Progressive Democrats of America Executive Director: We Must Continue the Insurgency
Donna Smith of the Progressive Democrats of America tells Paul Jay that her organization will work very hard on the down ballot races instead of endorsing Hillary Clinton for president
PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. We’re in the final morning at the People’s Summit in Chicago.
And now joining us to discuss the summit is a person who was in on the planning of the summit: Donna Smith, Executive Director of the Progressive Democrats of America. Thanks for joining us.
DONNA SMITH: Thank you, Paul. It’s good to be here with you.
JAY: So we were saying off camera, I think the first time I interviewed you was about eight years ago.
SMITH: It was.
JAY: When you were a healthcare advocate in D.C.
JAY: So one of the things that’s been very controversial over the weekend has been what’s the attitude to take towards the Democratic Party? What are the possibilities of actually reforming the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton presidency–I mean candidacy, I should say. It’s not a presidency yet.
And there’s a kind of undercurrent here of people that have fought so hard during the campaign and believe that Secretary Clinton is really part of the problem. She represents in a sense a section of the billionaire class that Senator Sanders has been critiquing. How do you get behind that? And I know that the conference itself has not been framed around support. The Clinton candidacy has been more about down ticket fights with what the movement does next, but there is a tension, and what do you make of it?
SMITH: That’s a really good question. There is a tension, and certainly for Progressive Democrats of America, our organization was the organization that petitioned Bernie to run as a Democrat two years ago. Gave him about 12,000 signatures we had gathered people, asking him to run. It took a while for him to come to that decision, and more people waited for him obviously, but PDA has always been very much behind Bernie’s candidacy because of his stand on the issues and how closely they matched our own.
So the work that’s gone in in the last 2 years has been enormous. To get him to the place that he has gotten. I don’t think anybody imagined at the beginning that he would make these kinds of inroads and that so many millions of Americans would say, that’s our agenda too.
JAY: Yea this must’ve been as big a shock to you as anyone.
SMITH: I think so. And every primary where he would win we were like, wow, now we go onto the next one, or we go on to the next one. So you’re right. For a few people here we’re just days after the California primary and the loss. Ballots are still being counted in California. Or not counted in California. When people are understandably some angry, some hurt, some sad, and the People’s Summit has been a way for people to come together and say Bernie has been saying from the beginning of his campaign, this is about movement.
This is about building a movement because even if we had a President Sanders, without a movement you can’t get anything done through Congress. You can’t get any actual legislative policy accomplished. So to try and not pivot people away from the electoral process of the presidential [law] because we still do have a convention at the end of July, it’s not as if this is a completely done deal.
Yes, I know folks would like to coronate Hillary right now, but the fact is there’s still a delegate vote that has to take place on the floor in Philly. So you have delegates who–PDA alone has over 150 people in our network who are elected Bernie delegates. So when we look at those people and they say, wait a minute, I’m going to invest time, energy, money, getting to Philadelphia, being an active part of that delegation, they don’t want to see that be for nothing. They don’t want to feel like that wasn’t meaningful.
So the Summit allowed them to come and start planning some things for beyond the end of July. I don’t think any of us know exactly what will happen in Philadelphia.
JAY: Well, before we talk about Philadelphia, this in the kind of moment of this conference–we’re interviewing people and talking to lots of people, and some people are a little kind of, what’s the word, they’re angry about the overall situation of what’s happened with the Democratic Party. They’re very angry at the DNC, and I’m sure the whole Sanders campaign is.
SMITH: No one more than the PDA. I mean and I don’t want to interrupt you but the reality is that PDA has always stood for an insurgency in the Democratic Party saying that we wanted to make sure that this party that really began as the party of working class Americans who were about a wide democracy and a wide net, casting a wide net, bringing all groups in, has shifted. It began this way. And yeah, you’re right it morphed into things at different times in its history, but now it has seemed to become kind of Democratic-lite somehow, even if that.
JAY: Well, its controlled by a section of millionaires. Hedge funds, a section of Wall Street, a section of Silicon Valley, a section of Hollywood.
SMITH: So, you sure hear people here who say that’s it, I’m done with the Democrats. I’m not going to touch either of the parties, they’re all corrupt. Hard to argue with that position. PDA’s position is that we are going to continue to be that insurgency that says to them we can reform this party. Bernie Sanders says the party must be reformed, not just that we can but that we must.
