Imagine a Decentralized Movement, Independent of the DNC, with a Hundred Times the Fundraising and Volunteer Power – People for Bernie Co-Founder

The People’s Summit in Chicago showed progressive forces arriving at a consensus of “not wanting to see Trump elected, but wanting to maintain our independence from the Democratic Party” said Charles Lechner, co-founder of People for Bernie, a grassroots organization supporting Bernie Sanders.

Lechner said the movements need to channel the grassroots energy created by the Sanders campaign into an effective electoral force that does not depend on the Democrats.

“I want to de-center the Democratic Party. I care much more about the ability of people to do politics without having to worry about that label,” said Lechner.

Lechner is also critical of the Green Party’s rejection of the strategy of building a grassroots movement behind the Sanders campaign.

“They kept on saying, why would you support Bernie, who’s running as a Democrat, when you could be working with the Green Party? And or course, now a year later it’s like, imagine if somebody followed that advice. That would have been a terrible blow to all the advances that we’ve made over the last year as a broad left. And some folks like Kshama Sawant sort of figured that out and were like, okay, we don’t like the Democrats, but this is working. Let’s get on board and yield the results later on,” said Lechner.

“In 1905 the Russians lost the revolution, but guess what? Those losers are the ones who made it work in 1917 because they had that lived experience and connections with each other. In the same way, Bernie Sanders lost this race for president and he’s left a legacy of millions of people who now know how to fight this kind of a race. So who knows what we can do in four, eight years?” said Lechner.

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. We’re in Chicago the final morning of the People’s Summit.

Now joining us is one of the organizers of the People’s Summit, Charles Lechner. Thanks for joining us.

CHARLES LECHNER: Thank you.

JAY: So, Charles is also co-founder of People for Bernie, a grassroots organization supporting Bernie Sanders. He was previously involved in the Occupy movement and co-founded Ready for Warren in 2013.

LECHNER: Yes.

JAY: So, when you came into this weekend you were hoping people would come out with what?

LECHNER: A stronger sense of community. I think that one of the impacts of the Bernie Sanders campaign is a slight shift in the progressive forces in this country, moving from one that is, moving towards one less tied to Beltway politics, less tied to some of the larger movement brand names of the past and more connected to a grassroots that likes to operate autonomously and forge its own relationship to politics.

So it’s–This is an opportunity for people who were very active on the campaign to come together nationally. I know I’ve met many people that I’ve only ever seen online, doing things together with on social media, and this was sort of like our victory lap to meet each other and, you know, exchange war stories and plan for the future.

JAY: Well, that was–It’s billed as the what’s next.

LECHNER: Yes.

JAY: So, what came out of this? What’s next?

LECHNER: So, there’s been meetings taking place around Philadelphia planning, both inside, what delegates can do, and outside, what kind of protests make sense, what kind of messaging makes sense to advance our political agenda? But I also think it’s a time of reflection. There’s a lot of new people that are being integrated, a lot of leaders that are going through processes of leadership development and growth, a lot of organizations that haven’t necessarily worked together closely, and this summit brought them together to kind of rub shoulders and get things done.

So, while there isn’t a, okay, here’s what’s next in, you know, five dates and ten steps, I think there is a really skillfully advanced consensus around how to move politics forward under, you know, a two-party system that we’re not happy with but not wanting to see Trump elected, but wanting to maintain our independence from the Democratic Party. It’s, you know, it’s a lot of hard stuff and now you’ve got 3,000 people who’ve had a weekend to sort of figure it out and sharpen their saws together.

JAY: So, is there any more clarity now than there was when this started?

LECHNER: That’s a hard question for me to answer. I’m one of the folks helping to organize. I haven’t attended as much of this, as the sessions, as I would have liked to. What I’ve been doing is asking my friends and colleagues who’ve been doing that, you know, what’s the mood? What are people doing? And I’m hearing so much enthusiasm, people that have made connections and have learned stuff they didn’t know, so I’m sort of going to reflect on that question over the next few days, and of course, People for Bernie will message around what the grassroots tells us to.

JAY: The campaign so far, both the movement and the candidate’s campaign, the center of leadership, to a large extent, has been the Sanders campaign in terms of the political framing of things–.

LECHNER: –Yes–

JAY: –The substance of the argument. I know a lot of the movement itself was quite spontaneous–

LECHNER: –Right–

JAY: –And, you know, I think, you know, People for Bernie emerged as probably the largest of the kind of spontaneous outgrowths, but after the convention Sanders’ candidacy itself is over, barring some remarkable turn of events–

LECHNER: –Right–

JAY: –Which is unlikely. The idea of down-ticket campaigns has been a big topic of conversation here, people running for Congress, running for state legislatures and so on. Does there need to be some kind of organizing center that likely won’t be the Sanders campaign, I’m saying? Or, what is it?

