Among the Pure at 'Bernie or Bust'

The most ardent Bernie Sanders supporters must confront the fact that there is more in their way than corruption and stupidity.

Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic
Let’s Bern a path to revolution. We’re the purifiers. ––YahNé Ndgo, “Feel the Bern

PHILADELPHIA––Tara Kurek describes herself as an orphan. By the time she was a teenager, her parents had descended from prescription drug abuse to heroin addiction. “They didn’t raise me,” she said. “I’ve been emancipated since I was 16 years old.”

Now she is 24.

After a stint living in a Baltimore women’s shelter, where she fled to escape an abusive relationship, she has returned to her hometown—Toledo, Ohio—where she is a manager at a retail store. Recently, she has been working as many hours there as possible there so that she could spend her week of vacation at the Democratic National Convention and still have enough money to eat and pay rent upon her return.

She felt it was her civic duty to show up and make her dissent known.

“I do not plan to vote for Hillary Clinton,” she told me Tuesday at a Bernie-or-Bust rally near City Hall, where hundreds gathered for speeches, songs, and chants extolling Senator Bernie Sanders and attacking his rival, who hours later formally became the first woman to win a major-party nomination for the presidency.

Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic

Part of the DNC’s official message is that the left is better off sticking together, that liberals must unite to stop Donald Trump from harming women, Hispanics, and Muslims. On consecutive nights, Sanders himself endorsed that message in words and deeds. But neither Democratic unity nor the lens of identity resonates with Kurek—who is white yet relatively unprivileged—as much as alternative lenses, like flaws in the electoral system, economic injustice, and environmental crises.

Would you vote Clinton, I asked, if only to stop the deportation of Hispanic immigrants or the introduction of policies that discriminate against Muslim Americans?

“That’s what a lot of people feel, but in my opinion, I do not believe that she is better,” Kurek said. “The things that we all fear in Trump we have already seen from Hillary Clinton. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would be bad if not worse. She’s pro-fracking. Our country is overheating. People are flooding. And we’re talking about building a wall. I think we have way bigger priorities that we need to focus on.” She plans to vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, or to write in Sanders if Ohio allows it. “I see that this world needs to change,” she explained, “and we’re the only ones that can do it.”

After several hours among the Bernie-or-Bust faction, the people who insist, at least for now, that they will not back Hillary Clinton, even to stop Donald Trump, I found that last assertion to be the common theme. Those present varied in their Clinton grievances, as well as what they liked most about Sanders, but almost everyone agreed that the Vermont senator and the movement to which he gave rise are “the only ones that can do it”––the only coalition that can transform an unjust America.

Due to their certainty about their own correctness, they see themselves as the most legitimate actors in U.S. politics, regardless of what happened at the ballot box or the DNC. A political rally in public space is, for them, the purest sort of civic participation. As one speaker put it: “This is what matters, not what happens in the arena.”

Together they chanted, “We are the 99 percent.”

In reality, like any political gathering at which participants insist on the need for a revolution that radically upends the existing order, those present did not represent a majority of Americans, let alone 99 percent, whether they are right or wrong.

They do not even represent a majority of Democrats.

“Tell me what democracy looks like!” a speaker shouted. “This is what democracy looks like!” the crowd replied in unison. In fact, democracy this year looks like this:

Jim Urquhart / Reuters


That isn’t, however, how Bernie-or-Bust folks see it. They present themselves as democratic revolutionaries who represent the repressed voice of a supermajority-in-waiting.

Those who disagree with them are, by extension, treated as illegitimate—they are presumed to be oligarchs, or tools of billionaire donors like the Koch brothers, or allies of the Democratic establishment and Hillary Clinton who, in the telling of Bernie-or-Bust, stole the election. “They cheated. We’ve been swindled. We’ve been bamboozled,” rapper Core Element declared to cheers at the protest. The existence of principled disagreement with the Sanders revolution is never acknowledged.