JAY: What do you think this leads–I don’t know at what time span, but there is a certain point, if this insurgency gets strong enough and big enough and actually challenges for control of the party apparatus, that the money behind the Democratic Party is simply going to find a way to kind of block that purge that, I mean you foresee in the future at some point this is where a third party actually comes from is out of a real split in a Democratic Party.
SMITH: I think over time if the Democratic Party doesn’t reform, I think that’s more possible. I think if they stay stuck, for instance, let’s take the issue of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and PDA’s been pretty outspoken about the fact that she’s done inadequate and some would say a terrible job in managing through this primary process. You can talk about the debates and when they were scheduled, or any number of things that seemed to be in favor of Secretary Clinton and what was going to happen with her campaign. And the reality is now, okay, they shifted her into another position, apparently reassigned her within the DNC structure. That’s not quite the same as what the people were calling for, which was that she be removed from her position. So while it’s hard to imagine that this party is going to quickly make the kind of transition, that may–.
JAY: But the thing is, it’s not a difference of ideology primarily. It’s not a difference of just policy. It’s not what Secretary Clinton and the media talk about that we all have the same objectives and it’s just a different way to get there. This is a difference of fundamental, should I say, class interests. The billionaires like this kind of Wall Street. They like this kind of system and they have a control over the Democratic Party apparatus. So like it’s either a question of, like one of these groups in the end is going to have to go.
SMITH: Well, we say it’s going to be the billionaire class. I know that that’s not intuitive and that’s not the way we’d like to look at it but if you look at the People’s Summit this weekend and the growing energy from masses of Americans saying that’s it, we’re done with this. The system does not represent what our country is all about. There are some wealthy people who are also a part of this kind of movement but the reality is Wall Street has controlled our political process front end to back end and either we have to move, we have to get the big money out of politics in the first place. It’s hard for us to foresee the day we can actually move on climate justice, move on Medicare for all, move on other economic justice, racial justice, voting irregularity, and all those things unless we get the big money out of politics on both sides of the fence. Because it’s just absolutely corrupting everything from start to finish whether it’s party politics or whether it’s governments.
JAY: What would you consider achievable and a win at the part convention? What are the objectives?
SMITH: Wow, that’s a good question. I think the objectives would be that we see a platform, and I know the platform is largely seen by many as a symbolic document that people put things in the platform and then they don’t hold to them. But the reality is, having a platform that reflects an agenda like the agenda that Bernie Sanders put forward, we already saw in the campaign instances, for instance, full security where Bernie would talk very effectively about not only not cutting social security but protecting it, expanding it, improving it. And Hillary had to move her position in order to sound a little bit more like she wanted to protect social security and help it grow and expand. That’s the kind of influence and power we want to put on the platform process so that we say if the DNC and the Clinton side of the isle wants to really embrace the Bernie revolution, they must do so in a meaningful way and they must do so through making the platform reflect that agenda.
JAY: Well it’s clear they don’t want to. So what can you force out of this that will be meaningful?
SMITH: Well we don’t want to support an agenda that supports the billionaire class. So is there a little bit of a standoff right at the moment? Sure. But if they don’t want to fight on the floor if they would not like to have a fight on the floor in Philadelphia, the best way to have that not happen would be from them to put forward the kind of platform changes that are real, and meaningful and a commitment to making them change. To have Hillary Clinton come out and say never ever with the United States achieve Single Payer Medicare for all. That’s a pretty sweeping statement that supports the billionaire class that takes care of our healthcare industry right at the moment. Or doesn’t take care of us.
JAY: But she once said in one of her debates, yea we’d all like that but my way is the way to get there. So she can use language like that.
SMITH: I don’t think you believe that. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it. The reality is, how do you predict future behavior? By past performance. So you have to look at the behavior that has been displayed over time when she’s confronted with really, really hard decisions to make on the healthcare agenda at least.
JAY: One of the critiques we’re hearing is so little on foreign policy. Really Tulsi Gabbard made one foreign policy speech.
SMITH: Which was wonderful.
JAY: But did not mention Israel-Palestine. There was one breakout panel Phyllis Bennis was on where she obviously talked about it. But generally the whole foreign policy thing has not been much talked about even though as I say by Sanders being represented by Cornel West, they’re making it an issue.
