Image by Joeff Davis
The Democratic convention in Philadelphia is historic for two different reasons. There is the tear-jerker “arc of history” kind of historic, outlined by Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, and the music video montages of feminists, civil rights marchers, and great women through time. I am not immune to such assaults on my sentiments, especially as I watch my own almost-fifteen-year-old daughter take it all in.
Then there is the history being made by the large contingent of Bernie Sanders delegates, many of them movement people who are getting involved in electoral politics for the first time. They are infusing the party with new energy and a moral compass that could point it in a more progressive direction.
The “No TPP” signs all over the convention hall, the more progressive party platform, the recognition of inequality and student debt as critical issues of the day—all of these are serious, substantive accomplishments of the Sanders campaign.
And on Tuesday night, the Bernie and Hillary delegates seemed to be coming together in a shared sense of accomplishment. The achievements of the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement were highlighted in a film clip to swelling music.
The “mothers of the movement” spoke out against gun violence—and gave a powerful rebuttal to the anti-Black Lives Matter theme of the RNC.
“This isn’t about being politically correct. This is about saving our children,” Trayvon Martin’s mother declared.
In a soaring crescendo to his speech, Bill Clinton explicitly reached out to immigrants, African Americans, and Muslims—three groups that have been dissed over and over again by Donald Trump and the RNC.
Alicia Keys, who followed Bill Clinton, may have done more than anyone else to unite the convention. She dedicated the song “Superwoman” to “the mothers of the movement and all mothers.”
“Where are my Bernie people?” she called out the cheering delegates. “Where are my Hillary people?” More cheers. Then she made her call for unity:
“We can’t let politics divide us. We’ve got to show the world that bigotry and fear will never win.”
Hillary capped off the evening with an appearance by satellite uplink introduced with a special effect in which she emerged from a shattering a glass ceiling covered in portraits of all our male Presidents. She took a moment to speak to little girls staying up late and watching on TV: “I may become the first woman President—but one of you is next.”
Image by Joeff Davis
As I was riding home on the subway with my daughter, in a car packed with ebullient delegates, we were joined at a stop by protesters carrying an anarchist flag. One wore a Bernie t-shirt, another a shirt with the hand-lettered slogan, “Hillary 4 Prison.”
For a moment, I understood exactly how all the Hillary supporters who have been bitterly complaining about “Bernie bros” for the last year have been feeling: “Hey, you’re on the wrong team!”
That has been the mainstream media’s reaction to Sanders almost from the beginning of his campaign. But it’s really not the main point.
Hillary Clinton is making history and she is, despite her protests to the contrary, the establishment candidate—with all that that entails.
Protestors at the convention. Image by Joeff Davis
I took a spin around the city with some members of the Wisconsin delegation today, travelling from breakfast to lunch to dinner with lobbyists with money to spread around, eager to get on with the real business of Washington—which is a far cry from the ideals of democracy and social movements that make it into film clips in the convention hall.
Likewise, the Sanders delegates are right about the rigged system and Sanders is also right that they need to focus on the future—not the (continuing) slights from a party that often views them and their idealistic chants about democracy as foreign bodies it can’t wait to expel.
For one thing, activists aligned with Bernie Sanders are a significant presence at this convention, and they are having an impact they deserve to savor. They are giving this convention a far less stuffy and more electric feel than the sections of the program that feature a parade of party stalwarts across the main stage.
Wisconsin’s assembly minority leader, Peter Barca, and his Democratic colleague, Corey Mason, remarked to me how different it was this year to come to the convention with so many people they didn’t know. The Bernie delegates are mostly new to the process.
“If you’re involved in politics for years and years, you know the people [who become delegates],” Mason said. “Half of the people on the Bernie side are people I never met before, which is a good thing, if they stay involved and push the party in a better direction.”
Sanders is clearly making the case that that’s possible.
Some delegates are not interested. The ejection of Sanders surrogate Nina Turner from the hall on Tuesday night didn’t help. Jill Stein gave a speech on the street near the downtown convention center praising the “Bernie or Bust” contingent and calling for a continuing revolution outside the Democratic Party.
Cory Mason compares the next phase of the Sanders campaign to a choice between what followed Ralph Nader’s run and what Howard Dean left behind:
“The Nader folks never integrated themselves into the party to change it for the better. The Howard Dean people made changes that led Obama to be successful.”
Either way—inside or outside the party—it is movement politics that will finally drive electoral politics. That’s the arc of history. It is the story of America. And it is the truly unifying theme not of any one convention or even one political party, but of our whole human journey. Which is why it’s such a powerful political tool.
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-Chief of The Progressive.