A Guest Post by C. Kemp
This last week I’ve thought a lot about what happened at the democratic national convention in Philadelphia and how Bernie Sanders supporters–I am one–had imagined the day after. I’ve been trying to figure out how many of us ended up seeing it so differently than Sanders himself apparently did.
What were we thinking? What was he thinking?
I expected that he would, if Clinton secured the nomination, issue some kind of an endorsement, at the end of the convention or some time in August. He always said he’d support the party’s nominee—as his supporters like to point out, he’s a man of his word.
Before that, however, I expected that he would do the other things he said his campaign would do: use the leverage we had all worked so hard to accumulate to exact reforms and concessions on the issues and process that concerned us. The convention would be what he and his staff said several times it would be: a contested one. It would be tense, procedurally hard-fought, explicit, and above all an exposé of all the ways that the party, its officials, its lobbyists and donors, its incumbents, and especially its preferred candidate were compromised, possibly corrupt, pretty undemocratic, and for many of us undeserving of our support. The issues would be sharply etched in the policy disputes. The exact point at which the voters got off and money got on would be clear as day. There would be no soft filter of aspiration or process to hide the party’s—or its preferred candidate’s—compromised situation. Since the convention commands the media’s attention, the lesson would reach a much broader audience: Sanders would use a contested convention to amplify our message. July 29th, the day after the convention ended, would be graduation day: we would all go, metaphorically, across the stage and get our degree in eyes-wide-open politics, a state of things in which a nominal endorsement (by press release? video statement?) of Clinton by Sanders would be pro forma and no big deal. Behind us on that day the party, its captured incumbents, and Clinton herself as well as Obama would be exposed as compromised and out-of-touch. We would have both the momentum and the power going forward to press policy beyond the ballot box. As Sanders said the night of the California primary, the struggle continues.
So that’s not how July 29, 2016 turned out. That day is in the books as I write.
I. What were we thinking?
During the spring, as reports of irregularities and unexplained failures from primaries and caucuses rolled in, the sense that the campaign was gaining steam but also hitting serious roadblocks made the what-if scenarios more urgent. Sanders had said, without fanfare, that he would support the party’s eventual nominee. He also said he’d contest the nominating convention, make his electability case to the party’s superdelegates, and use every bit of leverage we’d given him in votes, donations, phone calls, cavasses, caucuses and social media coverage to put real pressure on the party to adopt the policies he advocated in speech after speech, to reform its selection process, to eliminate the influence of lobbyists and large donors, and, if appropriate, to select him as the nominee. He decried the mainstream media blackout of his campaign and the paucity of debates. He said, too, that his campaign would “look into” the results of primaries and caucuses subject to widespread reports of vote suppression and other issues. A string of wins accompanied by razor-thin losses, outright ties, or serious messes (Arizona, New York, California), capped off by the still-incredible AP call of the nomination the night before the June 7th primaries made this push all the more reasonable. When Trump locked down his nomination and the polls continued to show Sanders clearly stronger against Trump, especially with new and unaffiliated voters, Sanders in fact had a lot of leverage to carry his campaign to and through the democratic national convention. To veterans of the 07-08 primary, fighting Clintons was nothing new. The ground had shifted since then, but we were ready.
I didn’t much expect to prevail in Philadelphia—the establishment and the Clintons along with Obama had the thing screwed down tight even before Sanders emerged as a whip for party unity. But Sanders’ speech before the DC primary crystallized for me the idea that that one of his main objectives was the education of the electorate in the moral and political bankruptcy of the party and of our national politics. In this education even losses were lessons, revelations that ultimately, in the long run, weakened the forces pushing back on his—our—campaign. Losing primaries and delegates in so many different ways exposed the rules governing elections, the byzantine state convention process, the arbitrary power of superdelegates (many of whom would at some point face primaries in districts and states Sanders won overwhelmingly), the influence of big money, the shut-out by the mainstream media of the campaign.
Discovering all of this reduced the prestige of establishment institutions, made incumbents vulnerable to a waking electorate, and exposed the undemocratic regime of the party. It was a free education (sort of), and I for one remain deeply grateful for it, for myself and for our young people, as well as for the country. We felt its effects early: we unplugged from corporate media, both for- and not-for-profit, we turned to the alternative press to tune and filter social media, and we learned who not to trust, whether media outlet, political incumbent, or party or government official. We thought that even if Clinton managed to scrape out the nomination we would be able to continue to pressure incumbents by primarying them with progressives (Tea Party-style) and rousing constituencies over particular issues, wielding everywhere the power of our vote, our organization, and our small-donor fundraising—the very features of Obama’s ’08 campaign that he abandoned after he was elected. For myself, I imagined that as Sanders continued to give that same speech over and over again, across the country, as long as he could, we would eventually be able to build out and launch another party from which to challenge the two-party system.
For many people the two weeks from July 12th to July 26th, from initial endorsement to Sanders’ motion at the end of the roll call to nominate Clinton by acclamation, worked out as a high-speed blur of shocking and senseless turns of events from which people had no time to recover or to which to adjust, and for which they were given no explanation. Sanders, having endorsed Clinton early, almost without warning and certainly without walking his people through to it, showed up across delegation meetings in Philadelphia making the Trump-Trump-Trump argument and asking for docility as a personal favor. As it had in the platform committee meetings, his staff worked with the Clinton and DNC people to run interference with his own delegates, and his surrogates often seemed as blind-sided as his supporters. Following on the Comey statement about the Chappaqua server investigation and coming simultaneously with the Wikileaks release of DNC email matter, which vindicated so much of our experience during the primary and exposed the highly problematic workings of the democratic party as well as the deeply damaged nature of Clinton’s candidacy—this was out beyond bizarre.
