By Gwen Mandell
Earlier this month I attended the 2017 People’s Summit in Chicago along with several thousand other progressive activists. The event was sponsored by a “who’s who” of left-leaning Democratic Party organizations connected with Bernie Sanders, who was the keynote at the event.
Here’s my take on what went down. There were really two conversations going on. From the stage, an array of leaders articulated ideals that spoke to many in the room and pointed to the headway that the progressive movement is making in shifting the Democratic Party to the left. Most maintained that if the movement stays its course, it could successfully turn the party into a vehicle for progressive change.
The other conversation took place on the floor and in the massive halls of McCormick Place. There a different sentiment emerged. Equipped with a 20-question survey, I —along with five independent voter activists from theIndependent Voting network who had come from Ohio, Idaho, New York and Illinois — conducted one-on-one interviews.
Senator Sanders put it bluntly last month when he said “the Democratic Party will not succeed unless it attracts many, many millions of independents.” So we made it our business to speak to hundreds of grassroots activists about this and to see if they shared the concerns that independent voters have about the political process. They overwhelmingly do.
Our survey probed whether concern over the process by which the 2016 presidential elections were conducted had faded, whether the American people could directly engage the issue of political power, and if the Democratic Party could be a vehicle to effect empowerment for the American people, or if partisan interests would prevent it from doing so. In my opinion, the Democratic Party can’t call itself democratic unless it addresses the failure of our current political process.
Over 60% of People’s Summit survey takers identified as something other than Democrat or Republican, while a whopping 93% thought the Democratic Party should open its presidential primaries to independent voters in the 2020 election. In 2016, an estimated 26.3 million independents were excluded from voting in the presidential primaries because they lived in states with closed primaries.
Among survey takers, 88% were not satisfied with the choice of candidates in the general election and 89% thought the Democratic Party was “out of touch” with the concerns of most people in the U.S., only slightly less than the 95% who thought Donald Trump was similarly out of touch.
Of those polled, 97% agreed with the statement that “the real struggle for America is not between Democrats and Republicans but between mainstream America and the ruling political elites.” In addition, 95% felt that in order for the country to prosper and for new coalitions and a new culture of politics to be created, it was necessary to move beyond the traditional categories of “left, center, and right,” divisions the political parties play off of. When asked to react to the statement “As a progressive, I see the Democratic Party as our only way forward,” 69% of respondents disagreed.
Over 75% wanted to see Sanders run for president in 2020, and 44% want to see him run as an independent. In response to a question about whether ideology should stand in the way of building a broad coalition, 74% of respondents said they want to see Sanders form a third party that would join forces with other independents from the left, center and right of the political spectrum. In response to the statement “No American should be required to join an organization of any kind to be able to exercise their right to vote,” 97% agreed.
The opportunity for Democrats to form a new majority coalition with independent voters has been on the table for many years, and support for Sanders from the grassroots and from independent voters pushed this issue squarely on the table. It’s a new day in American politics and an exciting time to be engaged in conversation with the base of the party about the bridge-building that needs to take place.
Gwen Mandell is the Director of National Outreach for Independent Voting (IndependentVoting.org) and resides in New York City.
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