Democracy & Government

Let Bernie Be

Democratic Party leaders' efforts to get Sanders to knuckle under are premature and anti-democratic.

Let Bernie Be

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders walks with President Barack Obama through the White House Colonnade. The meeting between the Vermont Independent and the president was part of a day-long wooing process in which Democratic leaders tried to convince Sanders to back Hillary Clinton now that she has won the delegates she needs to secure the party's presidential nomination. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Am I living in the same country as the current editors of the mainstream media and the high-placed officials of the Democratic Party? Do we speak the same language?

The New York Times reported Friday morning on the “carefully choreographed program” in which cameras showed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — the “vanquished Vermonter” — strolling amiably at the side of President Barack Obama before later rendezvous with the Senate Democratic leadership and, finally, Vice President Joe Biden. It appears that these party leaders were hoping that “given time and space,” Sanders “would not make trouble for them at their convention and eventually would endorse Mrs. Clinton.”

Trouble for them at their convention? Eventually endorse Hillary Clinton? I was watching and listening a little more than a year ago when Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Senate Democrats, declared that he would run for the nomination in the Democratic primaries, and explicitly stated that if he did not win he would not run on a third-party ticket but would support the winner of the race. He did not want to become “irrelevant” as had been the fate of Ralph Nader. He has not stepped back an inch from a single word of that declaration. What, then, is this “trouble” that this persistent outsider proposes to make at the convention?

Sanders believes that the views of those millions who followed him deserve to be represented in the platform of the party, and that is what he intends to fight for.

He won 22 Democratic state primaries. He won overwhelming support from younger voters. He brought millions of energetic activists into the Democratic fold because they believed in his political revolution and he did so without having to court the PACs through which the masters of megabucks buy the loyalty of their chosen candidates.

Sanders believes that the views of those millions who followed him deserve to be represented in the platform of the party, and that is what he intends to fight for at the convention. If real democracy means anything he is not only entitled to do so without criticism, it is his responsibility. Getting his agenda or parts of it nailed into the platform does not guarantee that it will be followed, but it makes a statement that the nominee can’t simply brush aside.

To that extent, platforms can matter. Even in old-fashioned conventions, before the primaries reduced them to flashy but hollow TV spectaculars, the meetings of the platform committees, could become exciting and meaningful. I have heard and seen some in my own time.

Wendell Willkie

Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie on the campaign trail in 1940. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

In the radio days of 1940, the entire Republican convention in Philadelphia was a mesmerizing audio show in which a late-developing movement to nominate a political outsider, Wendell Willkie, prevailed on the sixth ballot, with crowds in the galleries roaring “We Want Willkie” at a volume audible through the open windows on the hot June night. Unlike such leading rivals as Robert Taft, Willkie was a firm believer in extending aid to Great Britain and her allies at the very moment when Hitler’s conquering armies, having defeated France, were poised for a cross-channel invasion. The Republican Party’s embrace of interventionism was reflected in the platform statement made on the day before Willkie’s nomination: “We favor the extension to all peoples fighting for liberty, or whose liberty is threatened, of such aid as shall not be in violation of international law or inconsistent with the requirements of our own national defense.” It’s beyond question that President Franklin Roosevelt, who won reelection that year, would have had a far harder time in sustaining Britain with “loans” of military and naval equipment under the Lend-Lease act of 1941 if he had been fighting a united Republican isolationist opposition.

In 1948, with victory won and the focus on domestic issues, the fireworks were furnished by the Democrats, also meeting in Philadelphia, now with TV cameras bringing the convention to the small but swiftly swelling number of homes equipped with the new, flickering black and white screens. The rest of us stayed glued to our radios and listened as the platform committee’s members wrangled bitterly over a civil rights plank introduced by minority of northern liberals — its uncompromising promises cracking open the door to a new chapter in the nation’s history:

We again state our belief that racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on a basis of equality with all citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution.

We highly commend President Harry S Truman for his courageous stand on the issue of civil rights.

We call upon the Congress to support our president in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental American principles: (1) the right of full and equal political participation; (2) the right to equal opportunity of employment; (3) the right of security of person; (4) and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.

In short, the Democrats endorsed the end of Jim Crow’s reign, voting rights, an anti-lynching bill, fair employment and the desegregation of the armed forces, already begun, albeit reluctantly, by Truman.

These were breathtaking propositions at the time, and the most electrifying speech of the debate — reminiscent of William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold gem — came from a young Democratic mayor of Minneapolis named Hubert Humphrey:

To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights. People — human beings — this is the issue of the 20th century.

The speech won the hearts of a majority of the delegates. It thrilled millions of listeners and viewers. But not the delegates from the Southern states, 35 of whom walked out and formed a short-lived Dixiecrat party that, at the time, appeared to deal the coup de grâce to Truman’s already shaky candidacy. But the pundits were proven wrong. The election results were otherwise; Truman eked out a narrow victory in the popular vote but a strong majority in the Electoral College. Thus was won the first battle of the civil-rights revolution that would dominate the next 17 years.

A victorious President Harry S Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune that wrongly bannered his defeat. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

A victorious President Harry S Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune that wrongly bannered his defeat. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Platforms can matter. It is deeply wrong for the Democrats’ presumed “party leaders” to continue their relentless drive to obliterate all traces of “the Bern” that has kindled progressive crowds for these past months. Pressing Sanders to fall in behind Clinton with weeks still to go before the official enthronement smells rankly of the “elections” held in totalitarian states. Dissent has been, and remains, not merely a prerogative but a positive sign of diversity and open-mindedness in a party. For those so inclined, it will be perfectly possible to cast an anti-Trump vote in November without necessarily echoing every inflated claim of progressive success that has been or will be made for the Democratic Leadership Council’s compromises.

Bernie can still make a fighting case for an inclusion of his ideas and ideals in the platform before officially being counted out. Bernie should. And if past performance is any guide, Bernie will. Good for him.

Bernard Weisberger

Bernard Weisberger is an American historian now in his 9th decade. A frequent contributor to this site, he is the author of more than a dozen books, including The LaFollettes of Wisconsin, They Gathered at the River, and America Afire. He collaborated on documentaries with Bill Moyers and Ken Burns.