A Bernie Sanders Delegate Reflects on Philadelphia, Our Revolution, and What Lies Ahead
I’m fond of a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” As a Bernie Sanders supporter and delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where we officially nominated Hillary Clinton for president, I have so many opposed ideas in my head that my functionality is a real question. But while those thoughts are still swirling, I want to reflect about my convention experience, the Bernie Sanders Revolution, and where we go from here. And I want to explain why I still Feel the Bern, but now I’m With Her.
History in the Making
I am extremely grateful to have been elected an At-Large National Delegate for Sen. Sanders for this historic convention in Philadelphia. It was especially unbelievable to be part of the Virginia delegation in a year when our own Sen. Tim Kaine was the Vice-Presidential nominee. As a result, we had seats up in the very front next to the New York delegation. To be just 50 feet or so from the stage for all the proceedings was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I did not support Hillary Clinton in 2008 and I did not support her this year. But for the Democratic Party to follow the nomination and election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, with the nomination and likely election of the first woman — a woman who is also one of the most qualified and experienced candidates ever to seek the office — must be recognized. We are not a color-blind society. We are far from a gender-blind society. But Democrats are showing the way to a more diverse, tolerant society, where everyone has a part to play.
To be sure, we still have our differences with Secretary Clinton. But if you take the long view, and you step back and stare at that long bending arc of history, you have to appreciate what we just witnessed: The nomination of Hillary Clinton is an enormous event in American history. It is, as Joe Biden might say, a BFD.
If you don’t believe me, ask my 10-year old daughter what it means to her to have Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket. In fact, last night I sat down and watched Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech again with my daughter and my 8-year old son. They sat on the couch and watched the entire thing. About 40 minutes in, my son noted it was getting awfully long, but he still didn’t move. The point is both of them will grow up with a different idea of what our society can be because of the work we have all done to get to this point. That’s progress and it matters.
A Convention That Reflects America
While we are on the subject of diversity, my heart is still swollen with pride that Democrats are increasingly the party of inclusion. Watching the RNC convention on television last week it was hard to spot a person of color in the audience. But Philadelphia was the most amazing melting pot, I’ve ever experienced. Every race, nationality, religion, gender, and sexual orientation was present, acknowledged, and welcomed. We showed the world that diversity is not just a buzzword and that we can truly become a “more perfect union” if we come together. I’ve never heard the word “love” so many times at a political event. “Love Trumps Hate,” we chanted over and over. Can we truly make it so out on the streets, in our communities and neighborhoods?
Sitting through nearly 28 hours of formal speeches over four days from opening gavel to convention’s close (not to mention all the speeches at our morning Virginia breakfasts and in caucus meetings throughout the day), they start to blur together. But the highlights were Michelle Obama’s personal reflection on raising two daughters in the White House, Barack Obama’s soaring and optimistic vision of America, Bill Clinton’s masterful storytelling, and the moral clarion call of the Rev. William Barber to be “defibrillators” on the heart of our democracy and “shock the nation with the power of love.” Bernie Sanders’ own gracious speech brought the house down. And the Mothers of the Movement –women who lost their sons to racial and police violence — so movingly expressed both their grief and hopes. If ever anyone deserves to be bitter in the face of the profound pain and disappointment of loss, they do — and yet they spoke only of love and redemption and the ever-ongoing march for justice.
But it was hard to top the powerful remarks of Khizr Kahn, a proud Muslim and father of a fallen American soldier who spoke of the immigrant experience and the promise of American democracy. When he pulled out a copy of Constitution and offered it to Donald Trump to read, the place went wild: “Look for the words liberty and equal protection of the law,” he said. And more pointedly to Trump: “You have sacrificed nothing and no one. We cannot solve our problems by building walls and sowing division. We are stronger together.” Nothing more eloquently expressed the stakes in this election for so many people clamoring to be included in our American experiment.
The Virginia Bernie Delegation
The Virginia Bernie delegation was full of passionate people with strong and varied views about the candidates, the conduct of the primary process, and the Democratic Party itself. I was proud to be among them and have nothing but respect for the group. Many folks were attending their first national convention. In fact, many had never before been to a district or state convention, or held office in a local political party.
Many Sanders delegates felt the Sanders campaign, despite weekly delegate calls leading up to Philadelphia, did not properly prepare them for what to expect at the convention. Many thought there would be floor fights over platform language and rules, but with all that worked out in advance the weekend before opening gavel, the delegates were left with essentially nothing to do.
On Monday, Bernie Sanders called all his delegates to a meeting in the Convention Center. We expected to get our marching orders, but instead got a fairly standard stump speech and a short admonition about how “this is the real world.” Bernie’s own delegates booed him. With little guidance from our leader on why he was endorsing Clinton and what he wanted us to do at convention, many delegates were confused and frustrated. We were left to chart our own course.
