Philadelphia—It would be a mistake to pay too much attention to DemExit—the #BernieorBust tendency’s threatened walkout from the Democratic Party. Yesterday I kept hearing how Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator and a powerful Sanders surrogate, had been “ejected” from the convention. Yet there she was, back inside the Wells Fargo Center that same evening. It does seem that Turner, who has still not endorsed Hillary Clinton, was not allowed to second Sanders’s nomination on Tuesday. But giving a speaker who hasn’t endorsed the party’s nominee a national television audience is the kind of amateur move the Trump campaign made when it handed the podium in Cleveland to Ted Cruz. And no one has ever accused the Clintons of being amateurs.
The “dramatic walk-out” of Sanders delegates on Tuesday night amounted to, at most, 200 people, many of whom were not actually delegates. (I was in the hallway outside interviewing people from Labor for Bernie—none of whom walked out—and didn’t actually see the walkout. Most media accounts put the numbers in the “dozens.”) Which meant that at least 90 percent of Sanders delegates remained in their seats.
Yet despite last night’s love feast, it would be an even bigger, perhaps fatal, mistake to assume either that the Democrats are a unified party or that the wounds of a bruising primary campaign were magically healed by Sanders on Monday—or by the many speakers since, from the president on down, who have given Democrats permission to keep “feeling the Bern.” There are two groups in particular who remain outside the Clinton circle of love—and who, in the tight race this is going to become, the Democrats ignore at their peril.
The first is millennials. “The Democratic establishment just doesn’t understand where young people are at,” said Waleed Shahid, a young organizer with the Working Families Party. “They don’t understand that the status quo has failed.”
For an older generation, the leaked DNC e-mails just confirmed what we’d already known: The party establishment had its thumb on the scales for Clinton. Nothing to see here. Move right along. But the younger Sanders supporters I talked to were just as upset by the evidence they provided of a party selling itself to corporations and the wealthy—a dependence underlined by the corporate logos on view everywhere inside the arena.
“This feels more like the WWF [World Wrestling Federation] than a political event,” said Leslie Lee, a young writer and activist from Leesburg, Virginia, who also railed at the way the media framed the protestors as “these privileged white people with weird clothes.”
“I met a single mother who drove from Florida through the night with her daughter to be here to protest,” said Lee. “And you’ve got thousands of reporters covering what is basically a TV show—and almost no one at the #BlackLivesMatter march in the same city on the same day.”
Lee, who coined the hashtag #BernieMadeMeWhite, is still angry at the way “black and brown Sanders supporters keep being written out of the story. And not just us. The most vitriolic critics of Hillary Clinton I’ve met have been women who looked just like her.” Lee feels his generation of activists, instead of being taken seriously, have been mocked—he pointed to a Slate photo feature of crying Sanders supporters with snarky captions—and rejected by the Democrats. And he’s ready to return the favor. “There’s only so many times you can vote for war.”
Unlike Lee, Linda Sarsour will vote for Clinton. The Brooklyn-born Muslim activist—and prominent Sanders surrogate—told me, “I’d rather hold Hillary Clinton accountable that try to hold Donald Trump accountable.” Yet she, too, was dismayed by the way the Democrats appeared to take her generation—and her community—for granted. “The Democrats criticized Ted Cruz for saying he wanted surveillance of American Muslims. They say #BlackLivesMatter. And here they are giving the platform to Michael Bloomberg, the defender of stop-and-frisk—whose police department spied on Muslim neighborhoods.”
When I asked Leslie Lee which issues were uppermost among the millennials he knows, his response surprised me: “TPP and getting money out of politics.” Which are both issues where, at least in theory, Clinton has already pledged her agreement.
For labor, in particular, the question is how much Clinton’s promises are worth. The night the Bernie-or-Busters staged their walkout, I talked to Rand Wilson, spokesman for Labor for Bernie, who described himself as DemEnter. “I joined the Democratic Party to elect Bernie. But I also joined to stop Donald Trump.”
Labor for Bernie has over 250 delegates from 37 states on their list—and many more not formally enrolled. None of them walked out on Tuesday. But that doesn’t mean they’re Ready for Hillary either. “I disagreed with the walkout. Union people tend to be able to do math. We knew the score.”
Wilson, who is from Somerville, Massachusetts, was state coordinator of the fight against NAFTA in the 1990s. “I saw the way the Clinton administration used sticks and carrots to bring around members of congress we didn’t think would flip.” For him the platform committee’s failure to produce a plank opposing the TPP—a position supposedly favored by both Clinton and Sanders—only added to the difficulties he expects the Democrats to have with union members.
“There’s a lot of workers out there already listening to Trump,” Wilson said. “He keeps saying these things about trade and TPP, trying to peel workers away from Clinton.” And that was before Terry McAuliffe, who succeeded Tim Kaine as governor of Virginia, told Politico that after the election he was sure Clinton would flip back to supporting the trade pact. The Clinton campaign issued an immediate denial. And McAuliffe himself tried to walk back his comments yesterday. But, as he said, he’s known both Clintons for half a century, and the damage has already been done.
So Hillary Clinton has a big mountain to climb tonight. She has to introduce herself to a country that already believes it knows her—and, frankly, doesn’t like her very much. And which, according to the latest polls, finds her less trustworthy than Donald Trump.
She has to thread the tricky needle of sustaining the “morning in America” vibe of Obama’s speech—while acknowledging all of those still in darkness. (I couldn’t help noticing that even among her own delegates last night the most prized souvenirs were the Obama signs. Thanks to a kindly Welshman I got one in the end, but there were still hundreds of Clinton signs littering the arena floor when I left.)
But she also has to find a way, if not to reel in all of the young Sanders supporters, then to put out markers towards a path of reconciliation. And to convince the young idealists who, after all, represent the future of the Democratic Party, that she’ll be an ally, not an obstacle, in weaning the party from its addiction to corporate cash and the resulting politics of triangulation. Last night was all about an opening to Republicans—an opportunity that, thanks to Trump, any Democrat would have been foolish to ignore. But she needs to make the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party feel she really is one of them. And she needs to show millennials that she’s listened, and learned, and that she (unlike the Wasserman Schultz DNC) doesn’t view them with contempt.
Finally, she needs to find a way to speak to the white working class—especially men. In a convention which has been a veritable jamboree—I’m tempted to say a “rainbow coalition”—of the previously excluded and disadvantaged, there has been precious little for working men to latch on to. Jesse Jackson was a champion for civil rights when Hillary Clinton was still a Goldwater Girl. And a champion of gay rights when she opposed gay marriage—and when her husband signed the Defense of Marriage Act. And an eloquent analyst of the economic basis of women’s oppression.
But Jackson also knew he had a hill to climb with white workers—and put in hours and days and years walking picket lines and speaking at factory gates. He knew he had to earn their trust, and that it would take work and time—and he put in the work and time.
It’s never been clear (to put it mildly) that Hillary Clinton really gets economic inequality. Or the festering wound of class in America. She and her husband have always talked about people who “work hard and play by the rules,” without a lot of attention to how the game is rigged. In the past that hasn’t mattered—in part because no one else talked much about it either. But thanks to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, we’re talking about it now—with Trump parroting their language. If Hillary Clinton is going to “defeat Donald Trump, and defeat him badly,” she’s going to have to find a way not just to talk about it, but to convince us that she means it. That she “gets it.” And she doesn’t have a whole lot of time.