Bernie’s Delegates Don’t Need Bernie

They can disrupt a convention all on their own.

Bernie Sanders supporters prepare to march through downtown Philadelphia on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA—The boos seemed to come out of nowhere.

Bernie Sanders on Monday was nearing the end of his address to a rowdy group of roughly 2,000 delegates and supporters in the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a hub for off-site Democratic National Convention activity. He had rattled off a checklist of his political revolution’s conquests thus far: 46 percent of pledged delegates, five state party chairmanships, the “most progressive platform in history,” and, most recently, the head of archvillain DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

“How do we continue the political revolution?” he asked. “No. 1 in my view—and this is not easy stuff given the nature of corporate media in America—we have got to be strong and consistent in making it clear that what we want to achieve is nothing less than the transformation of American society.” Rapturous applause.

Point No. 2 for continuing the revolution, though, concerned the more immediate future. “Immediately—right now—we have got to defeat Donald Trump,” Sanders began.

“We’ll do it with you!” one delegate standing near me shouted.

But Sanders didn’t mean it like that.

“We have got to elect Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine,” he said, a bold line in a room like this. The delegates’ loud boos overrode the applause in the convention center ballroom, and Sanders was unable to resume speaking for another 30 seconds.

“This is the real world that we live in,” Sanders added, resigned. He wrapped up his speech not long thereafter, as portions of the crowd, compartmentalizing away what Sanders had just said, continued with shouts of “WE WANT BERN-IE!”

If one thing has become immediately clear in the first day of the Democratic National Convention, it’s that Sanders may be done with his own campaign, but a huge chunk of his delegates are not—and Sanders nudging his supporters to fall in line behind the Clinton-Kaine ticket is not going to do the trick.

These delegates, many of them swept into politics for the first time by the Bernie revolution, are acting on their own grassroots prerogatives now. They have internalized a central message of his campaign: Good politics happens when the bottom pressures the top. And they couldn’t care less what their icon instructs them to do.

Norman Solomon, national coordinator of the Bernie Delegates Network, refuses to say that he has any control over the Sanders delegates that he coordinates. “We are not, as a network, a directive network,” was the first thing Solomon, a lifelong progressive activist and writer, and for this week a California delegate, said at the group’s media briefing Monday morning at a downtown Philadelphia Marriott. “We are a reflective network. We reflect the viewpoints and policy and options of the Sanders delegates at this convention.”

No one can tell the members of the BDN—roughly 1,250 delegates total, Solomon said, or two-thirds of all Sanders delegates at the convention—what to do, or how to act, or whether to throw a wrench or several into Hillary Clinton’s carefully choreographed four-day PR extravaganza. Hillary Clinton cannot. Debbie Wasserman Schultz cannot. Norman Solomon cannot. Bernie Sanders cannot.

As a reflective network, the BDN surveys its ranks via straw polls and passes that information back to its members. It doesn’t get 100 percent participation in its surveys, and those who do participate in the surveys may well be the most hardcore insurrectionaries of an insurrectionary group. But in a survey conducted 10 days ago, the BDN asked whether Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine would be “acceptable to them as a choice for the vice presidential slot.” Only eight delegates, or 2.8 percent, said he would; 251 delegates, or 88.1 percent, said he wouldn’t.

The structure of the group makes it impossible to suss out its intentions. Solomon appeared with two other California Sanders delegates on Monday morning, Karen Bernal and Manuel Zapata, and because they refuse to speak for anyone else, it was impossible to get them to explain crisply what disruptive action they were considering. Much of the press conference was spent litigating pronouns. But there are a few options that, perhaps, maybe, some indeterminate number of Sanders delegates might consider to meet certain goals.

The first thing Solomon, Bernal, and Zapata would want is for Wasserman Schultz to be fired anew, this time from the honorary-chairwoman sinecure the Clinton campaign offered her when she resigned from the DNC. “I don’t think we could say that her resignation represents her being tossed overboard by Hillary Clinton,” Solomon said. “She was ferried quickly by a lifeboat to an executive suite of the Hillary campaign.”

In addition to pushing to refire Wasserman Schultz, at least some Sanders delegates are considering walking out of either or both of Clinton’s and Kaine’s speeches, or circulating a petition to bring an alternative vice presidential nomination to the floor. There would also be marches, posters, and other standard elements of left agitprop. And there might be a surprise, too. Solomon said that the precise “configuration” of Clinton-trolling activity had yet to be determined. He instructed reporters to check back in another 23 hours.

Solomon made clear, though, that there is nothing Sanders himself can do to stop them from coordinating disruptions, should he choose to insert himself—though Sanders delegates would certainly listen to his or anyone else’s “advisement.”

“We take very seriously the principle that Bernie enunciated time and time again throughout the campaign,” Solomon said. “That social change that’s worth a damn always comes from the bottom up, the grassroots, not from the top. As beloved as Bernie is, his brilliance includes the fact that he’s not running the show. He’s not running the social movements. It is activists, including the Bernie delegates, who will make the social change in this country.”

A lot of Bernie delegates booed him Monday when he urged them to vote for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. They will probably do likewise when he urges the full convention to do the same during his speaking slot Monday night. One wonders whether he won’t be pleased with such booing. Solomon is right: This is exactly what he wanted from his campaign—a movement that would endure on its own momentum well after his campaign was finished and the spotlight of a presidential candidacy had moved on. Some delegates may think he’s selling out to the establishment. He can’t say it, but at least part of him must see their unwillingness to follow him as a sign of his victory.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.