My favorite line from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is when President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) breaks up a scuffle between the Soviet ambassador and an Army general, and exclaims, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!” In Philadelphia on Day One of the Democratic Convention, I found the same incredulousness coursing through my Twitter feed. To paraphrase President Muffley: “Gentleman, you can’t have politics breaking out in here, this is a political convention!”
Since major-party conventions gradually morphed from business gatherings into made-for-TV infomercials, partisans have feared politics breaking out the way a child fears the dark. They repeat the mantra of party unity, dread that the media will play up any tension, get queasy at how an untactful chant at the wrong time in July might lose an election in November.
That wasn’t always the case. After Nancy Pelosi herself was drowned out by chants of “Bernie, Bernie!” at Monday’s California delegation breakfast, she calmly explained to the media her formative experiences at Democratic conventions. “In 1976, I came [to the convention] as a Jerry Brown delegate, we thought we were going to oust the nomination from Jimmy Carter,” Pelosi said. “In 1980, Ted Kennedy came, thought he was going to do that as well. In ’84, Gary Hart had a big contingent in San Francisco. So this is nothing new. People get excited about the campaigns that they’re in.”
That excitement, even that disagreement, is a sign of vibrancy within a political coalition. The Democratic Party had a cathartic moment yesterday, an open debate between family members with real differences of opinion. It was predictably difficult, because it sprung from a real place. It mirrored life because politics mirrors life. And it shouldn’t be hushed up and buried, but embraced. Because the way to be “stronger together” is to start by being honest and true.
To be clear, a media chasing the familiar storyline of “Democrats in disarray” decided to overinflate the level of tension. The defining image for me on Monday was a Bernie Sanders supporter and Hillary Clinton supporter in heated discussion, while 30 reporters and cameramen huddled around them. I must have seen that 10 times. Conventions are a target-rich environment for activists seeking attention, and the endless repetition of news reports of particularly angry dissenters on social media expands the distortion like a balloon. Picking out the loudest and angriest person in a room full of thousands is not journalism, it’s a card trick.
But most of the conversations I actually heard were civil. They allowed people to at least hear each other’s perspective, even if they didn’t reach agreement. In other words, it was a surge of democracy in the Democratic Party.
When the convention proceedings began in the afternoon, Bernie delegates indeed began shouting for their candidate, from the invocation on forward. But after honorary convention chair Marcia Fudge gave the disruptors the business (“I will respect you, now you be respectful to me!”), the crowd settled down. Chanting was limited for most of the program, though the media managed to meticulously gauge the precise extent of boos—and booers—for each speaker.
Sanders delegates saw the convention floor as a venue for personal expression rather than sublimation. You can see that as juvenile or reflective of passion, depending on your perspective. They wanted explicit language in the platform rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But the platform passed without incident; the story I got was that no state party chair would introduce an amendment to add anti-TPP language in, as the rules require. Delegates brought in homemade signs supporting their candidate or issue, and when convention organizers confiscated them under threat of revoking credentials, and handed them approved messages, a few delegates remixed them (“Love Trumps Hate” became “Love Bernie or Trump Wins”).
The one time things reared out of control in the evening session, as back-and-forth chanting swelled during a rather uninspired improvised bit with Senator Al Franken, comedian and Bernie backer Sarah Silverman got real: “Can I just say, to the Bernie or Bust people, you’re being ridiculous!”
So yes, Day One in Philadelphia was unsettled. It was not the antiseptic, polished jewel that allegedly makes the archetypal convention. But Monday in Philadelphia had something mostly absent from these events: human emotion. Bernie supporters actually care about their candidate. (So do Hillary’s—their cheers eventually drowned out any boos.) Anti-TPP Democrats—and that’s most of them—actually care about stopping that policy. Aren’t these displays better than a passionless alternative?
Borrowing from Dumbledore of Harry Potter fame, Sanders supporter and Maine state Senator Diane Russell, who gave one of the best speeches of the day, said, “It takes great courage to stand up to your enemies, it takes even greater courage to stand up to your friends.” All night long, the best speakers—from Hillary supporter Wellington Webb to Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison to Russell—acknowledged the party’s fissures instead of reading rote applause lines, uniting the factions through honesty. And as Russell pointed out, this passion has led to real gains for progressives, in the platform, in the party rules, in the role of the left in the party structure. “It may be hard, and believe me it may be messy, but ladies and gentlemen, this is what democracy looks like!”
More than anything, people responded to liberal ideas spoken by liberal leaders in a liberal party. When Franken invoked Paul Wellstone, he got one of the biggest cheers of the night. When Michelle Obama invoked values of inclusion and opportunity for her young daughters, playing with their dog on the White House lawn in “a house built by slaves,” the audience was transfixed. When Elizabeth Warren explained that special interests rely on distracted and divided Americans, the crowd roared with approval. And when Bernie Sanders reached the podium, the applause lasted for six minutes.
“Election days come and go,” Sanders shouted (as usual). “But the struggle of the people to create a government which represents all of us and not just the 1 percent —a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice—that struggle continues.” The passage recalled Ted Kennedy’s 1980 address (“the work goes on and the dream shall never die”) but without the rancor, as Sanders offered unequivocal support for Hillary Clinton, the winner of the primary and, come today, the nominee of the party.
“It is no secret that Hillary Clinton and I disagree on a number of issues,” Sanders acknowledged. “That’s what this campaign has been about. That’s what democracy is about.” That can be painful, but when parties push away debate, attempt to anesthetize their base voters, weed out principle, our democracy loses its force. Democracy is not something to be afraid of.
Referring to Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama said, “When she didn’t win the nomination eight years ago, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned. Hillary knows that this is so much bigger than her own desires or disappointments.”
The Sanders delegates—so many of them new to politics—are working through that process, in piercing ways that can make the rest of us wince. But who knows? One of them might grow up to become speaker of the House, and will one day tell the press about being a 2016 delegate for Bernie Sanders, who was going to change the world. Disappointment can either breed resentment or determination. On Monday, we began to see the former transform into the latter.