How The Bernie Protesters Are Undermining Their Own Movement

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO

Much of the Democratic Party nearly had a heart attack Monday afternoon, when they discovered that a small but very vocal group of angry Bernie Sanders holdouts were among the credentialed delegates at the Democratic National Convention. The holdouts loudly booed presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the convention’s opening prayer. For a while, the jeering continued every single time Clinton’s name was mentioned. By the evening, possibly because Sanders himself emphatically urged this group of delegates to knock it the hell off, the booing largely subsided, but a handful of loud voices still remained:

Despite the hecklers’ small numbers, one outlet that ignored this observation by MSNBC host Chris Hayes — and the fact that 90 percent of Sanders supporters intend to vote for Clinton in November — was MSNBC. After the speeches were over and Democrats were eager to bask in a glow of collective solidarity, MSNBC chose to focus its coverage on three delegates, all of whom were Sanders holdouts. It was an odd editorial decision that painted a deceptive image of what actually took place on the convention floor. And it certainly wasn’t the message the party hoped to share with the public on the first day of its convention.

“The Needs Of The American People”

Meanwhile, one person who was particular surprised to see a handful of Sanders delegates attempt to sabotage the Democratic National Convention was Sen. Bernie Sanders himself. Sanders came to Philadelphia, not to bury Clinton, but to present her as the only alternative to a dark future.

“Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States,” the senator told DNC delegates. “This election,” Sanders also noted, “has never been about, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders.” To the contrary, it “must be about . . . the needs of the American people and the kind of future we create for our children and grandchildren.”

The irony of the Sanders holdouts, and of the disproportionate coverage that their rage is receiving, is that the Sanders faction within the Democratic Party did an outstanding job of extracting concessions from the majority faction. As Sanders himself told delegates in his convention speech, “there was a significant coming together between the two campaigns and we produced, by far, the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.” Meanwhile, Clinton moved to the left on a wide range of issues, from the minimum wage to trade to Medicare to Social Security.

Sanders’ name may not be on the ballot in November, but his influence pervades the Democratic Party’s agenda.

And there is very real danger for Sanders, and for the overwhelming majority of his loyalists who will stand with Hillary Clinton this November, if the hecklers continue their behavior. Sanders was able to extract concessions from Clinton in no small part because he could offer her a deal: meet me on certain issues, and I’ll unify the party behind you. The holdouts now want to throw this offer in Sanders’ face. They are telling Sanders that he cannot deliver on his part of the bargain, and that solidarity will dissolve no matter what Sanders does or tells them.

That is not a tactic that will encourage Clinton to work with Sanders — and with the Sanders faction — in the future.

Even worse, for anyone who cares about the principles Sanders hold dear, the hecklers’ actions attack the very thing that makes progressive change possible. The holdouts’ behavior is a long-running tactic that has plagued progressive organizers since the first band of peasants joined together to resist the tyranny of their lord. In the state of nature, well-resourced strongmen like Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump always prosper, as few individuals have the resources or the power necessary to stand up to them. It is only through collective action that relatively weaker actors can join together to meet force with equal force. Progressive change depends on solidarity, and holdouts who undermine that solidarity strike at the heart of the collective’s power.

Solidarity Forever

The classic example of a collective of weaker individuals joining together to extract concessions from a stronger entity is a labor union. Unions rely on the collective power of workers to pressure management, despite the fact that no individual worker may have the power to extract concessions from their bosses. Labor’s power flows from the ability of workers acting in concert to match the power of managers. Without collective solidarity, they are useless.

Indeed, unions have long understood that every crack in the wall of solidarity it presents to management is a threat to the union’s very essence. “After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad and the vampire, he had some awful stuff left with which he made a SCAB,” wrote the novelist Jack London, using a common derogatory term for strikebreakers. London then compared scabs to Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold. When a worker crosses a picket line, they secure their own payday by stripping power from their fellow workers. A union thrives only through unity.

Political parties work in a similar way. Like unions, their power flows strictly from collective action. Absent considerable resources and influence, an individual voter is virtually powerless to enact their preferred policies. And this is especially true for many of the constituencies — women, people of color, LGBT Americans, young people, and low-income workers — who make up the backbone of the Democratic Party’s coalition. It is only by joining together collectively that these various constituents can form an electoral plurality and ultimately place their representatives in positions of power.

Indeed, if anything, the need for solidarity is even greater in a political party than it is within a union. A union that faces significant dissent within its ranks may still be able to work cooperatively with management to achieve goals that both sides support. But a political party that fails to turn out a plurality coalition at the polls will be cast, powerless, into the wilderness. Just as strikebreakers undercut a union’s ability to wield collective power against management, hecklers who attack party unity undercut the party’s ability to build a plurality coalition for the upcoming election.

A Time To Build Up, A Time To Break Down

To be sure, there will be dissent within a healthy party, just as there will be dissent within a healthy union. Unions must poll their members, conduct leadership elections and otherwise take steps to ensure that the positions they take at the bargaining table broadly align with their members’ priorities. Political parties, similarly, must use a mixture of informal polling, constituent meetings, and primary elections to decide who will carry the party’s banner in a particular election and what positions that standard bearer will advance.

But there is a time for internal debate, and a time for public solidarity. If a union votes to prioritize higher salaries and to place less emphasis on obtaining more vacation time at the bargaining table, then its members must respect the collective’s decision. A holdout who bursts into a bargaining session to demand that their union push for more time off undermines the union’s collective power and makes it more likely that the union will leave the table with nothing. Similarly, if a union is considering a strike, dissenting members should make their views known and vote accordingly when the union is deciding how to proceed. But once a decision has been made, the union’s power depends entirely on the unity of its members.

Elections follow a similar cycle. The Democratic Party held a series of primary elections and caucuses in order to determine the wishes of its members. Both Clinton and Sanders ran vigorous campaigns, and the party’s voters resoundingly chose Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

While some Sanders holdouts have now pointed to internal Democratic National Committee emails, uncovered by Russian government hackers in an apparent attempt to influence the U.S. election, those emails reveal far less than the holdouts suggest. The DNC is a neglected, increasingly impotent organization within the party, and the emails suggest that its employees wouldn’t know how to rig an election even if they wanted to.

Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe Symone Sanders, Bernie Sanders’ former national press secretary:

So the party had a robust debate and a primary election. That election produced a candidate, who a solid majority of the party’s voters preferred over Sen. Sanders. And yet, at the very moment when the party is supposed to be celebrating its collective unity, a handful of Sanders holdouts have chosen instead sew discord and to undermine the party’s collective message. It is as if a union had met, called a vote to strike, and then a small group of dissenters decided that they would not honor the collective’s decision and would cross the picket line anyway.

This is how scabs behave. And it is a direct attack on the only thing that makes progressive change possible: solidarity.