An exception is Sanders himself, who retains the loyalty of his supporters even after endorsing Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. They tell one another he had no choice. “It was so out of character,” Core Element said. “This is a man who, when I looked back at his history, every time I thought, hmm, that’s kind of questionable, he had a very good, valid reason for it. So why did he endorse Hillary? I’m gonna say it. I think he was threatened. I think they said we’re going to strip everything away from you unless you step into line. So I’m gonna say it. I’m not falling into line.”

Others who failed to join the Bernie revolution were cast as too dumb. That was a major theme of Lee Camp, a comedian and activist who hosts Redacted Tonight on RT America, the Russian-government-sponsored broadcast.

Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic

“We’re in the middle of something very serious,” he said. “This is evil versus good. This is Mel Gibson now versus 1993 Mel Gibson. This is a drop-down, drag-out, bloody fucking war for the soul of our culture, for cultural hegemony. This is something very serious, but a lot of our country is too dumb, medicated, or blissfully uneducated to realize it. They’ve anesthetized us with shiny shit, zombified us with televised votes on reality TV bullshit—the truth is we’re like fish in a fishbowl, if you just give us a little bit of food and a little plastic treasure chest, or a chest of plastic treasures, then we will never even question that all of our thoughts and all of our soul are blazing inside of a two-foot bowl. We are bigger than this.”

The question, he concluded, is whether we’ll put our differences aside to tell “the holier-than-thou titans of dickery at the top to go fuck themselves with a rusty fracking pipe.”

The crowd applauded with enthusiasm.

Gary Frazier, a community activist and city-council candidate in Camden, New Jersey, began his remarks by criticizing Michelle Obama for “playing the race card” in her convention speech endorsing Clinton. Later, he declared, “What I see out here is folks who understand that we will no longer be divided, that they will understand that they must yield to the people, and if they do not, as the Green Party candidate that I am, we will cause a massive de-registration in this nation. We are the 99 percent. This revolution is real. And it may have started with Senator Sanders, but it will not end with Senator Sanders … To us now, we bust it. We’re busting this party up. And the nation will be emphatic across this nation, that a new progressive party that speaks to, for, and by the people will be born.”

Perhaps the will of the majority should be respected even by those who disagree with it. Or perhaps the Democratic Party should be busted up and recast by a minority faction of progressive activists with a revolutionary vision for America’s future. Perhaps the people will no longer be divided, or perhaps Green Party candidates should divide a corrupt Democratic Party in hopes of creating something better.

Conor Friedersdorf

But all these things cannot be true at once.

The Bernie or Bust rally was filled with people I admire; people who backed a candidate who I wanted to win; people who made significant sacrifices, despite their limited means, to participate in the civic process; people who want to improve the world, in part by changing what they correctly see as systemic corruption (even if I often don’t believe that they’ve accurately assessed the particulars).

Yet over several hours, they cheered themselves both as champions of democracy––the authentic voice of the 99 percent who would’ve won the election but for having it stolen from them––and as a tiny band of purifiers trying to awaken the masses who are “too dumb, medicated, or blissfully uneducated” to know what’s good for them. These visions of their movement are inconsistent with one another, and neither is ultimately correct. Sanders supporters have a vision of what the future ought to be, and a highly distorted view of what is required to get there, or at least to make progress. The biggest obstacle is not oligarchy or stupidity, but honest disagreements and varying priorities inherent in a pluralistic system, disagreement that exists among Democrats, Republicans and independents; liberals, conservatives, and libertarians; and the ultra-rich and ultra-poor.

Is the Bernie-or-Bust faction capable of identifying fellow citizens who disagree in good faith and persuading them, or will it continue to malign and disparage everyone outside its ranks? If the latter, the Sanders movement would be better off in the hands of the adherents, mostly absent from Bernie-or-Bust rallies, who are a bit less certain of their unique claim on good-faith civic participation.