PHILADELPHIA – No one ever accused the political Left of being intellectually consistent, but the cognitive dissonance on display this week at the Democratic National Convention takes it to a new level. Depending on which speaker you were listening to on which day, America today is either the greatest country in the world or a grotesque oligarchy stuck in a decades-long decline.
On Monday night, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren warned of the plight of the middle class and the dark days ahead unless we have a political revolution that ushers in European-style socialism. By contrast, Michelle Obama gave a moving tribute to American progress, delivering one of the best lines of political rhetoric in recent memory: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” In a shot aimed at Donald Trump, she said, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.” Someone should tell Bernie.
The First Lady might have meant those lines for Trump, but they exposed the Democratic Party’s predicament as clearly as the booing Sanders delegates have done every night of the convention so far. Is America getting better or is it getting worse? Depends on which Democrat you ask.
On Tuesday night, Bill Clinton made it clear he’s in the optimistic camp, which makes sense. After all, if the American middle class is in the throes of a 40-year decline, as Sanders claimed, that would include the administration of Bill Clinton. The DNC wanted to be clear: you should associate the Clintons with good times. So it made a video introduction for Bill that was an extended paean to the Clinton era’s booming economy of the 1990s. Millions of jobs created! Millions of new homeowners! Millions of acres of forests protected! Unions! We never had it so good.
For his part, the Big Dog didn’t disappoint. Much of his speech was a sentimental stroll down memory lane, year by year. How he met Hillary, how she inspired his interest in public service, how she’s been making the country better since the early 1970s. “This woman has never been satisfied with the status quo in anything, she always wants to move things forward,” he said, with feeling. “That’s just who she is.”
It wasn’t just Bill’s very long speech. The whole evening was a celebration of progress under Hillary’s dogged devotion and hard work. According to the DNC’s official narrative, her entire political career has been a story of progress, for her and the nation. Now a major political party has nominated her for president—a woman! It doesn’t get any more progressive than that! So speaker after speaker dutifully praised the Democratic Party and its nominee for the historic achievement. Yay progress.
But not everyone joined in the celebration. Earlier in the evening, after a roll call of states that ended with Sanders himself making the motion to nominate Clinton, Sanders delegates walked out. Some of them had threatened to do it on Monday, but denied there was any organization or agreement beforehand. Even after they walked out, they claimed it was spontaneous.
In any case, they walked directly over to the media tent next to the stadium and staged a sit-in, which the media was happy to cover. The ones who couldn’t get inside the tent amassed outside, waving signs and chanting and giving interviews for the cameras. Later, the Green Party’s candidate Jill Stein showed up and then they all walked over to the much larger protests underway at FDR Park, where Sanders supporters have gathered every night since Sunday.
You Say You Want A Revolution
What the DNC hoped would be an historic night focused on uniting around the nominee instead highlighted the deep philosophical schism in the Democratic Party. There’s no getting around it: millions of Democrats have a dark, pessimistic view of the country. They’re angry and they want a revolution, not four more years of the Obama administration under Clinton.
“We’re sick of incrementalism!” one riled-up activist told me earlier in the day at a demonstration outside City Hall. She had traveled to Philadelphia all the way from Dallas, Texas, to protest Clinton and express solidarity with Sanders, which she did in part by wearing a “Bernie Fucking Sanders” T-shirt. “Incrementalism just means going along with the corporate, rigged system, and we’re done with that,” she said. Like most Sanders supporters I’ve talked to, she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but feels disillusioned and betrayed. In November, she plans to vote for Jill Stein.
Another activist, who runs a Facebook page with more than 30,000 followers called “Bernie or Bust the DNC,” and who drove here from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, told me there’s no way Sanders supporters could vote for Clinton in light of the DNC email scandal. The email hack—“leak” isn’t quite the right word given the strong evidence of Russian involvement—has revealed the extent to which DNC staff worked to undermine the Sanders campaign and ensure a Clinton victory.
“How could we support her and keep our integrity?” the Bernie or Bust guy said. “Everything we suspected about her and about the party turned out to be true. And now they want us to fall in line? I don’t think so.”
Not that I was surprised to hear it, but he’s also planning to vote for Stein.