Originally published in New Ground 160, May — June, 2015.
by Bob Roman
Over the May Day weekend, May 2nd and 3rd, nearly 200 people gathered at Teamster City on Chicago’s near west side to attend “The Future of Left / Independent Electoral Action in the United States” conference. The conference aimed at promoting independent political action, building cooperation among groups and individuals so engaged, and developing the means for continued networking and cooperation. Partly as a result of DSA’s work in Jorge Mujica’s campaign for Alderman, Chicago DSA was invited to endorse the call for the conference, and we did. I was recruited to attend. I did not want to go.
By the end of Saturday, I had developed quite an enthusiasm for the event. True, the attendees were largely typical of a lefty conference: older, majority male, minorities mostly as program participants. There were more women than usual, and many were strong personalities. Depending on the time of day, young adults were a somewhat larger proportion than usual. But three things really won me over. First, there was little of the speechifying that comes from people hungry for the soapbox. Most of the questions were just that: inquiries for more information or clarification of something not quite understood. Second, the panels that I attended were very grounded in the realities of running for office and of governing. The election skills workshops, for example, may not have given someone contemplating a run for office all the information needed for conducting a campaign, but they did provide an outline of what that person would need to learn. And third, the conference was formally polite in dealing with probably its most divisive issue: Bernie Sanders running for the Democratic Party nomination for President.
It’s not as if they had much choice in how they dealt with the issue. The organizers had invited Sanders’ home base, the Vermont Progressive Party, to participate in the conference. And when the question of Sanders came up early on Saturday, the session chair, out of curiosity, asked for a show of hands by those who would be working on his campaign. A large minority, perhaps a third, raised their hands: something of a shock to the others, I think. Even if most of the rest of the room were thinking dark judgments, they also weren’t ready to spoil the party.
It wasn’t long into Sunday that my enthusiasm began to wane. Speeches began to creep in among the questions and dogmas began to run loose in the hall. More than that, my original sense of hope was partly based on the idea of a growing competency learned from experience. But not that many attendees were young people, and they were mostly very, very new to electoral politics. Given the average age of the conferees, we should have been movers and shakers, representing significant constituencies. But with a few exceptions, the attendees pretty much represented themselves. There will be exceptions, but these geezers have mostly gone about as far as they will go.
The conference, however, did fulfill more than a passing need. There is a need for a venue where the left, unencumbered by the Democratic Party brand, can gather to schmooze about elections and governing, where people interested in joining campaigns and elections can be introduced to them and mentored. That doesn’t completely describe what this event was about, but the overlap is considerable.
Toward the end of the conference, attendees were asked to formally resolve that the ad hoc organizing committee continue and plan another event, possibly in 2016. It passed unanimously with but 4 abstentions. This conference was a sterling example of how much can be accomplished on a shoestring with dedication. But all volunteer operations are fragile, depending on commitment and trust among a few. A year can be a very long time in politics, and some of these organizers tend to be as much dogmatists as they are ideologues. We’ll see: Perhaps a Labor Notes conference for politicians?