LECHNER: Right. So, one important thing to note is the idea that we need a center, we need that meta-brand to follow, that’s going to be less true going forward. Instead of needing that one piece in the center, what we need is ways of working that are more networked, that take into account that just because you haven’t heard of an individual or a group doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of producing results, whether that’s online popularity or getting votes or helping to organize a local group.

In a sense the normal way that politics is done, a lot of it was about, are you a VIP? Do you have access to money? Is someone supporting you? But now it turns out that people can do quite a bit without any of those things. We need to have a movement that’s more attentive to the very rapid, nimble, not spontaneous but ability of things to merge quickly and then fade again and to work in that kind of environment.

JAY: Well, you were talking just off camera, before we started, about this model that’s used in Spain where you actually have a platform that people agree to and then you worry about how you develop the candidacy. The reluctance about that, I think, here is that it so often breaks down in terrible factional fighting and you don’t end up with a unified platform. You end up with a lot of name calling.

LECHNER: [inaud.], when I’m thinking about who to work with I’m thinking about, you know, do I know them? Are they organizations I’ve worked with? Do I think that their strategy is yielding results? And my impression is that the thrust of Green Party-centered efforts doesn’t yield the kind of results that I want, and that as a brand name they’re not so much useful in accomplishing things as they are in competition with other ways of doing things, and the best example is, when we started People for Bernie, folks from the Green Party denounced us for not supporting Jill Stein.

They kept on saying, why would you support Bernie, who’s running as a Democrat, when you could be working with the Green Party? And or course, now a year later it’s like, imagine if somebody followed that advice. That would have been a terrible blow to all the advances that we’ve made over the last year as a broad left. And some folks like Kshama Sawant sort of figured that out and were like, okay, we don’t like the Democrats, but this is working. Let’s get on board and yield the results later on.

JAY: But she now wants Bernie to run as an independent.

LECHNER: Yeah. And that’s fine. You know what, I believe in working with people that I don’t agree with 100 percent, and in that sense I’m glad that we traveled this journey of, like, supporting each other to get where we are. But we’re now at this crossroads. I don’t think the Green Party, not in the abstract, I don’t think this Green Party in this country at this time is giving me what I want out of advancing progressive politics. If that were to change in some particular community, you know, that’s great.

At the same time, I don’t want to predetermine. If folks are able to organize that and make it into something more useful, then god bless them.

JAY: Yeah. It seems to me this movements, they have their own logic and interest and, in fact, there’s no reason, even if there’s certain–Its certain competitiveness, in fact, in the end it may all be quite complementary [inaud.]

LECHNER: Well I, just to give one random, crazy story, at the Left Forum a few years ago I remember hearing a pitch to support a Green Party candidate and they talked about how if anyone has campaign skills we engage in skill sharing and everyone can volunteer and it’ll be great. And I thought to myself, who’s helping them who’s won campaigns? Like, who’s your consultant who knows how to work all the systems and do the right messaging to win campaigns?

There’s just a feeling that they are a political party that doesn’t actually do the business of winning elections, and with all the faults of the Democratic Party, at least inside that system people that I support, like Debbie Medina have a chance of defeating their rival and getting elected into office, not at some point in the future when, you know, enough people join, but right now in the election that’s coming up.

JAY: Right. Let’s talk about the coming convention. The questions do connect with each other.

Transform the Democratic Party, reform the Democratic Party. You know, I’ve been saying this in a lot of my interviews, but the objectivity of the Democratic Party is that it’s an alliance of different classes, and the machinery of the Democratic Party is firmly, certainly has been in control of, in fact, Wall Street, and sections of, if you want, Silicon Valley and some Hollywood billionaires, and it’s a section of the billionaire class.

LECHNER: I partially agree with you. There’s this great analysis, and I’m forgetting the name of the guy. I used to quote him a lot. You could look at the Democratic Party as four key constituencies.

JAY: It’s like a united front, if you will, yeah.

LECHNER: It’s like a united front, but among those four constituencies it would be unfair to say that the progressive wing, or the old New Dealer wing, which is the unions, you can’t say that they have no power just because they’re not the dominant power. There’s these competing interests, and sometimes our side wins. A lot of the time our side loses, but there’s dynamism there. There’s things that change. So, I feel like the Democratic Party is a rival that I can actually defeat from time to time to get things that I want. The Republican Party isn’t.

So, without identifying as someone who’s like, yay Democrats, you know, 24/7, I’m just like, in this situation on this issue in this race, does it make sense to fight as a Democrat? I would say sometimes it does. For the–

JAY: –I mean, Sanders has actually gone pretty far. I interviewed Sanders and asked him more or less the same question. And he actually laid out a kind of set of conditions that, you know, if I said, well, what happens to the Sanders supporters if Clinton wins? And he says, well, first of all it’s up to them. But if Hillary doesn’t, and then you fill in the blank, and the Democratic Party, you know, really take on the billionaires, really, you know, take on Wall Street and so on and so on.