II. What was he thinking?*
I don’t know, of course, but after listening to Sanders’ statements to the mainstream media since July 12th, I believe that his vision of July 29th was that his much-derided holdout ‘Bernie-or-Bust’ supporters would be (whether he thought about them in these terms or not) politically homeless: angry, sad, insisting that he run as an independent, still hoping, #StillSanders-ing, and most importantly still his. He would go out after July 29th and do events, give the speech (now with Clinton’s name miraculously stuck on the front of each sentence), knit the coalition back together around “the most progressive platform in the history of the democratic party” and continue the noble exercise of trying to wake the American electorate. Just as important, he would corral and nudge** his people to the voting booth in November to vote against Trump and for whatever senate or house candidates Sanders decided to support. He would have, in effect, a private army, all ginned-up from the primary and ready to be turned loose on behalf of the democratic party—for Clinton as well as for all the democrats who retain a residual sense that they still need voters to rule the country. I’m pretty sure this is the way he pitched July 29th to his colleagues in the senate and in Washington.
One thing Sanders pretty clearly didn’t imagine was that when his shell-shocked, heartbroken, and angry supporters walked out during the convention that they would, many of them, find Jill Stein in the hallway, or, later, in the streets. She was on the bill for more than one event in Philly on the outside, so it was no surprise she was in town. Sanders’ supporters had been talking third-party run since the coin-toss issues in Iowa, so that they’d welcome an alternative to the two parties is no surprise. Stein herself had offered the top spot on the Green Party ticket to Sanders if he wanted it, having positioned herself as Sanders’ supporters Plan B. The #JillNotHill movement, which seemed to spring up almost out of nowhere in fact did no such thing: it was sitting right there, and Stein herself was nimble and savvy enough to seize on it in person and in real time. It is this late development, however—not the chanting, not the anti-TPP signs, not even the walkouts, that I think caught Sanders by surprise. Some of the delegates walking out carried “JILL STEIN” signs with them, and many were wearing Green party shirts and other paraphernalia. The question of whether other surrogates—Susan Sarandon, Nina Turner, RoseAnn DeMoro—would follow Cornel West, who endorsed Stein after July 12th, grew so intense that Turner, a very powerful Sanders spokesperson who had appeared with Stein at an event outside the hall earlier in the week, was mobbed by media and supporters when she appeared at a press conference on the last day of the convention organized to support her, after she was bumped from a nominating speech for Sanders on Tuesday. Interest in her decision about whether to stay in the democratic party was so intense that she had to keep saying “this is not about an endorsement” in every interview.***
This, I think, was not the plan.
Sanders acts like he believes the canard that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election in Florida in 2000, and obviously hopes to avoid a similar outcome in November. The idea that his supporters would run in any significant numbers to the Green party, dragging his legacy behind them to a woman he sees as a spoiler and whose run, he seems to believe, may contribute to a Trump presidency, has to be unimaginably horrific. His remarks to the press since the convention make it sound like there really are only two options, regardless of whether voters are living in swing states or not. Whether Sanders acknowledges it or not, it is a fact that voting for third-party candidates in safe red or safe blue states will not affect the electoral vote totals of either Clinton or Trump, and will put pressure on democrats who need the support of progressives in the future. Sanders has said different things at different times about third parties, and apparently would not return Jill Stein’s calls. He couldn’t, of course, because that would be to take notice of her candidacy and draw attention from Clinton. Instead he has to go out on the stump talking single-issue stop-Trump and supporting Clinton’s democrats, which puts him at an increasing distance from his own message during the primary and from what is likely to be a significant core of his supporters, who, while grateful, will carry on now without him. When the inevitable chants of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” would break out at his rallies, Sanders would cut them off, insisting, with his characteristic sweeping gesture, that “this is not about me, it’s about YOU! It’s about us! US!” (#NotMeUs). Indeed.
*One of the lasting mysteries of the Sanders campaign is why it is he stopped communicating with his supporters about his plans for the convention and for the end of his campaign. Another mystery is what Sanders expected to happen when he quietly planned the New Hampshire endorsement and the sequence of concessions that unfolded during the platform and rules meetings. Yet another is the way he himself imagined the convention, almost half-full of his pledged delegates, many of whom had been filling the information vacuum meanwhile with speculation about his deep-laid plans for seizing the nomination on site and recrimination for fellow supporters who suggested that no, it wasn’t going to go like that. After the DC primary, Sanders started talking to the mainstream media about things he was not raising with supporters. Berners who had unplugged in the spring weren’t seeing or hearing it, and many assumed it was misreported–a common feature of MSM coverage of Sanders. Ultimately this felt like the politics version of seeing the Facebook relationship status of the person you’re seeing updated to “It’s complicated.” We had, in effect, heard it through the grapevine. But it turns out we should have known it was coming.
**Those concerned about Sanders’ candidacy from the left use the term “sheepdog” to refer to what he ended up trying to do in fact: raise people’s passion for progressive causes and use it to keep them in the democratic party with hopes of reforming it from the inside.
***An interest fanned again just four days later by Turner’s statement that she was considering Jill Stein’s invitation to run as the Green party vice-presidential nominee. The short-lived speculation set up by the news produced even more buzz, cut short only by her announcement the next day that she would work on local organizing inside the democratic party in Ohio instead. Around the same time, National Nurses leader RoseAnn DeMoro issued a call to continue donations to the Sanders campaign, listing 10 reasons to do so, under the #OurRevolution banner, the name of one of the organizations Sanders is establishing to support progressive candidates inside the democratic party.
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