By Kurt Stand
Revolution in any form is never a single act; rather, it is a process. So too with the “political revolution” launched within the framework of Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid. If the challenge to the 1% is to be sustained, if the inequality corroding all aspects of public life is to be reversed, and if political democracy is to be revitalized, then the movement will have to grow deep roots in local politics. On Wednesday September 14, Progressive Maryland and Metro DC DSA held a joint meeting at UFCW Local 400 offices in Landover to discuss how to do just that with the shared goal – as Progressive Maryland Executive Director Larry Stafford put it: “of bringing the Political Revolution to Maryland by 2018” when state-wide elections are held.
The meeting began with presentations by two of the elected Sanders delegates from Prince George’s County giving their evaluation of what took place at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and their sense of the way forward. Jimmy Tarlau, elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2014, began by commenting that the Sanders campaign taught us a lesson about being bold, for the popular response to his primary run was far greater than most people could have imagined. And the campaign was particularly noteworthy because it foregrounded issues that would have otherwise been ignored or de-emphasized, including demands to ban fracking, to stop the TPP “free” trade deal, to adopt a $15 federal minimum wage, end mass incarceration and to stop war.
The convention, he added, was a challenge for Sanders supporters, as they continually sought to get their voices heard and principles articulated without thereby becoming divisive. At the end of the day, the platform adopted at the convention was progressive. Tarlau, however, emphasized that won’t mean anything unless Trump is defeated and Clinton is elected. And it won’t mean anything unless there is continued mass pressure after November. It is only through organizing and activism that progressive reforms will be possible, he concluded, recalling the history of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration — which initially followed a cautious and conservative policy until public pressure pushed him into advocating and implementing policies favorable to working people. The point throughout was that Sanders’s campaign serves as a reminder of the importance of boldness. The open use of the word socialism and the small donor base of the campaign were also ground-breaking.
This was noted too by Suchitra Balachandran, also a Sanders delegate from Prince George’s, though it led her to slightly different conclusions about the Convention and possible next steps. A research astrophysicist and co-director of Community Research (a nonprofit focused on environmental and public health issues, sustainability and open government), Balachandran began by remarking that, since arriving in the US from India, she has been struck by the extent to which Americans vote against their interest. This is in part because there has been no alternative, no party that represents the broad public. She has been a long-term supporter of Sanders because he has been an advocate for that alternative.
Because of her sense that political independence is a fundamental necessity, Balachandran was less concerned than Tarlau about appearing divisive during the Convention, expressing instead the wish that the Maryland delegation had been more demonstrative in Philadelphia like those from Oregon and Washington state. As an example, she felt it was correct to boo former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during his speech, the importance of voicing anti-war sentiment outweighing the danger of creating the appearance of disunity among Democrats.
Flowing from this, Balachandran believes that it is critical to elect independents to office that speak to progressive interests and noted the importance of the example of Kshama Sawant’s election as an open socialist on the Seattle City Council. Balachandran’s stress on the need for open government also was expressed in her support for term limits and opposition to the (local Prince George’s) ballot initiative to create two new at-large Council seats as a step to further limit citizen influence on government.
These two perspectives — not in conflict with each other but rather reflecting differing points of emphasis — informed the lively discussion amongst the 15 participants in the meeting. These can be defined very roughly as follows:
Posing these in this fashion is not to suggest an either-or debate. There was a lot of overlap in comments made and a desire by everybody in the room to find the means to work together with others in the future. A list of issues –specific and general – that participants felt should be at the core of next steps is indicative of where unity lies:
Sanders’s campaign was successful because, unlike politics as usual within the two-party system, it put forward a comprehensive political program that addressed substantive needs. This was the importance of his running as a socialist. It therefore is critical that we find a way to keep those ideas and policies he advocated in the public eye in order to prevent slipping back into electoral campaigns without substance. He was as successful as he was because neither party represents working people’s real interests, which leads many to fall under the sway of supposed “values” while many others opt out and don’t vote. Trump represents a danger to all the progress that has been made, but a retreat into the narrow interest politics of the past will only create more space for him or some other racist demagogue in the future.
The meeting was one of many initial steps in our region and across the country to build the foundations to create a genuine political alternative in our society. For Progressive Maryland this means working to build up its grassroots strength and coalition partnerships with the goal of building toward a “political revolution” in Maryland in 2018. Progressive Maryland wants to bring people onto its executive board, strengthen its ongoing work in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, and expand its presence elsewhere in the state, particularly in Howard County and Baltimore.
Progressive Maryland sees its organizing as part of a broader process. Thus it took part in the People’s Summit held in Chicago over the summer and continues to build local alliances with all other groups in the state looking to root alternative politics in everyday political engagement.
Metro DC DSA is seeking to use the responsiveness of many to the Sanders campaign to similarly root democratic socialism back into the political life of our communities and country. By linking a structural challenge to the capitalist system to a program of economic justice and democratic participation we can reduce the distance between goals near and far in our political engagement.
With a focus on labor struggles, racial justice and feminism, DSA also looks upon this moment as one of contributing to the solidarity of movements too often divided between themselves. To this extent, DSA seeks to participate in any effort in suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia and DC that builds upon the critique of the 1% and of inequality and that reaffirms the notion that an alternative is possible.
Flowing from this shared logic, future meetings will be more inclusive of the various organizations that had supported Sanders, of those that have emerged since his campaign, of progressive local and state elected officials as well as others — such as from racial justice, peace and women’s communities — that were not as central to his primary effort.
To borrow phrases from movements past: We need to “keep hope alive” as “we march through the institutions,” knowing that we are in the midst of a “long revolution.”
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