In this most unsettling of election years, the focus is now on the two major-party candidates: their flaws, their poll numbers, their supporters and critics, the latest outrage from Donald Trump.History, if we can rely on it, suggests that we’ll survive the campaign trauma, though – and that we’ll elect Hillary Clinton. And that things will return to some semblance of normal.
But there’s danger in that “normalcy.” Republican Party leaders may simply breathe a sigh of relief that they’re rid of Trump and can focus on obstructing Clinton. And Clinton and the Democratic Party may just get back to business as usual, reading the election results as an endorsement of their way of operating.
If so, that wilI mean neither party took its critics seriously. And that will be a tragedy. If current political leaders fail to understand what was at the root of the insurrection in both parties – if they fail to make basic reforms, in the way they operate and in the interests they serve – they will do a massive disservice to the country. And they will guarantee that we’ll see more of what we’re seeing in this election year, if not in the next national election, certainly sometime soon.
It seems way too optimistic to assume that party leaders will change by themselves, so it’ll be up to the rebels in both parties to force reform. The best organized are the Bernie Sanders supporters, who carried their fight all the way through the Democratic Convention, and who insist that they’ll continue their work.
Among them is local activist Kevin Sweeney, who, in an e-mail discussion with me, shared his thoughts about the post-convention Sanders revolution. Sweeney was raised in a family of Democrats – as a “Kennedy Catholic in Boston,” he said – and at age 7 was helping his father hand out campaign material at polls. But as an adult, he said, he didn’t become “truly active” in politics until Bernie Sanders announced that he would run for president. “No one inspired me like he did,” Sweeney said.
In May 2015, he began working as an area organizer for Progressive Democrats of America, and the following November the Sanders campaign’s state organizer asked him to put together a local Sanders slate. Those activists, joined by hundreds of volunteers, “canvassed, raised funds, phone banked, marched, purchased and distributed Sanders collateral, and opened an office in Rochester prior to the NYS primary,” Sweeney said. The result was an overflow crowd at the local Sanders rally, and an impressive showing on primary day. Clinton beat Sanders by fewer than 3000 of the 76,000 votes cast in Monroe County.
And now? “Although I believe Senator Sanders would do substantially better against Trump in the general election,” Sweeney said, “I have committed to voting for Secretary Clinton due to the concessions on the Democratic Platform – 80 percent of which was Senator Sanders. Not all of my fellow supporters agree, though,”
Here’s an edited version of my e-mail conversation with Sweeney:
CITY: How are you feeling about Hillary Clinton now? How are you feeling about the Democratic Party? And how are you feeling about the Democratic platform?
SWEENEY: I feel Secretary Clinton still needs to have a better understanding of the public’s perception of her – it’s no longer acceptable to blame things on the right wing-conspiracy. Her recent praise for Debbie Wasserman Schultz following Debbie’s resignation for the DNC’s bias against Bernie’s campaign demonstrated some people’s worst fears: Hillary rewards loyalists even when they break the rules; thereby, she encourages rule-breakers.
That was handled very poorly – especially when you have close to over 1500 Bernie delegates in attendance. That response to Debbie Wasserman Schultz was a slap in the face to Sanders’ supporters.
Personally, I have hope that the progressive platform will be supported enthusiastically, moving forward, by the entire Democratic Party. I know if they don’t, we will find a party that will.
I am dismayed by how some of the Bernie delegates and other supporters to the DNC have been treated [at the Democratic convention]. The New York State delegation has been far better than other states, but some of our delegates had their credentials stripped and further access denied because they participated in some protests.
Bernie started a revolution, and the Democratic Party will need to enthusiastically support the progressive platform or miss out. I saw a statistic that Bernie had more votes from people under 40 than Trump and Clinton combined. Progressives are the future of the Democratic Party, if they want us.
With social media and the web, some of the obstacles in creating a successful third party have become easier to overcome. Most of Bernie’s support growth came via social media and the web – not from corporate media. I discovered him on Facebook shortly after the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United through a meme he posted. I began following him that day and prayed he would mount a campaign for president. I am confident the political revolution will continue. Hopefully, we will be welcomed and supported.
President Obama said at the convention that the Democratic Party “is in good hands.” Do you believe it is? I’m not talking about who is chairing the party, I’m talking about the party itself, and the people who shape it. In good hands?
The parties belong to the voters, and the leaders should be a reflection of their voters. That’s what I have always believed and the message Bernie shared nationally. So, yes, with the large participation this year by younger voters, as long as they stay engaged, we are in good hands, as I believe the leadership will listen to them or face heavy competition when up for reelection.
