The scene at the Democrats’ gathering in Philadelphia this week looked downright peachy compared with the problem-plagued Republican National Convention in Cleveland. But that doesn’t mean the anger and disappointment of Bernie Sanders voters can be shunted aside. This is a profile of a tiny sliver of the forces within the Democratic Party that want to see more left-wing results than what we’ve been getting for the past 40 years.
Tensions ran especially high on Monday and Tuesday, and were palpable both in the Wells Fargo Center and on the streets. The sidewalks of Philadelphia were the scene of occasional confrontations between the two factions. On Tuesday night a 5,000-person column marched down south Broad Street, a combination of diehard Sanders supporters, socialists, and Black Lives Matter activists. Fights broke out, and a few people burned American flags. In the end, the marchers dissipated, leaving behind a vivid illustration of divisions in their wake.
The discontent on display, spurred in large part by the WikiLeaks release of internal DNC communications, prompted Chris Hayes of MSNBC to tweet about the possibility of a real insurgency within the Democratic Party that would push it to the left. “What's clear is that the Democratic Party is not too far from a total Tea-Party style takeover,” Hayes wrote. “If IF Sanders wing can bring over black D[emocrat]s.”
During my week reporting on these developments, I sat down with several Sanders delegates from Kentucky to find out more about the frustration boiling up inside the Democratic Party.
Two of them, Kyle West and Maria Kupper, went to college with me. We hadn’t seen each other in almost eight years, and I didn’t recall either of them being particularly political in school. But like many Sanders supporters who graduated during the Great Recession, they say the solutions being offered by establishment Democrats don’t fully address their needs.
“We graduated in 2009,” explains West, 30. “To us that whole suburban corporate money thing, which was the promise of what we would have one day, it was gone forever.”
The regular Kentucky delegation was split this week almost exactly in half between Sanders supporters, 27, and Clinton supporters, 28. (She eked out a win there in the primary, although it was closer than even the tight Massachusetts race.) The state’s five superdelegates all supported Clinton as well.
From what I heard sitting with them and their friends in the Windsor Suites, right down the street from City Hall, the Kentucky delegation was riven by the WikiLeaks revelations at the beginning of the week. The tension on Philadelphia’s streets and in the convention hall could be felt in this hotel suite as well.
The trip from Louisville to Philadelphia took this group 12 hours, and while they drove they learned first the news that Hillary Clinton had selected Tim Kaine as her running mate, and then that WikiLeaks had released a trove of DNC emails that proved what Sanders backers had complained about for months—that outgoing DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and others on the committee had improperly looked for ways to help Clinton win the nomination.
“We all thought we were inevitably going to see some tension on Monday at the convention, but WikiLeaks changed everything,” says Kupper, 29. “I was livid. Why would I unite with the Democrats when they clearly have been trying to undermine the man we’ve been working for, volunteering for, donating our $20 to instead of getting drinks on a Friday night?”
For Sanders backers in the Kentucky delegation, that sense of betrayal ran deep. When all the delegates arrived at the Windsor on Monday, the Sanders and Clinton camps weren’t even speaking. It ended up taking days for the tension to dissipate, which made for some awkward mornings around the breakfast spread.
“We worked our asses off and then get stabbed in the back by our own party,” says Jacob Drake, 34 (with whom, for those keeping track at home, I did not go to college). He says that it isn’t just newcomers like himself who have been enraged by the antics of Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Drake says that there are people who have voted Democratic for 40 years back in Kentucky who are tempted to break with the party.
At a Socialist Convergence event on Wednesday evening, Jill Stein, who received rapturous applause, praised Sanders but claimed that he’d “run up against the limits of what you can do in a counterrevolutionary party.” The Green Party and other factions that have given up on the Democrats (or never cared for them to begin with) were a loud presence in Philadelphia. But these ticked-off Kentucky delegates didn’t seem to be going Green.
Stein’s call doesn’t seem to be resonating beyond the diehard Bernie-or-Bust people, who made themselves heard during the convention (“Jill not Hill!”) but seem to be a distinct minority nationwide. Pew recently found that 90 percent of the Sanders voters it polled said they would vote for Clinton in the general election. Their outsize presence in Philadelphia this week is probably a testament to the fact that the delegates and protestors who are in town are the hardest of the hardcore—and not representative of the rank-and-file Sanders backers.
Kupper, for one, says she hasn’t yet decided if she can bring herself to vote for Clinton in November. (The Kaine pick was also a big turnoff to her; if Warren had been Clinton’s running mate, Kupper says, her vote would have been locked up.) But that doesn’t mean Kupper won’t be voting for Democrats down ticket. In fact, she hopes to volunteer for other Democrats when she gets home.
“I am going to make sure that in Kentucky we don’t lose our House seats,” says Kupper, referring to the six-seat advantage Democrats hold in the state assembly. “I’m planning on volunteering and doing whatever I can. I know how important the local level is, whereas who I vote for president in Kentucky doesn’t matter so much.”
Since 1972, Kentucky has only gone for the Democratic presidential candidate three times: Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Meanwhile the Democrats are hanging on to the state assembly, but seem to have largely lost control of state politics for the first time in generations. (Republicans control the state Senate and the governor’s mansion.) The 2015 executive race was a terrible blow to the party and to these delegates. West had been receiving health care coverage through Kynect, the health insurance exchange set up under Obamacare, which incoming Republican Governor Matt Bevin began to dismantle upon taking office.
On the streets of Philadelphia, some of the Bernie-or-Bust people I spoke with denied any substantial difference between Clinton and Donald Trump (as did Jill Stein). The people I spoke with from the Kentucky delegation really didn’t like Clinton, but they also know what it’s like to live under the ultra-right Republican Party, and reject the argument that Clinton and Trump are equivalent. They don’t seem to want to abandon the Democratic Party, or drop out of politics. But they want to see Sanders’s political revolution bear fruit locally and see more progressives start to run in local elections, from state Senate to school board.
“I think the Democratic Party should be very, very concerned about the base,” says Kupper grimly. But despite her anger over the DNC’s actions in the primary, she also seems hopeful and energized by the convention. “If I hadn’t come here to Philadelphia I would not have seen across the country people who feel the same way as us. This is first time in my life I have totally felt part of a movement.”