Philadelphia — While protesters marched the downtown streets here Monday, decrying the presidential nomination system as rigged and nominee Hillary Clinton as corrupt, officials took the stage at the opening of the Democratic National Convention a few miles south and proclaimed, one by one, the virtues of a unified party.
The words didn’t always match the reality on the ground — in the street, or event in the halls of the Wells Fargo Center.
Day 1 at the convention, which took place at the center, bore out all of the passionate, substantive, sometimes contradictory, and always captivating debates that have roiled the Democratic Party this presidential cycle.
The Official Version
The party is stronger than ever, official speakers contended, in its historical mission to represent the interests of all Americans, especially the least privileged. “We have always been the party of the hard working, the voiceless, and the downtrodden,” Maine State Rep. Diane Russell declared early on in the proceedings, her arms held high in excitement and invitation.
The party is stronger than ever, they contended, in its embrace of what former NAACP-Chairman and current Bernie Sanders surrogate Ben Jealous described as the “most progressive platform in the history of this party.”
“To college students drowning in debt, join us at the ballot box,” he implored. “To communities suffering from mass incarceration and murder, join us at the ballot box. To those hard working families who feel that special type of pain when they realize their family can’t survive on an hourly wage of $7.25, join us at the ballot box.”
Most importantly for Democratic Party leaders looking to salve the wounds of a surprisingly contentious primary contest, the party is stronger than ever because former presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were now working together to help bring about a more just and equitable society, unified in support of Clinton’s nomination after a bruising primary season. To defeat Donald Trump. “Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are our champions,” former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb proclaimed. “And they both deserve our cheers.”
The Other Version
For the first hour or so of the convention Monday, a significant number of Bernie Sanders supporters in attendance put the lie to this projected image of unity.
They scoffed at the rules committee’s proposal to limit the number of superdelegates involved in future primary contests. They chanted over the chairman of the platform committee’s opening remarks with protestations against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). And they cheered enthusiastically whenever a speaker paid homage to their candidate’s primary victories and lasting ideological impact on the direction of the party.
Over the course of the evening portion of the schedule, prime-time speakers highlighting the many ways that the party platform had integrated ideas central to the Sanders campaign, room a higher minimum wage to expanded environmental regulations to plans to reduce college debt. Those cheers and jeers from earlier in the evening began to blend into the supportive sounds of that ideal pushed by the organizers of the convention from the very start: party unity.
This transition from vocal outrage to jubilant acceptance came across as a bit too smooth to convince at least this observer. While the evening’s speakers had indeed gone to great length to demonstrate the extent to which the party establishment had listened to and tried to incorporate the progressive ideals of the Sanders campaign, one fundamental principle went nearly unmentioned: campaign finance reform.
If the Sanders campaign identified gross economic inequality as the most important problem bedeviling American society today, then the foremost cudgel it identified in attacking that problem was campaign finance reform: overturning the Supreme Court Citizens United decision overturning reform laws, limiting the amount of special interest money used to prop up candidates in state and federal elections, and subsequently empowering anyone looking to better their community to run for office regardless of the financial resources they have at their disposal.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders received loud whoops of applause when they mentioned overturning Citizens United in their respective speeches before the convention Monday Night. But the issue of campaign finance reform was barely mentioned by any of the previous speakers during the first seven and a half hours of the convention. I believe the first speaker of the night to even mention the 2010 Supreme Court decision was Sarah Silverman, a comedian and Bernie Sanders supporter who shared the stage with U.S. Sen. Al Franken before introducing singer Paul Simon.
After the final speech of the night, I caught up with New Haven State Sen. Gary Winfield of Newhallville, who was in attendance at the convention as a Sanders delegate.
“[Sanders] did everything you hoped he would do,” Winfield said, praising the Vermont senator’s closing speech for its full-throated defense of the candidate’s progressive ideals while still calling for party unity behind Hillary Clinton and against Donald Trump.
But he too noted a disturbing absence of discussion around what he sees as the most important issue of the election: campaign finance reform. Winfield endorsed Sanders early in this year’s primary season—and he identified campaign finance reform as a central reason.
“The other issues are ones that we as a party are more comfortable talking about,” he said. “But it’s a serious misstep to leave out such a critical issue. We have to deal with Citizens United first if we want to accomplish anything else [in the party platform].”
It’ll be interesting to see if a party swept up in calls of both protest and unity feels the same way about this issue, which has been so central to a campaign the Democratic Party claims to have assimilated without a hitch.