The People's Convergence Conference Was A Breakthrough For Progressive Cooperation
Thanks to wall-to-wall coverage of just a few topics by the mainstream entertainment news media, this past September will be remembered for hurricanes, NFL protests, Medicare-for-all legislation co-sponsoring (posturing?) and saber-rattling tweets from the world’s most powerful ignoramus. One important event obscured by Hurricane Irma coverage in particular was the People’s Convergence Conference held in Washington D.C., Sept. 8th-10th. At the conference, organizational leaders and activists on the progressive left, including Dr. Jill Stein, Dr. Cornel West, Kshama Sawant and many others joined together to discuss next steps for the movement to build a new “People’s Party” to represent the needs of the majority of Americans. The conference was arranged through a partnership between the Progressive Independent Party (PIP), the Justice Party, Socialist Alternative and the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party movement. Three progressive themes emerged from the conference which could change the way the left thinks about politics: coalition, electoral reform and economics.
Progressive Coalition: “How do we come together?”
Each organization involved with the planning of the People’s Convergence Conference had two goals in mind: (1) to bring the progressive left together and (2) to discuss the future direction of the progressive movement. By all accounts they accomplished those goals. “We all acknowledge the sense of urgency to work together for the protection of our planet, the restoration of democracy, and to provide voices for the people of this country in our government,” Araquel Bloss said of the commonality between the different groups attending the conference. This sense of urgency compelled Bloss to found the Progressive Independent Party in early 2016 as a way to keep the coalition inspired by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign together.
The awareness of the need for progressive organizations to work together and form a broad coalition based on unifying issues is spreading across the movement like wildfire. Such an alliance amongst progressive and independent third party voters could create an electoral juggernaut that would not simply compete with the corporate Democratic Party, but replace it in our two party system. If both current major parties are fully owned and operated by wealthy and corporate interests, which they appear to be, then they are essentially a single party. This means there is a wide open political landscape for a new “People’s Party” to represent the interests of the vast majority of Americans who are neither wealthy nor incorporated.
Many progressives believe there already exists such a entity: the Green Party. However, for as many electoral gains as they’ve made over the past three decades, which are not to be dismissed, the most-viable party on the left has remained effectively non-viable. This is not meant to fault party members or its leadership, but to recognize the limitations for any third party in the American electoral system. It’s time for a substantial change in strategy, one which draws upon the energy of progressive activism and combines the resources obtained by many groups under one cohesive, issue-based umbrella. “As I told Dr. Jill Stein and Darryl Moch, co-chair of the national Green Party,” Bloss recalls, “I hope everyone sees this as an evolution of the Green Party, an evolution of Draft Bernie, an evolution of the Justice Party, Socialist Alternative and PIP, and that their history will be honored and will be a piece of the next history that is written. They are an important part of this movement moving forward and they shouldn’t see that as a loss but as a gain of a bigger family…I think that’s the best way for us to create solidarity in a positive, cooperative relationship.” That is the coalition approach that has seen success in many countries abroad. One such example is the Broad Front Party in Uruguay, a coalition party made up of formerly factional leftist groups which replaced their country’s ruling party in 2004.
Coalition-building has always been PIP’s main objective, and since 2016 they have been able to build ever-stronger relationships with key allies such as the Justice Party, Socialist Alternative and the Draft Bernie movement. Now the largest progressive player, the Green Party, has joined the call for cooperation beyond partisan divides. In fact, PIP’s steering committee recently voted to invite the national Green Party and the Justice Party to become founding members of the coalition’s “spokescouncil” (GP USA has yet to vote on whether or not to accept the invitation). Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein said during the conference’s final plenary, “As far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to be a Green for us to work effectively together…Let’s push downstream the question of parties and what our labels are, we don’t need to agree about that to start working together.” This sentiment was echoed by Brian Jones, executive director of the Justice Party, “There were conversations with the Green Party, the Justice Party, PIP, the Draft Bernie people, and [other] representatives from different groups, talking strategy about how specifically we can work together and transcend labels, to some degree.” This was music to the ears of many progressive activists in attendance, including Steven Grumbine of Real Progressives, “People are starting to put issues ahead of party allegiances and personalities…you’ve got the teams all willing to lay down some of their identity to join together as one larger force and looking at what does unite us….I’m hoping that people begin to listen to [coalition-building efforts] and start beginning to believe that there are legitimate forces out their that can unite the left.”
Having the leadership of many large progressive organizations be open to such a coalition approach was a real game-changer to come out of the conference, according to Bloss. “It’s quite a big step that we’ve all agreed to continue the conversation of exactly how we can work together….towards a unified electoral strategy.” Bloss added, “As [PIP] moves forward, we’ll be even more focused on ensuring these coalitions are strong and that they represent the people and all voices are heard, that’s what’s most important to us.”
Progressive Reforms: “How do we compete electorally?”
In order for the coalition approach to be truly effective, there must be reforms to the electoral strategy of all groups involved. Bloss said her organization will have three main “asks” of their allies: (1) Non-compete, (2) Unity of candidates, and (3) Ballot-line sharing. The first ask, non-compete, goes without saying for those interested in being part of a coalition. It allows coalition members to pool their resources in order to field and promote candidates in every election at every level. The second ask, unity of candidates, goes hand-in-hand with the first since utilizing coalition resources to fund and promote competing candidates would defeat the coalition’s purpose. It also ensures there won’t be a repeat of the recent special election in California’s 34th congressional district where more than 20 candidates, many of whom were progressives, collectively cannibalized the progressive vote share. The third ask, ballot-line sharing, is where the larger, more established groups will really flex their muscles for the movement, providing access to candidates where there previously was none.