President Obama also said in that speech: “So if you agree that there's too much inequality in our economy, and too much money in our politics, we all need to be as vocal and as organized and as persistent as Bernie Sanders' supporters have been during this election. We all need to get out and vote for Democrats up and down the ticket, and then hold them accountable until they get the job done. That's right, feel the Bern!”
That is the foundation of the political revolution Senator Sanders began. I believe that progressives have been heard in this primary, and with the platform, I feel we now have a seat at the table. If the platform is not followed, I will be one of the first to begin to rally supporters to hold the party or person accountable.
I think the party is not in great shape but can be if the established party members open up and welcome in the progressive members. The two-party system is very entrenched in the US, so we hope we can be successful working within the party. That’s a much better alternative than working to start another party.
Bernie Sanders gave a strong endorsement of Clinton at the convention. But obviously, there are still key differences between Clinton’s positions and Sanders. Which ones are of the most concern?
It’s really one key issue for me: corporate and big-money support. I grew up in a party that was always for the working class and the less fortunate. In the last 20 years, the party moved to the middle and began courting big money. We’ve seen the impact of that in the appeal of Glass-Steagall, the trade bills, lack of movement to address climate change, the income gap so perfectly stated in Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All,” and more.
We have to focus on the needs of the entire population, not just the large, corporate interests. As an example, the national committee refused to release the sponsor list for the convention. That sends a very bad message to the voting public. The party needs to open the books and be more transparent to the voters in order to win back their trust and support. Senator Sanders proved that a strong campaign could be run without kowtowing to corporate interests.
Sanders has been urging supporters to continue the revolution. What should that revolution try to accomplish during the next four years?
Sanders’ supporters will be active in local elections throughout the country, including in Rochester, to campaign for candidates who support the progressive agenda. Our group, MC4BS, will vet local candidates and mobilize our army of volunteers to elect people who will continue our fight for the necessary reforms. We would like to work within the Democratic Party and elect representatives that reflect the Sanders’ platform.
And what should Bernie Sanders’ role be in it?
Bernie started the revolution, and I am confident he will continue to lead, regardless of his political position. When he first declared his candidacy, so many people dismissed him, and it took months for the national media to acknowledge him or to treat him seriously. He was able to overcome these obstacles and get his message to millions of Americans, but I think now he will be a frequent guest on political talk shows and will be welcome on late-night entertainment shows as well.
We saw the impact of his and our grassroots work at the convention, and I am confident he will continue to be a vocal leader and direct our efforts. I would love to see him lead a bi-partisan committee focused on addressing the voter fraud issues we faced in these primaries when he’s back in Washington.
Many of Sanders’ supporters are people who have never been involved in politics at before. Many others have been active around specific issues – Wall Street reform, minimum wage, police, immigration, the environment. Many Sanders supporters had not been registered Democrats. Do you view yourself more as an independent voter or as a Democrat?
I definitely identified with the 99% movement, the Green Party movement, and the labor movements. I grew up as a Kennedy Catholic in Boston, so the Democratic Party is in my blood. My sister and her husband worked in the White House in the first Clinton administration. But the party turned sharply to the middle in the 90’s, and I changed my registration.
I consider myself an American first and place loyalty to the party second. I think that is how Bernie is as well. I will be part of any party willing to reform our country and hope I can continue to be a Democrat.
What’s your assessment of political parties today? What reforms, if any, are needed?
There are so many to list – how many pages do you have available? I believe the foundation of most of our problems can be found in how we elect people to represent our needs. We have to make it possible to run campaigns without dependence on high-dollar donors. I believe in the public funding of elections and a short election cycle. I believe once we remove the need to raise big money to be elected, our officials can better represent their constituents.
Climate change legislation has to be second on my list. We have to acknowledge the reality that climate scientists have been telling us about for years and take action.
Also on our list are raising the minimum wage, educational reforms, free college education, voter registration reform, a single-payer health-care system, eliminating the for-profit-prison system, and stop moving government programs to private companies as has been suggested for Social Security.
Public trust in politics and in the government is at a very low point. What do elected officials and the political parties need to do to build the public’s trust and get the public’s engagement?
I believe that Sanders and Trump both did so well in the primaries because they are not considered part of the broken system. That’s a reflection on how most Americans view our elected officials. People don’t believe our government can be trusted, so the first step is to address that.
We have to remove the influence of money on policy, and we have to stop rewarding corporate donors or bundlers with cabinet-level and other government positions. This is not negotiable. We want our leaders to be loyal to the voters, not to the donors.
Lastly, be honest, open, work together regardless of party affiliation, and be transparent. I can dream, can’t I?