The Turning of Backs

Suddenly Jill Stein, Green Party Presidential candidate, arrived at the tent, whether informed of or anticipating the walkout it was hard to say. She told the crowd that they weren’t walking out, they were walking in (to the Green Party!). This excited some delegates—who chanted “Jill, not Hill!”—and alienated many others, who did not appreciate her co-optation of this captive audience. Once it became clear that many of the delegates wanted to leave—either to return to the arena to see the Mothers of the Movement, or to join comrades in the adjoining Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, a meeting ground for protesters—a golf cart drove up out of nowhere, Stein stepped in, and the candidate was whisked away.

Day Two of the Democratic National Convention

“Dear Bernie 2016 delegate,” the letter began, printed unceremoniously in Helvetica, on printer paper without a letterhead. “During this convention you represent not just the 13.3 million who voted for our campaign. You also represent the future of our movement.” The letter went on to explain that “booing, turning of backs, walking out or other similar displays” would damage the credibility of the movement. The letter asked that “as a personal courtesy to me,” delegates “not engage in any kind of protest or demonstration on the convention floor,” signed, “in solidarity,” Bernie Sanders.

The letter was handed out at the Wisconsin, Alaska, and Montana delegation breakfast on Tuesday morning at the Marriott downtown. Before Sanders himself arrived, Tom Harkin, the rumpled and shambling former senator from Iowa (and self-described “Bernie Sanders of his time,” because of his modestly progressive stance and neglectful personal appearance), gave a speech name-checking FDR and trumpeting the importance of the progressive movement before switching to a cautionary mode. He recalled being a disillusioned Vietnam veteran who went “clean for Gene” McCarthy—“the Bernie Sanders of his time!”—and cited the 1968 convention as a dispiriting rebuke to his movement. “I think we didn’t work as hard as we could have to elect Hubert Humphrey,” he said, staring down at the podium. “Think how much better this country would have been without eight years of Richard Nixon!” he then cried, to cheers.

Sanders entered to a standing ovation. To the crowd of fifty or sixty people, he spoke more combatively than he had to the crowd of thousands the night before. He listed defeating Trump and electing Hillary Clinton as the primary goals of the coming months, before more enthusiastically declaring the need to put into office “at every level of government, politicians who represent working people.” He introduced his post-campaign initiative, Our Movement, which promised to marshal the many thousands of volunteer emails and phone numbers accumulated by his campaign and put it to work on precisely this task. As he left, the delegates stood once again. “Thank you, Bernie!” some shouted.

With first-day jitters and uncertainty behind them, and with Sanders attempting gamely to manage his delegation, the Democrats seemed prepared to carry out the scripted nomination process without incident. But the warm reception at the Wisconsin delegation breakfast was unrepresentative. When Bernie made a surprise appearance at the California delegation shortly after, his attempt to rally support for Clinton was met with boos. (“It’s easy to boo,” Sanders said, “but it’s harder to look your kids in the face who would be living under Donald Trump.”) His delegates, unmoored from the campaign, were already seeking other ways to make their frustrations with the Democrats heard, but with little direction, and, according to some, not much understanding of the process.

I spoke with Ben Becker, a delegate from San Francisco, who explained that the campaign had only assigned one staffer to work with the California delegates—all 221 one of them—and that this staffer was, in his opinion, “kind of an asshole.” Becker had held fundraisers for Sanders uncoordinated with the campaign (pinned to his lapel was a Saturday Night Fever–style pin that said “Bern Baby Bern,” the name of the fundraisers), and said it was unclear whether the campaign would file a minority plank to bring platform proposals to the floor. It was subsequently a surprise when it didn’t—despite the absence of any reference to opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example. The more experienced Sanders delegates had only attended more harmonious Conventions, in 2008 and 2012, so their knowledge of the formalities was minimal. Denied any procedural recourse, there could only be some boos and fierce cheers for Sanders over Clinton, as there were on the first night. Though Becker would stay for the duration of Tuesday’s proceedings following the roll call vote—turning his back while Bill Clinton spoke—many members of his delegation walked out.

I missed the vote and the walkout (I was several miles north, following a Black Lives Matter–affiliated protest), but Pennsylvania Sanders delegates recounted the events to me: It began in an unplanned manner, with delegates texting each other on the floor and proposing a walkout—something that kept it from being discovered in advance, but which also led, they said, to disorganization. After the acclamation confirmed Clinton as the nominee, the delegates who walked—they claimed there were hundreds—left the arena floor, chanting “Black Lives Matter!” in acknowledgment of the Mothers of the Movement soon to speak, while apparently some people in the arena hallway responded, unnervingly, “All lives matter!” They arrived at the media tent and occupied it, only to be barricaded instantly by police. Some delegates wanted to return to the arena, but couldn’t leave. Others wanted to enter the tent, but were blocked.

Suddenly Jill Stein, Green Party Presidential candidate, arrived at the tent, whether informed of or anticipating the walkout it was hard to say. She told the crowd that they weren’t walking out, they were walking in (to the Green Party!). This excited some delegates—who chanted “Jill, not Hill!”—and alienated many others, who did not appreciate her co-optation of this captive audience. Once it became clear that many of the delegates wanted to leave—either to return to the arena to see the Mothers of the Movement, or to join comrades in the adjoining Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, a meeting ground for protesters—a golf cart drove up out of nowhere, Stein stepped in, and the candidate was whisked away. One delegate I spoke to said the route toward FDR Park was barred by the police, who claimed the exit was blocked from the other side by tens of thousands of angry protesters. They were corralled instead into the nearest subway stop. From there, some went to City Hall to join the Black Lives Matter protest, and others slightly north, so that they could walk back to the park.

