What happens to a Bern deferred?

July 28, 2016

The left has an audience to engage among those Sanders supporters who want to continue seeking a "political revolution" in all the struggles in every corner of society.

THE DEMOCRATIC National Convention has been a multi-day process of party leaders imposing "unity" behind Hillary Clinton on the disgruntled delegates representing millions of people who voted for Bernie Sanders--with Sanders himself pitching in to help.

For party leaders, Operation #YouAllBetterBeWithHer has been a success in the most important ways. They could rely on Sanders urging supporters to ignore his one-year-plus worth of criticisms of Clinton as the chief emblem of a corrupt political system. On Tuesday night, after the roll call of delegates, Sanders made the motion for the convention to unanimously accept Clinton's nomination.

The Clinton campaign felt confident enough by Wednesday to tempt the outrage of liberals by wheeling out a Republican to make the case for a Democratic president: New York City's billionaire former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But the tears, bitterness and acts of rebellion of many Sanders supporters--both inside the convention and outside on the streets of Philadelphia--are an indication that there are numbers of people trying to figure out how to keep journeying toward a "political revolution" now that their candidate has jumped ship.

Sanders supporters at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia
Sanders supporters at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia

The question now, to paraphrase the poet Langston Hughes, is: What happens to the dreams of those millions of people now that they have been deferred--most plainly of all by the candidate who gave expression to their hopes for an alternative to a rotten, rigged status quo?

Will the Bern dry up and become another example of a failed effort to transform the Democratic Party into a vehicle to achieve social change?

Or will some numbers of people energized by Sanders' left-wing message and inspired to act on that message be drawn into a resistance outside the Democratic Party--perhaps first by voting for Jill Stein, the left-wing independent candidate for president, but in any event joining the many struggles against injustice and inequality, before, during and after the election?

WHEN SANDERS officially endorsed Clinton at the start of July, party leaders assumed, with the typical arrogance of America's political elite, that Sanders would simply deliver his supporters--representing more than 13 million primary voters, about 43 percent of the total--into the embrace of the Clinton campaign and its corporate backers.

But Sanders supporters, including the delegates chosen in the primaries to go to the Philadelphia convention, didn't fall in line quietly.

The Clinton campaign made some attempts at wooing the Sanders backers, but for each such gesture, there were at least as many outright insults toward progressives. Like the choice of neoliberal, hawkish Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine to be Clinton's running mate, which disappointed people far beyond the so-called "Bernie or Bust" crowd who had hoped a liberal like Elizabeth Warren would be the pick.

Even more galling were the leaked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC)--revealed by the muckraking organization WikiLeaks--that confirmed long-held suspicions: that the Democratic leadership, from DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on down, were actively helping the Clinton campaign to gain an advantage in the primaries.

When Wasserman Schultz was forced to step down because of the controversy, Clinton outrageously hired her as the "honorary chair" of her general election campaign. It's a largely symbolic role, but Clinton's action underscored her contempt for the outrage of Sanders supporters about the blatant favoritism.

So rather than welcoming Sanders supporters as they accustomed themselves to a nominee they had opposed and took consolation in what Sanders had claimed was "the most progressive platform in the party's history," the Philadelphia convention opened with a significant minority of delegates--not to mention non-delegates and protesters--feeling freshly wounded and reminded of everything they dislike about Clinton.

Thus, the overwhelming sound inside the Wells Fargo Center on the first day of the convention was booing.

Boos of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings that were nearly drowned out by chants against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Boos of Sen. Al Franken and comedian Sarah Silverman when they praised Clinton--and Silverman's scolding rebuke that the "Bernie or Bust people" were being "ridiculous" didn't exactly quiet the crowd.

Even Sanders was booed earlier in the day when he addressed a private gathering of supporters, telling them, "We have got to defeat Donald Trump, and we have got to elect Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine."

Sanders wasn't booed when he gave the highlighted convention speech on Monday night, but he didn't get the response he might have expected. As he tried to claim that Clinton was on the same side as him on issues he spent the past year blasting her about--from getting money out of politics to making health care affordable--the TV cameras focusing on his delegates showed tears, head-shaking and dull stares.

