There is one respect in which politics is like investing: You don't put your eggs in one basket.
The lesson we learned from the Barack Obama presidency is that while it is good to invest some of our hopes in a presidential candidate, no single candidate warrants the investment of all of our hopes. Some of our investment wisely goes to a movement that encourages that candidate to be true to our hopes and discourages that candidate from actions that would betray us.
It's a lesson worth remembering in the wake of the Populism2015 conference, which brought around 800 activists together under an alliance of National People's Action, Alliance for a Just Society, USAction and Campaign for America's Future. Much of the news coverage of the conference revolved around how this emerging alliance will affect Hillary Clinton now that she is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Will the Populism2015 attendees be the foot soldiers for a Clinton challenger?
The answer is yes – but in bigger and more important ways than what some reporters and pundits may be thinking when they ask the question.
The people who attended the conference are not political operatives, even though some of them can be found as campaign volunteers, staffers and even candidates. They are people who have every reason to be fed up and disillusioned by what they have seen in the U.S. capital and in many statehouses around the country, yet fiercely cling to the idea that America's political structures and economy should function for all of the people, and not just for the rich and powerful. These are the people who on Sunday endorsed a platform "for people and the planet" that will serve as a North Star for organizing and building coalitions, and a yardstick for measuring any candidate running for a major policymaking office – from city council member to president of the United States.
They are people like Eugene Lim, a recent college graduate who joined the community activist group One Northside. He graduated college in the wake of the Great Recession, into the worst job market in generations. Still, "I got angry at myself" for being unable to find work for two years after his graduation, he said during a speech at the conference. "I thought I was poor through some fault of my own."
Compounding his difficulties, he received a serious injury that landed him in a hospital emergency room – and left him critically wounded financially with a bill for $11,000, "more money than I had made in my entire life," her said.
Fortunately, he was eligible for Illinois' Medicaid program and was relieved of that bill. But now that private equity billionaire Bruce Rauner is governor of Illinois, Medicaid funding in the state is on the chopping block, as are a host of other programs that serve economically struggling state residents, including the unemployed. Rauner's economic agenda for low- and moderate-income people is "cuts, cuts cuts – and pass on the savings to the 1 percent," he said.
Now, Lim said, "I blame systemic economic injustice for those two hard years" that he experienced and is now dedicated to battling the budget cuts that are the products of that injustice.
Hundreds of the people at the Populism2015 conference had variations of the same overarching story of how a rigged economy kept them down. They also have a similar way of responding: by not being passive observers of the political contests to come but an active force that is determined to reshape the terms of that debate and fight for outcomes that lead to a fundamental reformation of how and for whom our economic and political systems work.
"We are not talking about redecorating, We are talking about taking over and rebuilding the thing from the bottom up," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, said on Sunday. "That means challenging organized money with mobilized people, cleaning out the stables and taking our democracy back."
Sometimes that effort will take the form of marches like the one at the end of the conference on Monday against fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. An estimated 1,000 people took the streets, walking from the AFL-CIO headquarters to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. They carried with them a Trojan horse, symbolizing the dangers the treaty holds for workers, consumers and the environment. (Watch a video of the march.)
They will be pressing demands like those of low-wage government contract workers, who are planning actions this week to highlight their demand that President Obama sign a "good jobs executive order" that will set the minimum wage for these jobs at $15 an hour and insist that companies with federal contracts allow worker bargaining if the workers desire it.
They will confront both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, to push them out of the comfort zone of scripted talking points and to say where they authentically stand – just as a group of Iowa activists, one of whom as at the conference, did in 2011 when they confronted presidential candidate Mitt Romney about corporations not paying their fair share of taxes and Romney responded, "Corporations are people, my friend."
Tellingly, he ended his rant by saying, "If you don't like my answer, you can vote for someone else."
Fine, George Goehl, director of National People's Action, in effect said during the conference. "This is our question to every candidate. What are you going to do to rebalance the relationship between everyday people and corporate America," he said. "If you’re not with that, we’re not with you."
But this movement is not waiting for candidates to respond. It is working on raising up its own. During a late Saturday session, people were encouraged to be more than outsiders pounding on the door of the political establishment, but to make change from the inside. They were introduced to people like Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, one of the new progressive aldermen elected in Chicago as a result of the movement that was built around the mayoral candidacy of Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. The still underreported story of the Chicago election is that while Garcia was not able to overtake Chicago "Mayor 1 Percent" Rahm Emanuel, the movement leaves Emanuel with a less compliant council, and he will have a much harder time executing an agenda that increases the pain experienced by ordinary Chicagoans so that the wealthy can get more tax cuts and favors.
That is a dynamic that organizers will seek to replicate again and again in the months and years ahead, with campaigns revolving around each of the planks on the Populism2015 platform for people and the planet. There will be chants of "Run, Warren, Run" (or, as there were at the trade protest yesterday, "Run, Bernie Run," when Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont spoke). But the goal is to encourage an even more potent force into the 2016 political race: us.
In past elections, millions of us have not found our concerns, our issues, our vision for the country on the ballot. What we've seen too often instead is a choice between the truly awful and merely bad. It's time, the Populism2015 alliance declares, that people have the opportunity to vote for themselves, and for the change they seek. That's what can happen when an independent movement is in motion, on the streets and in the corridors of power.