CHICAGO – The groans began as soon as Hillary Clinton came on-screen.
It was the first day of the People's Summit, a progressive conference this weekend organized by groups connected to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and an organizer was showing hundreds of activists a video demonstrating right and wrong ways to “build a movement that will win.”
The wrong way: Clinton's caught-on-video response at a 2016 fundraiser to a Black Lives Matter protester demanding she apologize for having used the term “super predators” a decade earlier, during her husband's push for tougher sentences for violent criminals. Groans turned to jeers as the video showed the protester being removed.
The right way: Sanders' tactic in an August 2015 appearance of standing back and letting activists who interrupted him at a Seattle rally take over the event. Cheers filled the McCormick Place meeting room, where the People's Summit had convened, as Sanders was shown on the screen talking to BLM organizers.
“That's one way to link different issues up to one movement,” said Erin Evans, an organizer at one of Sanders's biggest backers, National Nurses United, who was giving the presentation Friday. “There is a way to bond people through a common vision while at the same time acknowledging that forms of structural violence that some communities undergo are important.”
Sanders was introduced by NNU Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro as a politician who had “been rejected by those who control the party and their moneyed interests.”
Nearly one year after effectively conceding the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders was the star of this year's People's Summit, which has quickly become the country's largest progressive political conference. In a Saturday night speech, Sanders planned to tell activists to charge ahead because “ideas that, just a few years ago, seemed radical and unattainable, are now part of Main Street discussion.”
But as Sanders used his star power to unite activists behind the Democrats, some debated whether the Democratic Party could ever be fixed to their liking. Faced with unified Republican control of Washington, progressives were less interested in simple unity than in a purity that they believed could win.
Much of the discussion at the People's Summit focused on the need to leave “neoliberal” politics in the dust. But there was disagreement about how to do so.
Friday, activists cheered at a clip of DeMoro telling California Democrats not to “assume the activists in California and around this country are going to stay with the Democratic Party.”
When Clinton's campaign was mentioned at all, it was as a cautionary tale.
“A billion dollars, and they set it on fire!” said CNN commentator Van Jones in a passionate speech. “A billion dollars for consultants!”
Hotly debated was what role Sanders himself would play in crafting the agenda – and whether the Democratic Party was worth saving at all, a topic that played out in common areas and after-parties.
“If the driver pulls the car into a ditch, you get a new driver,” said Stephen Jaffe, a 71-year old Sanders supporter challenging House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for the 2018 midterm elections.
“What if the car's so banged up that no one wants it?” asked an organizer for a group that wants Sanders as an independent 2020 presidential candidate.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Sanders reiterated that he had become the Democrats' outreach chair in the Senate; third-party politics in the wrong places would only split the movement, he said.
But the long hangover from the 2016 campaign has lingered. Melissa Byrne, a Sanders organizer who now serves on the Democratic National Committee's transition committee, said she continues to spend time and energy persuading people not to abandon the party over bitterness about the DNC's perceived slant toward Clinton.
“For the most part, people are past the primary (season),” she said. “There's not one person to coalesce around, so there's a lot of fighting against something, not fighting for one thing. And when you're fighting against something, like Occupy did, it gets messy.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a freshman who has become the face of the Justice Democrats political action group, which was set up to beat “corporate” incumbents in primaries, said there was such a thing as too much negativity.
“There's a populism that goes after a villain, and there's a populism that's aspirational,” Khanna said. “Aspirational populism cuts across the party. It means talking about single-payer health care. It means the bill I'm working on with (Sen.) Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. Six months ago, people said that was crazy. And now everyone who might run in 2020 is calling and asking if they can endorse it.”