narrative, did it throughout 2008. What was new was doing it for ambitious local politicians who quoted Karl Marx. “As my comrade said, we have nothing to lose but our chains,” Lumumba said.
2020 is mostly a distraction. When Sanders spoke on Saturday night, superfans with “Draft Bernie” signs used/ruined dramatic pauses to promote their cause. Among the chants: “2020!” “Draft Bernie!” They were not subtle, and neither was Sanders — his only response was to chuckle and move on.
Talking to Sanders, you get the impression that he wishes the 2020 talk could subside. Not because he never wants to run for president again; more because he is a media critic, and resents that politicians seen as potential presidents get quoted and politicians who rule it out do not.
The irony is that Sanders boosters realize this, to. Plenty do want Sanders to quit trying to shape the Democrats and to start a “People’s Party.” Some realize that the 2020 talk is media catnip; I had a few conversations with veterans of the 2014 effort to draft Elizabeth Warren, at the time a buzzier politician than Sanders, who have always admitted this.
(There was some amusement that Rep. Ro Khanna, a freshman who’s trying to carve out a role as a progressive leaders, used the conference to say he wanted Sanders to run again. It was red meat, thrown at a hungry bear.)
Expect a “people’s platform,” and new litmus tests. Led by RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, progressives have discovered that threats to Democrats’ electoral unity can win concessions. It happened in 2016, as outnumbered Sanders delegates got to shape the party platform. It is happening now, with Naomi Klein, a star of the conference, taking the “LEAP manifesto” concept that worked for the left in Canada and encouraging the American left to make its own demands.
“Stop asking about the email list,” said Claire Sandberg, a Sanders veteran who now leads a “We Will Replace You” campaign to primary “corporate” Democrats. “Just endorse single payer. How hard is this?”