SMITH: Well it should be an issue. I mean the other thing that I’ve watched at the summit that in my view we needed to talk more about was gun control and gun violence. There was very little. There was one African American speaker that spoke about gun violence. I think Nina Turner also mention gun violence. But similarly, international issues and gun violence tend to be things that people get nervous about bringing into the conversation. But here’s Bernie who isn’t it remarkable as the first Jewish candidate for the presidency who has this principle position on Israel and Palestine that I think many of us would welcome moving forward and to put Cornel West on the platform is fabulous to hope that he will fight, I mean you can’t imagine Cornel West not fighting for a good position, but to have him fight for that kind of position, that is groundbreaking stuff and we would like to the see the DNC pay attention to that. The panel that you talked about with Phyllis Bennis was the Healthcare Not Warfare Panel PDA participated and we feel very strongly about the fact that it’s so intensely pro-Israel policy that has gone on for so many years has been very dismissive to the whole Middle East region. It continues to be, I mean this is a long, long, battle. We can help bring peace to that region but we have to be more sane about that policy and do it in a more meaningful way. The people of Palestine deserve that too.
JAY: Okay, just finally back to the tension at the conference about Clinton. The Sanders campaign has said that the people here have to make sure Trump loses and loses big. Well the reality is the only way for Trump to lose big is Clinton has to win big and that the other side of that coin and a lot of people here do not even want to vote for Clinton. Never mind help her win big.
SMITH: I know. I’ve heard that from many people and I’m going to be very honest with you, I haven’t decided what I’m going to do when I look at that ballot. And it’s sad for me to say that, a 61-year-old woman who has always wanted to see a woman president of the United States. I think that would be very good for the country. I’m very concerned about some of Hillary’s policies but I think hearing Bernie say you’re right we have to defeat Trump but he’s also right about that, we cannot have that man as the president of the United States. If we imagine that kind of a country with him.
JAY: Well he may be solving that problem for everybody. He’s deconstructing himself.
SMITH: He tends to help solve the problem a little bit. But I think people have to have time to adjust Paul. I think for PDA we’ve never endorsed a presidential candidate ever before Bernie. Bernie was it. So it’s not likely that we will come out. In fact, I can almost 100% guarantee we will not endorse Hillary Clinton. What we will do is work very hard on the down ballot races for Congress, for Senate, the House, and so forth. And when our voters go to the poll our PDA voters go to the polls, they will make their own choice about whether or not and it’s a terrible thing to think about, whether or not they hold their nose and pull the lever for Hillary Clinton or they leave that blank and effectively leave it open to the potential that Donald Trump could win. That’s not what we want.
JAY: Well I guess people look at the polling and make that decision.
JAY: And maybe by that time they may be not such a threat.
SMITH: I know people who made that decision in 2012 about President Obama. People who had voted for him with great joy and great passion in 2008 and they had the prediction that he would be much more progressive than they felt he turned out to be. I know a good number of voters who in 2012 made the decision just not to vote in the race. They didn’t vote for Romney but they didn’t vote for Obama either.
JAY: Or a lot of people may vote third party.
SMITH: Yeah, they may and there will be a significant number I think of Bernie supports who eventually make the decision if the party is able to transition in this moment and start making those reforms. They can’t do it overnight but they can start making some serious reforms so that they can be starting to make the case to this mass of Bernie voters that okay we heard you, we get it. We have to reform ourselves. We’re going to ask for your help and doing so and we’re going to know that those policies that Bernie put forward, you’re serious about them. You mean that you want those things.
JAY: I guess that there’s already some thinking about a 2020 primary against Clinton making this a one term presidency.
SMITH: I heard some buzz about that but I didn’t hear names that I felt were super serious from anybody. You know I heard some Bernie delegates who are frustrated say, well what do you think about this person primarying Hillary? I said okay. Now that’s jumping way ahead of Philly, way ahead of November, and way out to 2020. I mean think about 2 weeks ago, would any of us ever have predicted that that Orlando shooting would happen the way it did and that it impacted this political conversation even in the last few days and should impact so that we demand and do something about gun violence in this country. Do something about gun control as uncomfortable as it may be, either we start addressing it or we’re going to keep having these mass killings.
JAY: Alright thanks for joining us.
SMITH: Thank you so much Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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