One option to help facilitate these asks, proposed by Bloss, is the idea of progressive primaries. Such primaries would be run for every election in which multiple coalition member organizations wished to field a candidate. The winner of each progressive primary would receive the full support and backing of the entire coalition. This has the ability to invigorate apathetic progressive voters in many areas who feel underrepresented in the current process, especially for local elections.
The Justice Party has been one of the main proponents for this type of cooperative strategy. “The first step to [progressive primaries],” Brian Jones said, “has to be [the collaboration] we are doing now: let’s agree that we’re willing to [cooperate]. That, in certain circumstances, it won’t be our candidate [who wins] but we will support that candidate, we will back that candidate…. That’s why I think [the conference] was such a huge step because, since I’ve been involved, that [willingness] hasn’t happened. [The Green Party’s] enthusiasm about that is really significant.” Bloss and Jones have been working to bring new coalition members to the table since just after the 2016 election. “[We are] very much looking for opportunities to work with other groups, that’s definitely a huge part of [the Justice Party’s] model,” Jones said, “If you are a person or organization that is fighting for the same principles we are, that is working towards the same changes and goals that we are, we will work with you, we want to work with you. We will cross-endorse, we’ll work with other campaigns, candidacies and people from other parties across the political spectrum because there’s a lot of room for common ground.”
Two other critical reforms with the potential to radically expand the third party movement are ranked-choice voting and fusion voting. Ranked-choice voting, which 19 states currently have some form of legislation being advanced, allows voters to select multiple candidates on a ballot in the order they prefer. For example, if there was a Democrat, a Republican, and a third party candidate on a ballot, a voter could list them in order of preference. Thus, a third party voter would not have to worry about taking a vote away from their second choice if their first choice was eliminated. Fusion voting would allow for multiple political parties to support a common candidate (see second and third asks above). As a result, a single candidate’s name could appear under multiple party lines on the same ballot. “Those are things that, if you could get them implemented, can really have monumental effects,” Jones said. “…The viability of third party organizations would basically skyrocket because it would address some of those prohibitive laws and regulations that have been passed that keep third party candidates, even write-in candidates, off the ballot.”
Progressive Economics: “How do we pay for it?”
The progressive agenda covers a wide range of extremely popular policies (Medicare-for-all, free college tuition, infrastructure investment, federal jobs guarantee, etc.), however most of them carry significant price tags. More important than the specific costs of each policy proposal is the broader question: How do we pay for it? Common sense would suggest that any increase in federal spending would necessarily be paid for by an increase in federal taxes. Revenues must be greater than expenses, just as is the case for our household budgets, right? In short, no. Unlike individual households or even state governments, the federal government is the sole issuer of the dollar and therefore can never run out of funds, even when it spends more than it taxes. If you disagree, then ask yourself where is the prerequisite federal tax increase for the recent $80 billion increase to the military budget? If federal taxes were necessary to fund this increase in federal spending, then we surely should have seen our federal taxes go up prior to the budget being authorized, right? The reason they didn’t is because federal spending is not funded by federal taxes. This is one of the main revelations uncovered by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
Steven Grumbine, a speaker at the conference and online popularizer of MMT, has been trying to spread the word about our modern economic system for years, and for years he and others have received heavy pushback, even from fellow progressives. “Part of the problem is they think it might be too good to be true…but the reality is…the single greatest threat to our planet, including environmental/ecological concerns, is understanding the economics. Economics is not about scarcity [of] pieces of paper, it’s about scarcity [of] real resources.” This is important to understand, especially if you have concerns about inflation. “Most people think that inflation is brought on by printing money, but that’s not what [causes] inflation. Inflation is brought on by too many dollars chasing too few goods. When [people say] not to print more money, [they’re essentially saying] we don’t have the capacity to build more colleges, hospitals, x-ray equipment, [research laboratories, etc.].” As Grumbine contends, this is nonsense. Of course we have the capacity, what we’re lacking is the political will.
In a recent LA Times op-ed titled ‘Congress can give every American a pony (if we breed enough ponies)’, economist Stephanie Kelton succinctly explains how inflation only becomes a risk when demand outpaces supply. If we have enough capacity to supply a public good sufficiently to keep up with the demand for that public good, then, according to MMT, inflationary concerns are removed and the only obstacle becomes politics, not economics or how to “pay for it”. Grumbine adds, “This is literally how it works. It has nothing to do with ‘theory’, it doesn’t have to be implemented, it’s already there. Reagan showed us how to do it with the right-wing approach, we’re trying to teach people how to do it with the left-wing approach, the human-first approach, the ninety-nine percent approach.”
Every progressive policy proposal, so long as there is enough capacity to supply demand, can be paid for if the American public demands that their congressional representatives pay for it. “Our federal government has a fiscal responsibility to spend on the people, a fourteenth amendment responsibility to provide for the general welfare. When we realize that and stop worrying about being a ‘welfare state’ and start making citizen benefits citizen rights, then you have a very different paradigm. Then nobody is looking over someone else’s shoulder to see if they’re getting crab meat with their food stamps. Then what we’ve got is a situation where everybody has healthcare as a right, college as a right, paid family and medical leave as a right, they have a job as a right. It’s a second bill of rights, like FDR said. A modern second bill of rights, a modern New Deal.”
The People’s Convergence Conference brought so many new ideas and strategies together, which will only strengthen the burgeoning coalition. One thing is for sure, a new era of progressive cooperation is beginning to take shape.
*This article's updated version originally appeared on Huffington Post's contributor platform on Oct. 12th, 2017.