It set the stage for a raucous Monday evening. Indeed, the voice of the new progressive movement was on full display in the political activism we saw both outside and inside the convention hall. Particularly on the first day, the convention threatened to unravel. The fierce activists from California led chants of “No More War” and “No TPP” occasionally drowning out speakers at the podium. Entreaties from Bernie himself by text message to be calm and allow speakers to be heard went largely unheeded.
Some in our delegation wanted to rise with activists in the California Delegation and demonstrate on the convention floor. Others of us felt that prolonged disruption would not advance our agenda. Mostly we refrained because, as Virginia Democrats with Sen. Tim Kaine on the ticket, we generally agreed that — in this moment, with the eyes of the world upon us — we were stronger working with our Virginia Democratic colleagues than against them. We know and like Tim Kaine. We appreciate his commitment to social justice. We know that picking a more progressive senator might have limited, rather than enhanced the movement, by taking voices we need out of the Senate and subordinating them to the president’s policy agenda. In short, while we have concerns about some of Tim Kaine’s positions (off-shore drilling, anyone?), we have a far greater opportunity to advance the bulk of our agenda working with him than against him.
Many in the Virginia Delegation took offense when protestors’ chants were drowned out by chants of “HIL-LA-RY,” and a few protest signs were pulled down. As free speech advocates, we were also uncomfortable when a Code Pink protestor came down the aisle by the Virginia Delegation and was quickly surrounded by sign-wielding delegates to hide her from the cameras (ironically drawing more attention to her) before she was removed. Even some party staffers were shaken. But her voice wasn’t silenced. One of our delegates, Nic McCarthy, took a video and posted it on social media. At last count it had more than 75,000 views.
Stronger together. It was a brilliant theme, developed jointly by leaders of the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, for a convention that was expertly crafted to counter the xenophobia of Donald Trump. It appealed to moderate Republicans, some of whom took the stage themselves to endorse Clinton. And it was also an explicit appeal to liberal Democrats and Bernie Sanders supporters still smarting from the divisiveness of the primary season to come together to win in November.
Can we come together? I believe we can. Going forward, our job is to maintain opposing ideals at the same time and do our best to make them one. But it’s not easy and people need time to heal from campaigns. People tend to forget that in 2008 when Obama defeated Clinton, more than a few bitterly disappointed activists took a long while to get on board. They called themselves PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass). They railed against the perceived sexism of denying the nomination to a woman while failing to appreciate (initially) the significance of electing our first black president. A few never came back to the party.
When you have a front row seat in the bus of democracy you notice a lot of things. People drive fast. They cut you off. The windshield gets splattered. And there are casualties on the side of the road. It’s messy. It’s cutthroat. It’s a hell of a view, but it can be profoundly disorienting to witness the ebbs and flows of political chaos and control that is politics in America. Here’s a good article that highlights the cognitive disconnect many felt and still feel about the experience. It can be hard to find one’s place in politics, a place where you feel like you can be effective without losing your soul.
My own blend of idealism and pragmatism is born of loss. As a Democratic Party activist since 1993, I’ve lost more campaigns than I can count. I’ve worked on losing races from school board, to county board, to the House of Delegates, to the presidency itself — races in which I volunteered countless hours that I can’t get back. I’ve sat thoroughly dejected as the returns came in and my candidates (the best candidates, of course!) fell short. I’ve had strong words with other party leaders over tactics I deplored. I know discouragement.
Along the way, though, I’ve also won a few. I started out holding up Chuck Robb signs every morning on the median of Route 50 to help defeat Oliver North. I’ve worked with a lot of successful candidates, helping them raise issues that weren’t being heard. Of course, I’ll never forget the elation when we turned Virginia blue for the first time in 40 years in 2008, clinching the presidency for Barack Obama. Those elections made a real difference in people’s lives.
Still, we know an election victory is only part of the struggle. President Obama has faced obstruction at every turn. As president, Bernie Sanders would also have faced serious obstacles to his agenda. Surely, Hillary Clinton won’t have it easy either. As she said in her speech, “Americans don’t say: ‘I alone can fix it.’ We say: ‘We’ll fix it together.’” Change rarely happens by fiat but in effective coalitions of cooperative interests. She will need help. And we will need hers.
Let’s be honest: Bernie Sanders was never our savior. In fact, this campaign wasn’t even originally about electing Bernie Sanders. No one (not even Sanders himself, I suspect) thought we would get this far. This campaign was always about building a progressive movement for change. Bernie is a master articulator of urgent issues and concerns, a fierce cultural critic who is unafraid to speak hard truths about our society. He is a moral conscience for people and the planet. His campaign raised the consciousness of a generation, and won voters under 45 years of age across every demographic (a critical fact for our future). He gave voice to a movement. For all of this, he has my undying respect and appreciation. That we came so close to actually winning the nomination, against so many odds, proves this progressive voice is a powerful voice, and a harbinger of things to come. That’s why I’m #StillSanders.
The political theorist Antonio Gramsci once said, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.” That’s the space in which I try to work. With each loss I try to see what it is we have accomplished, what we have learned, and what we can do from here. And, make no mistake, we have accomplished a great deal.
