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‘Democracy Is Messy’: Sanders Changes Tune On Protest At Democratic Convention

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivered a speech, which marked the end of the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. It partly repeated statements made when he endorsed presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. However, the Democratic National Committee gave him a primetime slot to pacify his delegates and further discourage supporters from protesting inside the convention, particularly against a process they see as rigged to nominate Clinton.

In May, Sanders thought the convention could get “messy,” telling the Associated Press, “So what? Democracy is messy. Everyday my life is messy. But if you want everything to be quiet and orderly and allow, you know, just things to proceed without vigorous debate, that is not what democracy is about.”

Yet, hours before the speech, Sanders sent a text to supporters and declared, “I ask you as a personal courtesy to me to not engage in any kind of protest on the floor. It’s of utmost importance you explain this to your delegations.”

The Sanders campaign also sent out an email to delegates that argued, “Our credibility as a movement will be damaged by booing, turning of backs, walking out, or other similar displays.”

“That’s what the corporate media wants,” the campaign contended. “That’s what Donald Trump wants. But that’s not what will expand the progressive movement in this country.” The campaign, which supposedly sparked a “political revolution,” again reiterated the request to not engage in “any kind of protest or demonstration on the convention floor.”

For months, the Sanders campaign built a nascent political campaign into an insurgent force to be reckoned with inside the Democratic Party. The campaign adopted the language of movement politics to contest the political party’s commitment to crowning Clinton their nominee. Their opposition was not a reaction to her identity but to her record of support for war and corporate policies, which are responsible for poverty and a threat to the working class.

The Sanders campaign taught millions of Americans the value of struggle and why it is important to fight. It geared up for a battle over issues and ideas that manifested itself when the Democratic Party’s platform was drafted. Except, as the convention neared, Sanders abandoned plans for floor battles at the convention. He endorsed Hillary Clinton and attempted to lend legitimacy to her campaign by nullifying many of his most fierce critiques of her record.

Now, the campaign, which gave so many Americans the confidence to fight for reforms against the power elites of the Democratic establishment, has effectively told Sanders delegates to pause their outrage. It has demanded they forsake the spirit of grassroots politics, which was a major energizer of the campaign, and sit quietly as a moment of grand opportunity passes—and all because Sanders does not want to be a scapegoat for a messy convention that Donald Trump may highlight to bolster his argument that he should be the next President of the United States.

What happened to the idea that the Sanders campaign was an alternative to status quo politics?

The Clinton campaign believes it is in the process of a “revolutionary act.” Jess McIntosh, director of communications outreach for Clinton’s campaign, said on “Democracy Now!”, “I do think it is important, in fact, for our movement to celebrate the fact that we have done something revolutionary. This week, we do something revolutionary.”

Even though electing Clinton could potentially be no different than electing someone like Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, by asking his “political revolution” to halt actions in the convention, he is giving Clinton Democrats room to devalue the meaning of struggle.

In June, Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, “I don’t think Hillary Clinton can lead a political revolution.” He insisted millions want to see the Democratic Party transform from a party of wealthy campaign contributors to a party of the middle class and the “47 million people living in poverty.” But Sanders has not made the case to his supporters that the Democratic Party has started any transformation, even with the energy of the “political revolution.”

This is why Sanders delegates are seeking ways to protest at the convention. A sizable faction of delegates want to engage in displays of defiance against a Democratic Party establishment that did everything it could every step of the way to protect Hillary Clinton from losing to Bernie Sanders. They would like to walkout of the convention after Clinton is officially nominated, however, they want to know that hundreds of other delegates will join them.

Sanders launched a political organization called Our Revolution. According to USA Today, it will “help recruit, train, and fund progressive candidates’ campaigns.” However, this is not particularly revolutionary, especially if they are all running within the Democratic Party. Multiple organizations have launched in the past to train progressive leaders.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president in the 1980s, he had the Rainbow Coalition to mobilize grassroots organizers in the electoral arena and move politics to the left. His campaign in 1984 was treated by the Democrats in a crude manner similar to how Sanders was treated in the 2016 Election. Still, Jackson was too invested in the Democratic Party to break from it, and his coalition became a liberal conduit for bringing new voices into Democratic politics.

Back in 1991, Sanders said, “What we need in this country is what Jackson calls a Rainbow Coalition, but it has to be done outside the Democratic Party.” He acknowledged that most people argue the Democratic Party is where the working class and labor unions are so everyone should work within that political party. But he argued “for millions of Americans both parties are looked upon with derision, with disrespect. Polls show that half the American people don’t even know the difference between the Republican and Democratic Party.”

Sanders suggested it was better to tell the truth that both parties are controlled by “big money.”

What has changed since 1991? Is it that Sanders has built up power and does not want to jeopardize that power? Is it that the Democratic Party is in a position where it currently has to respect him, even though it loathed everything he stood for last year?

Sanders appears to be extremely concerned about how the Democratic Party will turn him into a pariah if he does not play by their rules and support Clinton like they demand. In falling in line, he is fracturing a part of the left, which he united.

To build unity with the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, which has tremendously failed the working class and sold out the poor in the past, he risks the unity his political campaign forged among disaffected people throughout the country. He threatens the solidarity among movements, which see Clinton as toxic.

The way to beat Donald Trump is not to stifle protest inside the Democratic National Convention because one presumes it will make it easier for Trump to win on Election Day. That gives into fear and benefits the party elites, who are far more comfortable with serving corporations over the 99 percent. Rather, encouraging protest or democratic action within the convention inspires people to keep growing the “political revolution.”

A “political revolution” cannot be sustained by telling people to vote for Hillary Clinton and elect better progressive Democrats to positions in government. It cannot be sustained by encouraging surrogates and campaign organizers to limit the boundaries of acceptable protest from the grassroots. Both represent examples of politics of the status quo rather than bottom-up politics, which can truly push leaders to give into demands for change.

Officials in the Democratic Party, who have tasked Sanders with helping them create a veneer of party unity, will never endorse his democratic socialist vision. On the other hand, the very people frustrated with Sanders’ recent actions will fervently remain supportive of him if he stays true to his politics.

Perhaps, it is time for Sanders delegates to remind their candidate he taught them to stand up and fight back. He helped them believe they have the power to transform the system to be more democratic and include socialist policies, which were made popular by the Bernie Sanders campaign. The whole world is watching and the stakes are at their highest. This is the stage to struggle for a better society out in the open.

For more read Rania Khalek’s dispatch from the Democratic convention, “Ahead of Planned Walkout, Sanders Delegates Face Threats, Intimidation.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."