Despite weeks of careful negotiations and compromises between the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns, Democrats will begin their national convention in state of disarray fueled by the leaked e-mails that led to the abrupt resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
For the Sanders camp, which has accused the party chairwoman of being a divisive and biased force for several weeks, her departure is welcome news. But for the Vermont senator's supporters—who want to transform the party’s structure, culture, and policies—the news is too little, too late. The high emotions of the primary campaign had been abating, but the controversy now threatens to fan the embers back into a serious conflagration.
Nina Turner, a Sanders surrogate and former Ohio state senator, said the DNC and the Clinton campaign will have to address the controversy head-on if they want to achieve real party unity during the convention, instead of a “superficial” television moment.
“Are they sorry they got caught or are they sorry that it happened?” Turner said. “I’m still looking to hear more conversation and an outward public statement about how wrong this was.”
Despite the revelations in the leaked e-mails that DNC staffers were actively rooting for Clinton to prevail in the primary, Sanders released a statement prior to Wasserman Schultz’s resignation saying that his speech would “make it clear that Hillary Clinton is by far superior to Donald Trump on every major issue.” Regardless, he’ll be addressing a base that isn’t quite ready to embrace Clinton. Instead, many Sanders supporters will focus on the issues that drew them to his campaign, with the intention of pushing Clinton on them every day of her potential presidency.
“She could win this election, but I’m very scared that she’s shooting herself in both feet by embracing positions of oligarchs and lobbyists, and that’s what the people have an obligation to tell her,” said Josh Fox, an anti-fracking activist and documentary filmmaker who stumped for Sanders. “And I don’t think they have an obligation to vote for her unless she actually listens to them.”
Saturday’s rules committee meeting illustrated the problems that remain in unifying the party. As Clinton supporters voted down a number of amendments proposed by Sanders supporters to eliminate or dilute the role of superdelegates, a handful of hecklers inside the meeting promised there would be no unity during the week. Outside, dozens of people who were turned away from the meeting when the room reached capacity, chanted for officials to “Open the doors!” and end the superdelegate system.
Eventually, the committee passed a unity amendment, backed by both campaigns, that will set up a commission after the election to examine the entire nominating process, including the caucus system. While defending the amendment co-sponsor Wellington Webb, a Clinton backer and mayor of Denver, urged Sanders supporters to help the party present a unified front.
“As Clinton people, we’re not going to do anything to embarrass Senator Sanders when he speaks and we also hope that the Sanders people will not do anything to embarrass our presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton when she speaks,” Webb said.
However unifying the message of Sanders's speech on Monday night, Sanders himself might not be enough to deter his supporters, many of whom see themselves as not beholden to any leader. During a press conference held by a network of Sanders delegates, Progressive Democrats of America executive director Donna Smith said her organization had no plans to step down from a potential Kaine protest, and that Sanders himself encouraged them to build a movement. “We brought Bernie Sanders to this party, so to speak, and we intend to be there,” Smith said. “I think Bernie was very serious when he used the hashtag #NotMeUs. We take that seriously.”
To an extent, many Sanders supporters agree that Trump is their common enemy. “Bernie or Bust” is mostly a bust, and voting for the Green Party's presumptive nominee, Jill Stein–who has assiduously courted disappointed Sanders backers—is not seen by many as a viable option. Polls suggest that most Sanders voters plan to vote for Clinton. At the same time, they see their primary role in a Clinton presidency as that of organizers constantly pushing her to the left. While Democratic Party leaders hope to present a unified front, Sanders' grassroots will demand that she listen and change dramatically.
In the weeks leading up to the convention, high ranking Democrats have expressed frustration with Sanders supporters and their threats of protests at the convention. “I think people that do that embarrass themselves,” Representative Jim Clyburn said in an interview when asked about possible protests. “This is not a game, this is all about the future of this country, and if you’re in here to play games you oughta go find a ball park somewhere.”
Others have tried to be more welcoming. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Clinton backer and one of the most prominent opponents of several amendments at the rules committee meeting to dismantle the superdelegate system, said that Clinton would welcome Sanders supporters and their issues in office. “She will bring that perspective of progressiveness but also she will bring a listening ear to all aspects of our party,” she said.
Outside the party, Stein has tried to offer herself as an alternative activist candidate for those frustrated by the Democratic Party. At the convention, she plans to hold a march and rally Monday where she will personally make an appeal to disaffected Sanders supporters who, she said, need to feel like their work hasn’t been in vain. “You could almost say our campaign is turning out to be the place to go for burn therapy,” she said. “Not burned by Bernie but burned by the Democratic Party.”
Stein, who won less than one percent of the popular vote as the Green Party's nominee in 2012, has linked her campaign closely to Sanders’ throughout the primary season. Earlier this month, ahead of his endorsement of Clinton, she offered to stand aside and let Sanders be her party’s nominee. Since his endorsement of Clinton, however, she says she’s seen an uptick in interest and a surge in $27 donations to her campaign. Cornel West, a civil rights activist and philosophy professor who first campaigned for Sanders in January, endorsed Stein soon after the endorsement.
Stein thus far has made only modest inroads. Sanders himself has made it clear that the best way to defeat Trump, in his view, is to elect Clinton, not a third party candidate. As Trump tried to appeal to his supporters during his nomination acceptance speech, Sanders blasted the billionaire in a series of tweets. Stein, however, rejects the idea that a vote for her is a vote for Trump.
“This concept that the lesser evil is going to be a solution to the greater evil has been proven false,” Stein said in a phone interview. “The politics that tells you you have to vote against what you fear rather than for what you believe—the politics of fear has delivered everything we were afraid of.”
Stein has yet to significantly gain ground in the polls—averaging four percent in the RealClearPolitics average—and many Sanders voters have indicated they will only support her in situations where they’re sure it won’t help Trump. “I personally, being registered in Massachusetts, could cast a vote for Jill Stein, but if I were registered in the state of Texas I would not be voting for Jill Stein,” said Winnie Wong, a co-founder of the grassroots Sanders group People for Bernie. “We’re spending our time over the next five months making sure people understand what’s at stake.”
Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, estimates that about 90 percent of Sanders supporters are so concerned about Trump that they will support Clinton and work to defeat him. But they're not going to feign enthusiasm.
“Hillary, to many of the Sanders movement, is a very imperfect vehicle for the values and the issues that we’re fighting for,” he said.
How actively Sanders’ grassroots support her will depend on how well she and the Democratic establishment embrace his message. It will also be up to the Sanders campaign and groups like DFA to make clear that Clinton “is the future of that party for now,” he said.
Sanders, along with other progressive politicians like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley, will make a similar case on Monday night. But his supporters will likely think back to his stump speech, when he emphasized that change comes from the bottom on up, not the top down.
“If you take a look at what our legislative bodies on the federal level have done over the last eight years it’s virtually nothing in terms of our people’s agenda,” he said. But an enormous amount has been accomplished by activists, he said, and that’s reflected in the Democratic party platform’s language on climate change and a $15 an hour minimum wage. “If it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the White House we are going to be protesting, we know that.”