PHILADELPHIA — Norman Solomon, the veteran left-wing activist, is good at his job. He knows there are thousands of reporters in Philadelphia eager to write stories about restive Sanders delegates at the convention. So he formed a group of restive Sanders delegates, the Bernie Delegates Network, and is staging a press conference each morning on their behalf at the Marriott in downtown Philadelphia.
The actual Bernie Sanders campaign, which at this point really just wants to have a nice convention and help Democrats win in November, has nothing to do with this group, which is here to make trouble.
The complaint of the day at Solomon’s press conference was that alleged DNC shenanigans had allegedly stopped Sanders delegates from entering into nomination a progressive alternative to Tim Kaine as vice president.
But the most interesting thing Solomon said actually had nothing to do with procedural wrangling. It was an observation about the difference between an activist and a politician — a difference that does a lot to explain the tensions simmering beneath the surface at the convention.
Bernie’s delegates aren’t all that into party politics — and it shows
Activists, as Solomon tells it, have "the privilege or maybe the obligation" to simply tell the truth. But politicians play a more complicated game.
For instance, Solomon thinks it makes sense to vote for Clinton in November to beat Donald Trump. "I don’t understand the rationale for Jill Stein campaigning in swing states," he said. "I find it abhorrent."
But he has basically nothing good to say about Clinton and thinks those on the left who do — like Elizabeth Warren — are knowingly whitewashing her real record. "Elizabeth Warren was, shall we say, a little bit excessively inclined to praise Hillary Clinton," he says. For example, he referred to a 2004 video in which Warren, then an activist on bankruptcy issues, slammed Hillary Clinton for flip-flopping on the issue.
Many of Bernie Sanders’s delegates come out of this activist camp. They may want Hillary Clinton to win. But unlike Elizabeth Warren (or at least Solomon’s conception of Warren), they’re not willing to fake a rousing round of applause for her that they don’t really mean.
Why Sanders delegates aren’t like normal convention delegates
Every modern political convention features thousands of delegates. And traditionally, a candidate’s slate of delegates from a given state will draw heavily from the ranks of local politicians and politician-aligned interest groups.
For example, in Washington, DC, Hillary Clinton’s delegates include the mayor, a couple of members of the DC council, an ex-council member currently serving in the mayor’s Cabinet, and so forth.
As a website for Sanders supporters explains: "Delegates are often party activists, local political leaders, or early supporters of a given candidate. ... Delegates can also include members of a campaign's steering committee. In some cases, delegates are long-time active members of their local party organization."
But while this is an excellent description of Clinton’s delegates, it does not describe Sanders’s delegates at all. As one longtime Massachusetts Democratic Party hack observed, Clinton’s delegates were almost all people he recognized from party politics. Sanders’s were not.
There are a few reasons for this. The vast majority of elected officials around the country were supporting Clinton — which means they are disproportionately found among Clinton delegates. In addition, many pro-Sanders types seem to have been reluctant to stand as Sanders delegates for fear of angering Clinton.
Last but by no means least, Sanders appears to have been inattentive to this matter. Sanders, after all, appointed Cornel West — a distinguished scholar but also an embittered Obama hater with no institutional ties to the Democratic Party — to the platform committee, where he made trouble at a couple of meetings and then predictably endorsed Jill Stein.
The result is that Sanders has literally brought into the party tend a bunch of activist types who don’t have the disposition or values of politicians. And it shows during the convention.
Activist values and conventions are a poor match
No angry Sanders delegates I’ve spoken to over the course of Monday and Tuesday can really offer a coherent theory for why it’s important to make noise at the convention. Nobody thinks they’re one "No TPP!" chant away from Clinton stepping aside in Sanders’s favor, and they all understand that Sanders himself has clearly and repeatedly asked them to knock it off.
Certainly they don’t want Clinton to lose — I’ve yet to find a "Bernie or Bust"-er among the lot. At the same time, they also concede that convention disruptions reflect poorly on Clinton and marginally reduce her chances of winning.
It all seems bizarre — until you realize that, as Solomon said, activists are here to speak truth to power.
Teva Gabis-Levine is one of two designated "whips" for Sanders among the state’s delegates. He acknowledges that he was one of the earliest to hear Monday afternoon that Bernie wanted him to get people in line. But he just didn’t do it.
"In my capacity as whip I chose not to pass that information along," Gabis-Levine says. He thought people had a right to "express themselves."
But this influx of activists could also be a boon to Democrats
This influx of people who aren’t really party people into the party organization has been an annoyance Hillary Clinton and other Democratic Party elected officials this week. And it’s a real problem for them.
At the Republican convention in Cleveland, many of the delegates were dedicated Republican Party people. Even if they didn’t have Trump as their first choice — and even if elites were still split — the delegates overwhelmingly got behind him.
Democrats have the opposite situation — a unified party elite whose left-wing factional leaders can’t make their delegates follow them.
Still, uncomfortable though the situation may have been Monday night, it could also be a boon to the party in the longer term. Bringing new people into the party — if they stick around and become politicians rather than simply getting bored and annoyed — would give it new vitality and new reach. Change, in that case, will have been a hassle but a worthwhile one.
The question for Sanders is whether he can encourage the kind of deeper engagement with the party that he needs for his faction to gain strength and power. The narrow focus on whom to vote for in November is understandable given the circumstances of the moment. But there’s genuinely broad agreement among Bernie people that Clinton is preferable to Trump. The real question facing them is the exact one that Sanders himself faced before embarking on his presidential quest — does he want to be on the inside of the Democratic Party or the outside?
Sanders, personally, became much more powerful by going inside. If his followers do too, the same may happen to them.