Well, we know they’re not because they are them, but what does the process lead to at the convention and going further, this fight to try to, if you want, fight for the future of the Democratic Party–

LECHNER: –But you’re–

JAY: –Does it lead to some kind of split at some point?

LECHNER: You’re, the way you posed the question it’s as if we’re all in agreement that we’re going to fight to take over the Democratic Party. What I’m saying is, I want to de-center the Democratic Party. I care much more about the ability of people to do politics without having to worry about that label.

And here’s an example: We know that Sanders raised more than 200 million dollars, went from people’s pockets to his campaign and back down again for expenses. But if you go to Gofundme.com and you type in Bernie Sanders, you’ll find hundreds of projects of people who raise money, you know, to participate in a float in a parade, to raise money for literature that they made themselves, to organize bus trips to go canvassing.

Imagine if the portion of a campaign that’s made up of these independent efforts was ten times bigger, a hundred times bigger, and if it wasn’t only when you have a major campaign like Bernie Sanders but something that could actually become a feature of how money and volunteer power is used in races, then we would see the Democratic Party and the official campaign infrastructure shrink, and the voluntary, grassroots infrastructure expand. And I think that’s possible because of the internet. We have the tools now that we didn’t a generation ago. Let’s take advantage of them.

JAY: So, I’ll return to a question I asked you earlier because it’s the one that keeps, people keep brining here. When push comes to shove, the Sanders campaign is going to say, vote for Hillary. What are people for Bernie going to say?

LECHNER: We’re listening to the grassroots. I mean, our position is that what matters is what your organization is doing, not what any one person individually thinks. So if we know that there’s a great outfit in New York City called Team Bernie New York, I’m interested in what they say, because they’re organized power. But if there’s one person who has a loud voice online and they’re just like, you know, well I think that’s wrong. I’m like, well you and who else?

I mean, I’m, this is a weird thing but I care so much more about what a group with capacity is going to do than I do about the sort of, you know, people chatting with each other kind of opinion.

JAY: I hear that, but still, my question.

LECHNER: We’re not going to make that call, because we’ve made a commitment not to be, like, people who issue instructions. What we are is people who see what’s happening and we amplify the best of it. We want to support the people who are doing stuff. And if in a completely safe state, if it looks like the Bernie grassroots is saying we’re going to ignore Clinton and only focus on down-ballot races we’ll be like, that’s great, let’s help them. If in another state they say, we’ve created a parallel campaign infrastructure that supports Clinton but is not folded into her campaign so that we can reap the benefits, organizationally, of that, we’ll be like, that’s great. We love that. Let’s do that.

But we don’t have to take that, we don’t have to make that call.

JAY: And did I hear correctly that RoseAnn DeMoro from the nurses, talking about the size of the email list and the social media network, which was, I think the number was something like 130 million names, that that’s not going to be turned over to the Clinton campaign? Did I understand that correctly?

LECHNER: So I’m, my first instinct is, no one has 130 million emails, so there’s some errors within–

JAY: –Yeah, that’s what I thought. I think that’s probably the whole social media footprint or something.

LECHNER: Yeah. I’m not sure. I’ll just say, it would shock me if the Sanders campaign turned over its email list. That’s, it would be just really odd. What I think is going to happen is that he’ll use his list to advance progressive power. So sure, Hillary Clinton might say to him, will you send out this email that supports me, you know, in this situation, and his people can say, sure, and what we’d like in return is X.

Or, after the election is over, if DNC turns to him and says, help us win these races, you know, these candidates we want you to support aren’t that progressive but at least they’re Democrats, you know, he can haggle. He can say, okay, sure. Can we get the DLCC to stop supporting terrible Democrats like Murphy in Florida against progressive champions like Grayson? It gives him leverage in an ongoing manner but it still keeps him in the tent of people trying to defeat the right.

JAY: And I should say that the tone of the conference has all been about, how do you support pro-political revolution, the Sanders term, candidates.

LECHNER: Yes.

JAY: It really hasn’t been about much else.

LECHNER: That’s right. I mean, US is kind of crazy when it comes to politics. The level of knowledge, infrastructure and money that you sort of, quote-unquote need to be relevant or even have an opinion that isn’t based on speculation, it’s very high. Luckily there are millions of people turned on by the Bernie Sanders campaign who have actually started, you know, to internalize that and to become more experienced.

I always think of it like this classic trope. In 1905 the Russians lost the revolution, but guess what? Those losers are the ones who made it work in 1917 because they had that lived experience and connections with each other. In the same way, Bernie Sanders lost this race for president and he’s left a legacy of millions of people who now know how to fight this kind of a race. So who knows what we can do in four, eight years?

JAY: Right. All right, thanks for joining us.

LECHNER: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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