The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Despite what you’ve heard, Democrats aren’t in disarray. Their party is under attack from the outside.

Pro-Bernie Sanders protesters gather outside City Hall in Philadelphia on July 24. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Perhaps it was inevitable that one way or another we’d get a spate of “Dems in Disarray!” headlines as the Democratic National Convention begins, since for a long time that has been the default story many reporters write about the Democratic Party. And there is a story to be told about conflict in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, it’s not the one that everyone seems to be telling. The Democratic Party isn’t being torn apart from the inside; it’s being attacked from the outside.

As you may have heard, there already seem to be many more protests from the left around the Democratic convention than there were around the Republican convention. If it seems strange to you that leftists would be protesting not the candidate who wants to deport 11 million people, ban Muslims from entering the country and roll back civil rights gains for gay Americans, but the candidate who wants to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expand Social Security and enact universal child care, well, that would only mean that you’re unfamiliar with leftist politics. For a certain kind of activist on the left, the real enemy is never the right; it’s always the liberals who are insufficiently committed to their brand of revolution.

And this is what’s important to understand about the protests now going on: They aren’t Democrats fighting with Democrats. I wasn’t able to go to Philadelphia this week, so I’d encourage the reporters who are there and are covering the anti-Clinton protests to ask those participating a simple question: Do you consider yourself a Democrat? Because I’m fairly certain that they’ll find almost no one who says yes. This is even true of some of the people who are Bernie Sanders delegates; they got involved in the Sanders campaign, but they weren’t Democrats before this election began and they won’t be after it’s over. We’ve seen this at the highest levels: Consider that Sanders appointed Cornel West to the Democrats’ platform committee, and after helping decide what the party stands for, West promptly turned around and endorsed Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Just to be clear, none of that invalidates the substance of the critiques the protesters are making; those can be evaluated on their own terms. Nor does it mean that the fact of the protest itself isn’t newsworthy. What it does mean, however, is that it’s a fundamentally different story from “Dems in Disarray!”

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Tonight, Sanders is going to give a speech at the convention in which, among other things, he will sing Hillary Clinton’s praises and explain why it’s so important that everyone vote for her. And it isn’t just the speech; my colleague at the American Prospect Harold Meyerson reports that “While the Bernie-or-Bust faction here at the convention still would like to stage floor fights or at least express their discontent volubly, Sanders will endeavor to talk them out of such actions at a 2 p.m. meeting today — two hours before the convention is called to order. His campaign also has put in place a whip operation on the convention floor to persuade his followers, if needs be, to cool it.”

It will be interesting to see how that’s received by the people who were so devoted to Sanders. Will they say that he, too, is now a neo-liberal corporate establishment shill? I’m guessing many of them will. Sanders has obviously figured out that the apex of his long career in politics came when he finally joined the Democratic Party and endeavored to change it from the inside. Not only that, if he wants to keep any of the influence he has gained, he’ll have to stay in the party if and when Hillary Clinton becomes president. But for some of his most ardent followers, joining the Democratic Party was never part of the deal. Many of the ones now protesting are quite open about the fact that their goal is to destroy the party, and if Sanders is no longer a vehicle for the achievement of that goal, they’re likely to turn their backs on him.

This is a real contrast with the conflicts we saw highlighted in Cleveland, and which have been plaguing Republicans for the past year. You have to go pretty far afield to find a rightist group that wants to destroy the GOP, because the party itself has incorporated forces so fantastically far to the right already (and its current nominee is garnering praise from the likes of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke). The conservatives who oppose Donald Trump are firmly within the party, whether they’re Ted Cruz loyalists or “establishment” Republicans horrified at what Trump is doing to their beloved GOP. That’s a fundamentally different phenomenon from what we’re seeing now in Philadelphia.

But there is one thing that links the two stories: In both cases, the rebellious forces couldn’t seriously impede the party’s chosen nominee. In the Republicans’ case, it was because they couldn’t overcome the tendency to rally around the party’s choice, no matter how repellent he might be. In the Democrats’ case, it’s because the Sanders supporters who have any sense have come to the same conclusion that Sanders himself did: that no matter how much they would rather Sanders had won, he didn’t, and now there’s a rather pressing priority, which is making sure the racist, xenophobic, ignorant, narcissistic buffoon the Republicans have nominated doesn’t become the most powerful human being on Earth. 

I say this not because I have some kind of fierce tribal loyalty to the Democratic Party; I don’t. There are great Democrats, terrible Democrats and everything in between, and the party as an institution could certainly use improvement. But what unites the holdouts is their self-absorption and complete inability to distinguish between political action that makes you feel good and political action that actually accomplishes anything real. These are the kind of people who think that giant puppets are the key to creating lasting social change.

To give you an example: Code Pink has a full slate of protests planned for the convention, aimed at building “a united front to take on the racist, capitalist Democratic war machine!” Like everything else the group does, it’s utterly masturbatory, meant to make the group feel virtuous and noble and brave, but will accomplish exactly nothing on any of the issues it says it cares about. Case in point: Eight years ago, I wrote a column criticizing Code Pink for how ineffectual its protests are, and demonstrating a mind-boggling lack of self-awareness, it proved my point by sending a half-dozen people to my office to protest me (unfortunately I was out that afternoon, but I did appreciate the certificate it left behind declaring me an imperialist war-monger in league with Bush and Cheney). Because apparently, these shrewd and experienced political activists thought that was an effective use of their time that would hasten the end of the Iraq War.

To be clear, there are people staging protests in Philadelphia with worthy causes who are using the opportunity of the convention and the assembled media to call attention to those causes. But they’re different from those who are there to protest Hillary Clinton and urge her defeat because she isn’t far enough to the left for them. So yes, this conflict, which now has an interesting Sanders-vs.-the-Sandernistas subplot, is newsworthy. But it’s not at bottom a story about the Democratic Party itself, which actually seems pretty unified. Even if some Democrats would have preferred that someone other than Hillary Clinton was their nominee, they’re not the ones holding signs and plotting how to create chaos on the convention floor.