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‘DemExit’: virtual convention aims to create US leftwing alternative

Joe Biden’s acceptance speech at the virtual Democratic national convention made one reference to “middle class” and one to “working families”. It never mentioned the word “poverty”.

Although Democrats put on a formidable show of unity, there are still refuseniks on the left who see little distinction between Biden and Donald Trump or the parties they lead. Some will gather at 4pm on Sunday for a virtual convention of their own.

More than 12,000 people have signed up to attend the People’s Convention, streamed live on social media and featuring the Hollywood actors and activists Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon as well as two of the more quixotic Democratic primary candidates, Mike Gravel and Marianne Williamson. They will vote on forming a new political party “free of corporate money and influence” to run candidates in the congressional midterms in 2022 and for president in 2024.

“A choice between Biden and Trump is no choice at all,” said Nick Brana, 31, national coordinator of the Movement for a People’s Party (MPP), which has nearly 100,000 members. “The Democrats and Republicans have made it clear that they will always choose profits over people. So we’re going to replace them.”

The convention revives an evergreen debate on the left: whether to follow the likes of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and reform the Democratic party from within, or to conclude that it is irredeemably beholden to corporate interests and walk away to create something new.

The MPP, founded by a variety of Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign staff, delegates and volunteers, embraces the latter approach. The party’s website has a page headlined “#DemExit” that declares: “Dear DNC: This is our Declaration of Independence from your Corporate Party.”

The former Democratic presidential candidate author Marianne Williamson will be one of the prominent names to feature at the virtual People’s Convention.
The former Democratic presidential candidate author Marianne Williamson will be one of the prominent names to feature at the virtual People’s Convention. Photograph: Robert F Bukaty/AP

In Brana’s view, poor people were erased from this year’s Democratic convention as it competed for Republican votes. “We believe that the Democratic and the Republican parties, as long as they’re financed by corporate money, will never represent working people,” he continued.

“You cannot simultaneously be financed by Wall Street oligarchs and billionaires and massive multinational corporations and represent working people. You cannot simultaneously have corporate lobbyists on your national committees, as both parties do, and simultaneously represent working people.

“That’s why the key here is that, in order to have true representation in government, a party has to be funded by its people – crowdfunded just like the Bernie campaigns were, $27 at a time. So we do not believe that the Democratic and the Republican party can be salvaged.”

Such perspectives appear marginal in 2020 as Democrats of all stripes agree on one thing: their hatred of the US president. Sanders, the democratic socialist senator beaten by Biden in the party primary, told the convention that defeating Trump must be the overriding imperative, quelling fears of a repeat of divisions that festered with nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

And whereas the Green party candidate Jill Stein arguably cost Clinton some crucial votes in swing states, opinion polls suggest that protest votes for third-party candidates will have less impact this time. Even so, Democrats will be anxious that Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, provide sufficient motivation for disaffected progressives to swallow their objections and turn out.

Brana said: “We’re encouraging people to vote their conscience, whomever that is, but the really important thing is that we never find ourselves in this position again. For decades now, the Democratic and Republican candidates have been getting worse together and that’s the cycle that we need to break.”

Although America prides itself on giving consumers freedom of choice over everything from television to ice cream, it does not boast the type of multiparty democracies seen in Europe and elsewhere. The MPP contends that the current duopoly will never deliver single-payer Medicare for All, higher education as a human right, a solution to the climate crisis or the dismantling of mass incarceration.

Others speaking at the People’s Convention, however, are reluctant to give up on the Democrats altogether. Nina Turner, a co-chair of Sanders’ primary campaign in 2020 and member of the Democratic national committee, said: “I support the movement and I am very clear that there are some progressives who want to ‘#DemExit’ but there are some progressives who believe, ‘It’s my party, I can cry if I want to and I’m going stay inside and push’.

“I support both of those forces because I think at the end of the day, even though they might be going down slightly different roads, they are parallel and the end point is the same. That’s why I’m speaking at this convention: that yearning that some have to form another party, and also I do recognise and support those who say that they’re gonna stay inside the Democratic party and give ’em hell and keep pushing them to the left. Both of those forces are needed. I consider those yin and yang.”

Thousands of supporters attend a campaign rally at Queensbridge Park in New York for Bernie Sanders in October 2019. Some see Sanders’ campaigns as a model for a left alternative.
Thousands of supporters attend a campaign rally at Queensbridge Park in New York for Bernie Sanders in October 2019. Some see Sanders’ campaigns as a model for a left alternative. Photograph: Peter Foley/EPA

Turner, a former Ohio state senator, does not believe there will be a significant leftwing rebellion against Biden in this year’s election. “The majority of progressives, including ‘Berniecrats’, voted for Secretary Clinton in 2016 and I see that same thing happening in 2020. This will be more of a vote against President Donald J Trump for most progressives than it will be a vote for Vice-President Biden. It’s a binary choice.”

But if Biden is elected, the progressive movement will not give him an easy ride, she added. “We are a fire and the fire is burning and making it very clear that business as usual is not going to be accepted. We’ve got two dragons to slay as I see them for leftists, and that is to slay the dragon of neo-fascism and then slay the dragon of neo-liberalism.”

Speakers at the People’s Convention also include Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker fired in March after staging a walkout over unsafe Covid-19 protections at a Staten Island warehouse, and Cornel West, a philosophy professor at Harvard University and leading member of Democratic Socialists of America.

West said: “You never say never because history is unpredictable, but the evidence doesn’t look like the Democratic party will be ever an institutional vehicle or serious force for fundamental change in America. The big money has colonised too much of the party. Wall Street and the military-industrial complex are just too strong when it comes to any progressive change. We saw that with Brother Bernie in two primaries now.”

West says he voted for Stein in 2016, which he does not regret, but will vote for Biden this time “because I consider myself part of an antifascist coalition to push the gangster out of the White House. But a vote for Biden is in no way an endorsement of the neoliberal disaster that his policies will produce. It’s just a way of preserving the condition for the possibility of any kind of democratic practice in the United States.”

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