Bernie Sanders delegates made up more than 40 percent of the delegates at the DPVA convention in Richmond. We fought for and achieved the most progressive platform in Virginia history (shout out to Sandra Klassen and others on the VA resolutions committee). We elected a Bernie supporter, Yasmine Taeb, to the DNC, breaking the DNC’s slate and knocking a long-time elected official off the committee. Here’s a profile of Yasmine’s experience at convention.
In Philadelphia we were just as loud and strong. On the very first day, the DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was forced to resign as more evidence of her unfair practices in the primary came to light. We also won the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party (shout out to VA platform committee members Mara Seaforest and Jim Fraser). We attended the first ever DNC Climate Council, and will continue to push have that council formally recognized going forward. In the convention hall, successful speakers were those who not only spoke eloquently but who acknowledged our work and how Bernie Sanders changed the entire narrative of this election.
And isn’t that the real point? Certain truths, long self-evident to the progressive grassroots movement, are now mainstream Democratic values: 1) the imperative of climate action and a total rejection of “all of the above” energy strategies; 2) the notion that systemic racism is real and that no lives really matter if those of our brothers and sisters of color do not; 3) the crippling weight of student debt and the declining economic prospects of our middle class; 4) that the 99% have a right to demand more from the 1%, the 10%, and all of us with the ability to make a difference; and 5) that these progressive values are moral values that are at the heart of all authentic religious and humanist expression. We even convinced Clinton and Kaine to oppose the TPP. These are real and lasting accomplishments.
We could rightly stand and cheer when Hillary Clinton praised Bernie for “putting economic and social justice issues front and center where they belong.” Or when she said she was for fair trade, not free trade. Even more so when she said to Bernie supporters: “I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause.” Or when she told us: “Our country needs your energy and passion. That is the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America. We wrote it together. Now let’s go out and make it happen together!” The fact is, so long as Hillary is with us, then we should be with her. There is no better option for making our dreams a reality. We are indeed stronger together.
I was touched by what a Bernie Delegate from Springfield wrote on Facebook as he tried to reconcile his own conflicting emotions about the convention. He said, “Maybe it was the balloons, but afterwards on my way out I wondered if that’s what winning feels like.” Well, we didn’t win the nomination (believe me, that feels better!), but we have won more than we think.
If we want to continue to be successful, we cannot sit on our hands at the very moments when the powers that be endorse and promote our agenda. We need to stand with them, thank them, and then hold them accountable. Somewhere over near the Arkansas delegation a big red sign went up that said, “Please, Keep Your Promises.” I thought it was perfect. Because that’s the test, isn’t it? Clinton has extended her hand. She’s moved toward us on a number of issues. We need make sure she has the support to follow through.
That means growing our progressive movement. To continue to advance our agenda, we need to win at the local level. We need to win at the state level. We need members of Congress who will fight for us. We need Supreme Court justices who will prop up our democracy, not subvert it. And that requires, as my friend and long-time environmental champion Brock Evans once said, “constant pressure constantly applied.”
I’m not starry eyed. Our own Gov. Terry McAuliffe has done some good things (felon voter restoration, for one) but he demonstrated the challenge we face when he lamely suggested this week that Clinton would switch positions on the TPP after her election. That prompted a hasty tweet from Clinton surrogate John Podesta: “Love Gov. McAuliffe, but he got this one flat wrong. Hillary opposes TPP BEFORE and AFTER the election. Period. Full stop.” Well, it’s up to us to make sure that’s really true, isn’t it? We do that by working together when it matters most.
So here we are. We have a great deal to proud of in this race. Not the least of which is how we now have a growing and vibrant progressive alliance in Virginia, the likes of which I have never seen. We are crucial to winning Virginia in November and defeating Donald Trump, whose election would set back everything we have tried to accomplish this year. We are crucial to electing progressives to the State Senate and House of Delegates. We are crucial to electing Tim Kaine’s replacement in the U.S. Senate.
We have a powerful voice and our message is winning the day. We have shown that we have the ability to set the agenda on which Democrats will run, so that even if our preferred candidates do not always win, our issues still rise. Be it by persuasion or disruption, as party leaders or outside activists, we need to keep on raising that voice for change.
Barack Obama put it well in his address: “Democracy works, but we gotta want it. Not just during an election year but all the days in between. So if you agree that there is too much inequality in our economy and too much money in our politics, we all need to be as vocal and as organized and as persistent as Bernie Sanders’ supporters have been during this election.” We need to be that way all the time.
Make no mistake: I still feel the Bern. I stand in solidarity with all who seek a better world. But so long as Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are advancing our issues, I’m also with them. In the face of the existential threat that Donald Trump poses to our movement and the nation, and for all that we have yet to accomplish, I truly believe we are stronger together.
- Originially published in BlueVirginia http://bluevirginia.us/2016/08/bernie-sanders-supporter-reflects-philadelphia-revolution-lies-ahead