The Democratic Party Is Setting the Stage for a Letdown

During the week of August 17, thousands of Democrats elected to serve as delegates to their party’s national convention will log on to their computers to view the proceedings. They will cast electronic votes on the party platform and for their party’s nominee to challenge Donald Trump for the presidency.

About one-quarter of this year’s delegates are Bernie Sanders supporters. Most of them are progressive political activists—and many are first-time participants in a national convention. This virtual event will not be the experience they expected. And while all of those with whom I’ve spoken are supportive of the precautions being taken in this era of pandemic, most remain in the dark about the convention plans and whether their participation is valued.

Months ago, when the 2020 Summer Olympics and a host of professional sporting events were canceled, it should have been clear that we were going to have problems bringing tens of thousands of delegates, supporters, and press to Milwaukee. I fully recognize the political calculations that had to be made, the problems of disappointing the host city, the need to have an event that would serve as a launching pad for the presidential election season. And I have no doubt that the convention planning team and DNC staffers were working round the clock weighing all these problems and exploring options.

Nevertheless, what was missing was a recognition that the convention wasn’t just the concern of the planning staff or the Biden campaign. It was personal for the delegates—especially first-timers, many of whom worked hard to earn their posts, felt empowered when they won, and were looking forward to playing their part in this quadrennial drama.

Given this, it was troubling how little communication there was with prospective delegates and how little engagement there was with DNC members while deliberations were ongoing. I should be clear that I am not faulting the convention or DNC staff that delegates were left in the dark. This was a political call that should have come from the leadership of the party.

With this in mind, the Bernie Delegates Network (BDN) conducted a national survey of Sanders delegates. We wanted to get their assessment of the planning process, whether they felt respected as delegates, and ideas they might have shared had they been consulted.

Their responses should be seen as troubling both for the party and the Biden campaign. More than 80 percent of those who responded said they felt disrespected or ignored. And their comments made clear why.

Common refrains were that as delegates they “felt left out” and that the process was “lacking in transparency and input.” Some went further, cautioning that this year’s “organizing, like the 2016 DNC convention, seems to minimize participation by Sanders delegates.”

Two others summed up the views of many:

“It should have been anticipated much earlier that the convention would be online and things planned with that in mind ahead of time. [There were] a lot of missed opportunities…” And there was “too little communication with stakeholders, that is, delegates and DNC members. It has been a closed affair— not seeking input…”

Frequently, the Sanders delegates also complained that they had no idea how this convention will allow their voices to be heard. They expressed the desire to participate but said they “don’t know how.” And a number of first-time delegates were unsure whether their participation was even valued by the party.

Some may dismiss these complaints as coming from the disgruntled losing side, but there is a risk in doing so. Young and old progressives are an important constituency. They make up a respectable share of Democratic voters, and many are activists who represent communities Democrats will need to win. As Jesse Jackson famously noted at the 1988 Democratic convention, “It takes two wings to fly.”

In party-building, there can be no victor/vanquished. The role of a successful convention is to heal internal divisions and create unity of purpose among the various component groups of the party. In 2016, too little attention was paid to this critical undertaking. Bernie Sanders, personally, tried to soothe the disappointment felt by his delegation. But the message they received from the establishment was “We won, and you lost.” They felt shut out of the proceedings and left the convention demoralized.

This year could have been different. So far, it has not been. There isn’t the same degree of rancor as there was four years ago; the Biden/Sanders task forces formed to create a unified approach to writing the platform, while producing a document not wholly satisfying to progressives, was still a good-faith effort to bridge differences.

But leaving grassroots delegates in the dark as to how the convention will work—and reducing their role to passive online viewers—runs the risk of producing a massive letdown that could leave hundreds of delegates alienated. What this may mean is that at the conclusion of the party confab, many first-time Sanders delegates (and some old-timers, as well), instead of being energized and engaged, may turn off their computers feeling deflated and dejected. The unity so necessary for victory will not have been achieved.

This can still be addressed. If there is a will, creative solutions can still be found to give us the “two wings” we need to fly. But time is running out.

This opinion originally appeared in The Nation on August 5, 2020