Public Comment

New: “Will the Democratic Party Ever be the Same After the 2016 Convention?”

Chris Krohn, Special to The Planet
Sunday July 31, 2016 - 11:23:00 AM

Democracy can be messy. And it was in Philadelphia this past week, a week that saw Hillary Clinton supporters going head to head on policy with Bernie Sanders delegates. It was likely good for the party and good for the American political system. When a democratic socialist garners almost thirteen million votes and wins twenty-two primaries in a presumably capitalist country, there’s going to be some fireworks at the national political convention and we were not disappointed. 

Days before the convention was set to begin, the chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, resigned under pressure following disclosure of a stream of unflattering emails which had circulated among DNC members. They appeared to smear Bernie Sanders and to corroborate what his supporters have claimed for months: that the DNC disproportionately favored the other candidate, Hillary Clinton. 

The Democrats convened at yet another corporate-named sports arena, the Wells Fargo Center, in Philadelphia, and the corporate sponsorship of multiple dinners, breakfasts and parties was not lost on Sanders delegates, who brought it up at every opportunity. 

During the week there was a constant stream of discussions and demonstrations held by Sanders’ supporters, and although it was reminiscent of Chicago in 1968, it was perhaps a more organized and serious effort by the left flank of the party to push back hard on the center-rightward leaning establishment. This convention was surely unrulier than the past two, especially with the presence of delegates wearing buttons and stickers reading, “Bernie or Bust.” 

It was clear to this reporter that the political hierarchy felt threatened by the newcomers. Were they really Democrats? they asked. Is Bernie really a Democrat? And it was true that some delegates said they had even taken a pledge before being elected that they would only support Sanders for president, and no one else. 

It was remarkable as the week unfolded to see a few of these same “Bernie or Bust” delegates honestly wrestle with that pledge as they gained insights into the the process of political sausage-making. After all, it was clear that the vast majority of Bernie delegates simply do not want to see a Donald Trump presidency. While few vocalized support for Trump, many anti-Hillary delegates said they are considering voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who was conspicuously seen campaigning heavily in the halls of the convention and doing multiple interviews on Radio Row. Stein was polling at 3% in a July pre-convention CNN poll, while Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson was at 7% in the same poll. 

What occurred this week was perhaps akin to the 1968 Democrat convention in Chicago in terms of the shockwaves it sent through the party, and possibly America. But this time there were few broken heads and no authoritarian boss in the form of Richard J. Daley telling his police to beat up protesters. There were hard fought policy battles, rule challenges that were often than met with the usual staid ‘big D’ Democratic Party arrogance and intransigence, and sensitive and insensitive delegate discussions as first-timers for Bernie made their presence known. While street demonstrations and marches occurred all week long, the news media seemed to set only one day aside, Sunday, to fully cover those events. 

By the end of the week it was hard to miss the fingerprints of Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” not only all over the party’s platform, but firmly acknowledged in speeches by President Barack Obama and vice presidential nominee, Tim Kaine. The rallies, marches, and sign waving inside and out resulted in some honest conversation between the various sides of the party and made for a lively, more democratic, and, I would argue, a more inclusive national forum. 

One thousand eight hundred and forty-seven Bernie Sanders delegates were met by many in the DNC like unwelcome guests at a garden party. But there they were, Sanders delegates in suits and dresses, but also in tie-dye t-shirts, yoga pants, shorts and blue jeans. It was an epic moment for the party. A real youth movement was making itself known. Comfortable, older and perhaps too complacent party elders were forced to commingle with new twenty- and thirty-somethings on their terms and their ideas. As much as some DNC staff, likely directed by a party official or two, wished to squelch dissent by young Bernie-istas, there were just too many and too many media outlets needing content. Also, I received several reports of incidents of DNC staffers harassing Sanders delegates. The main objective by the establishment seemed to be to try and keep the insurgents out of national TV shots and make sure only Hillary posters and symbols were shown. 

On Sunday before the convention kicked off, an estimated more than 7,000 people, mostly Bernie Sanders supporters, marched through downtown Philadelphia highlighting the twin concerns of climate change and Sanders’ “political revolution.” The Philadelphia convention was vastly different than the one Republicans held in Cleveland. In Philadelphia there were a lot fewer police and a lot more protesters, and there was also more discussion, disagreement, and compromise on policy and the future of the party. As the street call and response chant goes, so went these past five days: “Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!” Bernie delegates had pried an “establishment” door open and now they were rushing in as if it were the backdoor to a sold out concert. 

During Monday morning’s California breakfast for example, Sanders delegates chanted, “count our ballots,” as California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla tried to speak, yelling at him to tally the more than a million ballots from the June primary that they claim haven’t been counted yet. At the same breakfast event San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Berkeley Congresswoman Barbara Lee were also met with deafening chants of “Bernie, Bernie” when they endorsed Hillary Clinton during their speeches.  

Most of the more than thirty Sanders and Clinton delegates I interviewed agreed that Bernie’s campaign has shaken the very foundations of the Democratic party. It’s even in writing in the DNC platform.  

Former California Governor Gray Davis told me in an interview, “Bernie Sanders and his followers have already changed the face of American politics. Sanders and Clinton have come up with the most progressive (party) platform in my lifetime.” He was referring to platform planks that include abolishing the death penalty, instituting comprehensive immigration reform, banning private prisons, demands for greater scrutiny of Wall Street, and expanding social security.  

Long-time progressive members of the House, Barbara Lee representing Oakland and Berkeley and Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, both welcome an opening inside the party to a more left of center approach. For a long time, Lee and Waters have supported overturning Citizens United, stronger climate change regulation, and abolishing the death penalty (all in the new platform). They are also opposed, like Sanders supporters, to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Both also supported allowing Bernie supporters to be given a forum at this convention to air progressive grievances regarding TPP and single-payer health insurance. Waters told the Planet, “In a setting like this, they get a chance to to do that.” Lee added, referring to the progressive party platform , “If it had not been for Senator Sanders we would not have gotten here”. 

When Bernie addressed his delegates on Monday in a closed door meeting he was booed for over a minute, mainly because they believed he had endorsed Hillary Clinton before the official delegate roll call vote that was to take place on the floor of the convention the following day. One supporter told me it was true, so the booing was “appropriate.” She said Bernie’s always been clear, it’s not about a man, it’s about a movement. One of Hillary Clinton’s jobs Thursday night was to reach out to many disaffected Bernie delegates and try, as Obama and Kaine had, to unite the party before moving into the general election phase of the campaign. 

The good news is it took her only less than a minute into her speech to acknowledge the significance of Bernie Sanders and his supporters in this election. “You’ve put economic and social justice issues front and center, where they belong,” she said. “Your cause is our cause.” 

Maybe the bad news is that her words, twelve lines total, is not the apology Bernie delegates were looking for, but they were from the potential future president of the United State who conceded that a movement had swept over America. 

Many questions still remained. Will most Bernie voters come over to Hillary? Will Clinton pursue the progressive party platform voted in at the convention? Because there’s nothing that says she has to. 

Can she be trusted not to support TPP? and the Washington Post reported this past week that an old Clinton ally, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, said that she would support the trade agreement after becoming president. Later, he backed off on that statement. 

And finally, can Hillary Clinton appeal to Bernie’s army of youthful supporters for both votes and campaign work? 

For now, it looks like Sanders supporters will be campaigning for Clinton while promoting their agenda, and that may go a long way toward some healing and actually bringing some unity to an otherwise fractured post-convention Democratic Party.