The following night, more than a hundred delegates staged a walkout after the official roll-call vote. Many of the protesting delegates headed out of the convention hall to an impromptu rally to greet them organized by the Green Party's Jill Stein.

THE PARKS and streets outside the Wells Fargo Center had already been the site of days of protests that were similar to many demonstrations in the U.S. in recent years: energetic and rapidly radicalizing, but also largely disorganized.

Thousands of people endured almost 100-degree temperatures for a march to call for clean energy on Sunday; for rallies organized by the Green Party and Bernie or Bust; for demonstrations called by different Philadelphia-based organizations fighting racism and poverty.

Many of the protesters were Sanders supporters in revolt against being told to get behind Clinton. They carried homemade signs with slogans like "Unity behind corruption is not unity" and "#ClintonLiesMatter." Chants of "Jill not Hill!" were popular, reflecting significant support for the Green Party candidate among the hardest edges of Sanders backers.

Unlike Cleveland last week, where a highly militarized police presence caused the protests outside the Republican National Convention to be smaller, the Philadelphia police for the most part took a more restrained approach, at least as of midweek--perhaps because city officials, all of them loyal Democrats, didn't want to antagonize Sanders supporters more than their party's national leadership already had.

Unlike some of the festivals of protests that have taken place outside political conventions in the past few decades, there was no union presence to be found, and few signs of participation from social movements.

One exception was the march for Justice for Berta Cáceres, the indigenous activist in Honduras murdered in March by assassins connected to the regime that came to power in a 2009 coup that supported by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State.

In the evenings, hundreds of protesters dropped by the Friends Center for the Socialist Convergence, which featured panel discussions with members of various socialist and left-wing organizations and tendencies on a range of topics. Drawing more than 200 people on each of its first two nights, the Convergence attracted a layer of people radicalized by the Sanders campaign, as well as providing spaces for collaboration, formal and informal, among radicals of different stripes.

BUT FOR many Sanders supporters, the main focus was on what was happening inside the Wells Fargo Center, where even loyal opposition was viewed as high treason.

Clinton supporters, as well as many mainstream media accounts, treated the boos and chants for Bernie as shocking outbreaks of disloyalty, rather than the raucous back-and-forth that used to be the norm in U.S. political conventions. Those who deviated from the Clinton campaign-approved script were treated as if they were contributing directly to electing Donald Trump.

"I will be respectful of you, and I want you to be respectful of me," scolded Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio when she was interrupted by Sanders supporters--as if the leaked DNC e-mails hadn't shown just how little respect the Democrats have for those who won't follow the party line.

"We are all Democrats," Fudge added, "and we need to act like it." She and other mainstream party figures claim that voicing opposition to Clinton will hurt the image of party unity.

No doubt many Clinton supporters are sincere in their desire to project a united front against Trump. But there's something else at work in this argument. It's also a message to the party's base that being a Democrat means "unifying" behind the pro-corporate policies they're going to get from Hillary Clinton for the next four to eight years--or else face the Republican bogeyman.

To judge from opinion polls, many Sanders voters are starting to accept this logic, at least to the extent that they plan to vote for Clinton. But the events inside and outside the convention show that a minority doesn't. And that minority is angry--even if their anger is portrayed in the media as the mark of a Trump admirer--and rightfully so.

The importance of the Sanders radicalization shouldn't be judged on its impact on the Democratic convention. On the contrary, as SocialistWorker.org has argued since Sanders got into the race, the Democratic Party is designed to absorb and neutralize left-wing challenges.

But in reviving interest in socialism and raising expectations that mainstream politics can actually reflect the concerns of working people, the effects of the Sanders campaign will continue to be felt long after the election is over. The important next step is to draw those Sanders supporters who want to continue seeking a "political revolution" into all the grassroots struggles and political battles taking place in every corner of society.

Sanders himself has shown that a challenge confined to the Democrats will dry up like a raisin in the sun. But a left that organizes independently of the two-party duopoly can be revitalized by the new generation mobilized by Sanders--but inspired to go beyond him and fight for a different world.

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