What now for the movement? Delegates I spoke to want to continue putting pressure on Clinton and Kaine about the TPP. (Governor Terry McAuliffe, who spoke after the successful nomination of Clinton, gave an interview yesterday suggesting Clinton would likely “flip” on the issue, returning to supporting it.) Whether it indicated some larger exodus from the Party was unclear. Becker indicated that he was not a Democrat—he had always voted Green—and that most of the delegates didn’t really identify with the Party. At the breakfast, few stood when Senator Barbara Boxer came to give a valedictory speech, and the only applause line for the Sanders supporters came when California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a slick speaker with a twinkly smile, spoke unequivocally of his support for a single-payer healthcare system. For his part, Sanders announced he would return to the Senate as an independent. “We need a DNC which has a very different direction,” he said. “I honestly don’t know many of the people there.”

I arrived at the Wells Fargo Center with the idea that the evening would be centered around Black Lives Matter, given the scheduled appearance of the Mothers of the Movement. When they spoke, the dignity of it was undeniable: it was searing to hear Trayvon Martin’s mother call herself an “unwilling participant in this movement.” She stood on stage willingly, but not happily; this would not be her fight had her child not been killed. But the mothers’ speeches were strangely sandwiched—exposing, yet again, the schizophrenia of the Party, its ideological “non-ideology” of inclusiveness—as one speaker after another praised the police and first responders. Eric Holder, magnanimous sparer of the banksters, arrived to assure everyone that keeping “officers safe is not inconsistent with ensuring that those in law enforcement treat the people they are sworn to serve with dignity, respect, and fairness.” The sentiment was true, but the reconciliation was decidedly imperfect, a typical Democratic feint in which every circle can be squared (or triangulated). At other moments, the dissonance was, suffice it to say, difficult to ignore—as when Joe Sweeney, an NYPD first responder on September 11, entered the stage to “Live and Let Die.”

There remained only one Democratic figure narcissistic and room-swallowing enough to expel the nastiness of the preceding hours and days, and the rest of the evening was spent waiting for him, as Elizabeth Banks’s jokes smacked flat, like dominoes, one after the other. In preparation for Bill Clinton’s speech, the seats on the floor still empty of Sanders delegates were filled by people who appeared to have volunteer credentials. (Since Monday, many volunteers in the Sanders camp I have spoken to have been stripped of their credentials.) Volunteers handed out large banner flags emblazoned with the word AMERICA; the DNC had taken a cue from Budweiser. When Clinton arrived to speak, the genius of the stupid banner became obvious. He wove a long, shamelessly sentimental story that in some sense everyone already knew: the story of the Clinton family, told as the story of AMERICA in the late 20th century.

His trademark long, wagging finger appearing, somehow, longer than before, practically visible from the hall seats high in the arena, he told us how Hillary came from “a perfect example of post-World War II middle-class America: street after street of nice houses, great schools, good parks, a big public swimming pool, and almost all white.” But she (and Bill) would take us to a world where they could look West Virginia “coal miners in the eye and say I’m down here because Hillary sent me to tell you that if you really think you can get the economy back you had fifty years ago, have at it, vote for whoever you want to. But if she wins, she is coming back for you to take you along on the ride to America’s future.” The implication was that public services and schools and parks would be worse, jobs would be scarce, but that you would be, excitingly, taken for a ride—maybe on a private bus!

I lost any feel I had for the trademark Clinton charisma long ago, but the sense of the Clinton family as a royal family, inextricable from some national myth, was overpowering. Hillary Clinton had taken the New York seat once held by “that other outsider [i.e. non-New Yorker], Robert Kennedy”—from the other royal American family—and like Bobby, Hillary was never in any real way an “outsider,” a fact Bill made clear by name-checking practically every region in the country; it seemed as Hillary had worked in all of them. Chelsea Clinton’s beaming, toothy smile flashed across the arena, and I realized I had watched her grow up practically every year of her life. When Bill called Hillary the “greatest change maker I know,” the signs made for the occasion went up on cue, and the gassy phrase brought back the ’90s to me in a flood, calling forth all that other Clinton-era phraseology, like synergy and symbolic analysts and sunset jobs. (Cannily, Bill skirted Hillary’s record on trade in the Senate.) No other political figure, no other family, has held such sway over the country. To think of all the Hollywood films and TV shows in which were not-so-secretly about Bill Clinton: Dave, The American President, Primary Colors, possibly Independence Day, certainly Wag the Dog, and definitely The West Wing. The Obamas may possess envy-inducing perfection, but the Clintons—“in good times and bad, through joy and heartbreak”—have become inescapably the ruling family, as central to the American imaginary as the Nehru-Gandhis to India. When Bill concluded, saying our “children and grandchildren will bless you forever” if we elect Hillary, I had an image not of any progeny of my own, but rather one unending line of Clintons: stretching out into the future like the sons of Banquo, holding sway over the country ’til the end.

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