At Democratic Convention, Bernie's Army Takes on a Life of its Own

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders march during a protest in Philadelphia Sunday.

On the eve of the Democratic Convention, Bernie Sanders’s army has split into two columns, marching in opposite directions. While the Bernie-or-Bust faction here at the convention still would like to stage floor fights or at least express their discontent volubly, Sanders will endeavor to talk them out of such actions at a 2 p.m. meeting today—two hours before the convention is called to order. His campaign also has put in place a whip operation on the convention floor to persuade his followers, if needs be, to cool it. 

“Bernie will talk with his delegates about how they can further the revolution in the states, running for office, putting together campaigns,” said one campaign adviser. “And he’ll encourage them to vote for Hillary in November.”

Sanders, his lieutenants and the most of the more-experienced Sanders delegates believe, with good reason, that they’ve won considerable concessions from Hillary Clinton’s forces. The platform that will be presented to the convention will include a commitment to tuition-free college at public universities, a $15 minimum wage, a new version of Glass Steagall, and guidelines to trade deals that rule out the most controversial particulars of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The rules report that will be presented to the convention will require most superdelegates at future conventions to cast their votes for presidential candidates as their states did: they will no longer be free agents. And with the Wiki-Leaks revelations of the Democratic National Committee’s anti-Sanders bias during the spring primaries, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz—long Sanders’s nemesis—has been compelled to step down.

On each of these fronts, Sanders has claimed victory—graciously, even thanking Wasserman Schultz for her services to the party. He has also accepted Clinton’s vice-presidential pick, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, with good graces, while acknowledging that he would have preferred a progressive like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. With the reports of the platform and rules committees now including key provisions that Sanders sought, his campaign has discouraged his delegates from trying to mount floor campaigns to add further provisions. Talk of nominating a Sanders supporter—possibly Ohio State Senator Nina Turner—to run a symbolic campaign for the vice-presidential nomination as an alternative to Kaine has largely died down.


The events that may have defused what was shaping up as an explosive convention came in quick succession this weekend. On Saturday, a heated meeting of the Rules Committee concluded with Sanders and Clinton forces reaching a compromise that will require two-thirds of superdelegates to cast their votes at future conventions in accord with their states’ primary voters. Even as the rules deal was being cut, however, hacked emails released by Wikileaks confirmed that officials of the DNC had, in fact, been pushing during the primary for Clinton to win. On Sunday, facing the prospect that the Wasserman Schultz story could dominate the convention, the Clinton campaign joined Sanders’s in pressuring the Florida representative to step down as party chair.

Nonetheless, as Sanders’ campaign has pivoted toward a general election support role for Clinton in order to defeat Republican nominee Donald Trump, some of Bernie’s followers—both inside and outside the convention halls—are not ready to follow their candidate’s lead. On Sunday at the convention, some were still threatening to disrupt the show of party unity to which Sanders himself is clearly committed.

“We reflect disappointment and we reflect anger,” said Norman Soloman, a California delegate and the leader of the Bernie Delegates Network, a group entirely unaffiliated with the Sanders campaign that is working to organize his delegates for a potential floor protest of some type. The group says its network includes 1,250 of the 1,900 Sanders delegates, with whom, it says, it’s in constant communication.

More than a week ago, the group surveyed a sample of Sanders delegates on what they would think if Clinton chose Kaine for her vice presidential pick; roughly 88 percent said Kaine would be an unacceptable choice. The delegate network was created by the online activist group and is working in tandem with the Progressive Democrats of America, which says it has about 220 Sanders delegates among its ranks.

Leaders of these groups argue that Clinton’s support among Sanders backers is not nearly as strong as she may think it is. If she sees decreased levels of support from progressives, they say, it will be due directly to her selection of Kaine, whom they condemn for his recent support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, offshore drilling and coal, Virginia’s right-to-work law, and personal opposition to abortion.

