Are Democrats Facing a Party Split or a Leadership Vacuum?

People's Summit

By Jon Tollefson

Jon Tollefson
MNA Government Relations Specialist

MNA Government Relations Specialist

Much has been made of a conference that former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Senators hosted in Chicago last month. The New York Times and Washington Post both covered it (among a reported 180 news outlets) and both asked whether the Democratic Party is facing a split following the 2016 campaign. But the evidence doesn’t point that way.


The People’s Summit centered on the future of the progressive movement and how we can win elections. The main theme, as stated by Senator Sanders, was that “People are sick and tired of establishment politics and establishment economics,” noting that our lives will not get better by keeping the establishment in power. Those are strong words, but they don’t point to a party split.


The summit was led predominantly by people of color and called on everyone to join with and follow the leadership of people of color who are fighting for racial, social, and economic justice. It was a call for unity that also spoke to the unfairness and exploitation of the current economic status quo that affects all of us. Rather than squabbling over the crumbs, as one activist said, we need to join together to fight those who are telling us we only get crumbs in the first place!


Highlighting party unity, Van Jones asked white people to show up for people of color and then told a story about his own recent visit to a coal miners’ rally in West Virginia. Jones spoke about joining coal miners in West Virginia who were trying to get their employer to honor promises to provide healthcare and to stop stealing their pension funds. He tried to lead them in chants, but no one responded and he thought it was because they were uncomfortable… until the wife of one miner tapped him on the shoulder and told him they couldn’t sing, they couldn’t chant. “That’s why we’re here,” Jones reported her saying, “They have Black Lung Disease.”


Listening to Jones, we were silent, and he emphatically told us, “I don’t care who they voted for. What those companies are doing to them is wrong, and I will stand with them!” The audience in Chicago erupted in applause, and he called on us all to stand with people facing injustice no matter whom they gave their vote.


Democrats are not facing a split in the party but are rather facing a leadership vacuum. Following the 2016 election that saw a highly-contested Democratic nomination fight, Democrats are now looking forward to find leaders who can unite the party. That means motivating activists fighting for racial, social, and economic justice, as well as those who are quite comfortable and privileged but who generally support progressive policies. It means being willing to follow people of color, women, LGBT people, young people, working people, and those who are affected most by injustice.


Senator Sanders noted that while “progressives have not won in every election we’ve contested… what we have shown is that even in these very, very Red States, strong progressives can do far, far better than anyone imagined and that with proper organization and financial resources, we can win in any district in the United States of America.”


That’s a path to victory.