There comes a time in the life of all revolutions when circumstance erodes solidarity, when cracks, splits, and factions emerge. As anyone who’s been watching the Democratic Convention can attest, that time has come to the Sanders Revolution. The factions this time around aren’t Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. They’re more like the Realos (realists) and Fundis (fundamentalists) who fought each other in Germany’s Green Party once the party began to win some power. That’s not a bad way to describe the two wings of Sandersism, though the Sighted and the Blinkered might do as well.
The circumstance that most erodes solidarity in a successful revolution is qualified success, which invariably brings with it some power and some compromise. By staying in the race to press for changes to the Democratic Party’s platform and rules—and more importantly, some of its core beliefs—Bernie Sanders both exercised and won power. The Clinton forces on the Platform Committee (or Clinton herself in the weeks following the last round of primaries) agreed to Sanders’s demand for a $15 minimum wage, an expansion of Social Security, free tuition at public colleges and universities, a new version of Glass-Steagall, and a rejection of the key provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, such as private corporate courts. The Clinton forces on the Rules Committee agreed to require most superdelegates at future conventions to cast their votes in accord with their state’s primary voters. Sanders hailed the platform as the most progressive in the party’s history (which it is), while the Sanders delegate who presented the Rules Committee’s report to the convention last night, Maine’s Diane Russell, proclaimed, “We did not win this by selling out. We won this by standing up.”
And courtesy of Wikileaks, Sanders was able to present his supporters with Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s scalp. Who among his supporters, Sanders’s lieutenants must have wondered, could ask for anything more?
Sanders skeptics have been eyeing him apprehensively since he announced, fearful that he would become this year’s Ralph Nader. Nobody who actually knew Bernie, however, ever believed he wouldn’t support Hillary Clinton in the end. In fact, he did much more than that. By shifting the discourse in the Democratic Party to one more appropriate to an age of inequality, and by pushing the party in its platform to commit to causes from which, at best, it had been laggard in embracing, he was showing his people precisely what focused progressive activism can yield: tangible victories in the arena of real politics.
All of Bernie’s Sighted supporters understood this. Virtually every one of his endorsers who has a track record in the give-and-take of real politics—union activists, elected officials, environmentalist leaders—has proclaimed, as Bernie has, that the revolution succeeded in moving the party and its nominee to the left, and that a Hillary Clinton presidency, whatever it shortcomings, would create the possibility of significant progressive organizing and victories, while a Trump presidency would be a reign of repression.
The drama of Monday was to see how many of the Blinkered Bernie backers—who saw only that revolutionary nirvana had yet to descend from the heavens, and who believed that Hillary and the Democrats were merely play-acting in their move leftward—could be persuaded by Bernie himself and his leading supporters to see the light. In an early afternoon meeting with his delegates, Sanders detailed all that they’d won on the primary trail and in the platform, and told them that electing Clinton was both essential for the nation and a prerequisite for further progressive advances. At which point, some of his supporters began booing.
The diehards’ rejectionism led him to text and email his supporters as the convention came to order. “Our credibility as a movement will be damaged by booing, turning of backs, walking out or other similar displays,” Sanders wrote in the email. “That’s what the corporate media wants. That’s what Donald Trump wants. But that’s not what will expand the progressive movement in this country.”
Bernie’s messaging, the presentation of the platform and rules in a way that made clear just what he’d won, and the progressive—and in the case of Michelle Obama, brilliantly humane—presentations on Monday were plainly calculated to open some of the Bernie diehards’ eyes. So did the presentations from children of undocumented immigrants and other speakers to whom it would be hard to argue that the difference between Clinton and Donald Trump wasn’t really all that great.
As the convention began, a new Pew poll showed that 88.5 percent of voters who’d consistently backed Sanders throughout the primary season now favored Clinton. A majority of the Sanders delegates in the hall in Philadelphia also back Clinton, but a loud Blinkered minority has managed to command disproportionate media coverage, which ever favors the loud. This disconsolate fringe—not just delegates but also the demonstrators lined up outside the convention area’s fencing—is almost entirely white and non-immigrant, people, that is, with less reason than some to fear a Trump presidency will overturn their lives. Nor are the demonstrators I’ve talked to preponderantly local, but rather have come from across the country to shout their rage and discontent. In short, the Blinkered are a fraction of the left, the Naderites come again. They are people who wouldn’t normally be involved either in Democratic politics or real-world progressive organizations, who hitched their wagon to Sanders’s star while many more experienced progressive activists failed to grasp Sanders’s potential for moving the world further in their direction than any political phenomenon in years.
My hunch—no more than that—is that if the election stays close, many of the Blinkered will reluctantly succumb to a very rational fear in the last two weeks of the campaign, and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s vote will plummet just as Henry Wallace’s did in the final stretch of the 1948 campaign. The prospect of a Trump presidency will finally strike dread in all but the most hermetically sealed mentalities.
As Candidate Sanders left the stage, literally and figuratively, at the close of Monday’s session, the magnitude of his achievement exceeded all expectation—his own surely included. As I’ve written, Sanders didn’t so much create a new American Left as reveal it, but had he not come along, it’s not at all clear that it would have been revealed. What Sanders did was to bring an explicit attack on current American capitalism to center stage in the national political discourse—something that no major party has done before or since the Democrats of 1935–1938 (and then in attenuated fashion), and something that no previous socialist or social democratic figure in American political life was ever able to achieve. Timing, of course, is everything: Millennials have become the most wary-of-capitalism generation since the young people of the 1930s, and for the same reason—the systemic dysfunction and inequality of the economy. The Occupy movement sounded the overture of this generation’s leftism, and such campaigns as the Fight for $15 kept it humming. But not until Sanders began inveighing against the social and moral outrage of our towering inequality in one stentorian lecture after another, moving tirelessly from city to city, state to state, keeping a regimen that would exhaust most younger men, did his socialist critique and Rooseveltian response become the lingua franca of the young and the liberal.
The overwhelming ovation he received Monday night—from Hillary’s delegates as well as his own—reflected, I think, a more profound gratitude than political leaders are commonly accorded. Moral tribunes don’t often achieve even partial success in the world of real politics; Sanders did. Sanders knows, even if many of his supporters don’t, that he follows a line of American socialist tribunes—Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph, the Reuther brothers, Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington, and Martin Luther King Jr.—whose values and analyses he inherited, transmuted and brought to a nation never more ready for those analyses and values. The American Socialist Valhalla has always been sparsely populated, but Sanders has surely joined his forebears there. If his revolution continues apace, the place may one day grow more crowded.