“This is an assault on the progressive base of the Democratic Party that has [roughly] 13 million voters,” Solomon said at a press conference in downtown Philadelphia Sunday. “Those smartest triangulators in the room, who have told us that the old formulas from decades ago will work again, seem clueless about our current political environment.”

While Solomon and Company want to put an alternative to Kaine before the convention, the venture is clearly a long-shot. It would not only require 300 delegates to put a name in nomination, but someone would have to agree to be a challenger, which could easily amount to political suicide.

If a VP bid fails, they will continue to survey Sanders delegates about whether they want to take their discontent to the floor in some other way, whether it’s attempting to further air out platform concerns, or responding to Clinton or Kaine’s acceptance speeches by walking out, turning their backs, or refusing to applaud.

“Progressive Democrats of America have no intention of standing down at this point. We brought Bernie to this party and we intend to be there,” said Donna Smith, PDA executive director, said at the press conference. “This is a democracy. It is not a production show here in Philadelphia. This is the seat of our democracy. It’s a wonderful place for us to exhibit that; but it won’t be if we are squelched and silenced.”

Ava Kennedy, part of the California delegation’s Sanders contingent, told the Prospect that she came to Philadelphia prepared for a contested convention. She got into politics as a teenager in 1968, door-knocking for Eugene McCarthy. Over time, Kennedy got involved in independent and third-party politics in Oklahoma. But it was Sanders’s campaign that has brought her back into Democratic politics. She and many of her fellow California Sanders delegates understood that Sanders’s chances at the nomination were slim, but they were primed a contested convention and were willing to fight to the last vote. While she understands why Sanders ended up supporting Clinton, she herself isn’t ready to do so quite yet. “Our views are the future of the country,” said Kennedy, who along with many in her delegation is considering different ways to protest on the floor. “What is happening now is the past. Our vision will prevail.”

Later in the day on Sunday, hundreds of Bernie diehards rallied downtown. For all the talk about party unity and bridging the divide between Clinton and Sanders, that sentiment was largely unwelcome among many of these supporters.

“Feel the Bern” chants rose up from the crowds—indeed, it was 97 degrees as the afternoon sun beat down on the concrete plaza. Signs reading “#NeverHillary,” “You Lost Me at Hillary,” and “Hillary Clinton is the Lance Armstrong of Politics” were commonplace. Demonstrators said they believed the primaries had been rigged by a corrupt DNC—a sentiment reinforced by the recent email leaks.

The rally, and subsequent march, was—in some ways—Bernie’s army taking on a life of its own, even if it was in a different direction than the candidate himself may have liked.

Andrea Cole, a Sanders delegate from Missouri, went to the rally to show the DNC that Sanders is the type of candidate that the party—and the country—needs. She says that the Bernie’s Missouri delegation is still figuring out whether it will protest on the floor. Meanwhile, she remains skeptical of Clinton’s dedication to progressivism. “I think she was genuine in outreach [to progressives]. Whether it was to be a representative for people or to win in November, we don’t know.”

Not all Sanders backers have been as dismayed by recent developments. Diane Russell, a state representative in Maine and Bernie delegate who was a central organizer behind the push to abolish superdelegates, was pleased with the deal that was reached on Saturday.

“It was a remarkable compromise and remarkable victory for progressives. We really won. I don’t normally say that when it comes to compromises,” Russell told the Prospect.  “I do feel it was a solid, clear message to progressives that Hillary Clinton was serious [about outreach to progressives].”

One delegate whose Sanders advocacy was frequently featured on cable newscasts shares his candidate’s belief that Trump poses a danger to the nation unlike any previous presidential nominee. He says he’s quietly talking one-on-one to Bernie diehards, urging them to not only back Clinton but also to stay involved in Democratic politics rather than plunge into the cul-de-sac of third party politics. “This is fascism,” he says of Trump—a message that Sanders himself will have to drive home if the convention that begins today is to be largely free from turmoil.

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