Dr. James J. Zogby ©
President Arab American Institute
There was a time when political party conventions were exercises in democracy. Being a delegate meant something because there were issues to be decided, there were meaningful votes to be taken, and there was excitement and suspense to the proceedings.
In our lifetimes, there have been convention debates over civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and Apartheid in South Africa. Sometimes, conventions became unpredictable and messy, but then, democracy can be messy and when it is, it’s also exciting.
In the past three decades, all this has changed and conventions have increasingly become more like scripted made-for-TV infomercials than the party gatherings of old. The votes are pro forma and the suspense is gone. The irony is that the more scripted the conventions become, the less interest the networks have in covering them.
What prompts me to write this is not concern with TV ratings, rather the impact that this penchant for scripting the process is having on many of the thousands of delegates who, in most cases, have worked to get themselves elected to represent their candidate and district at the convention. They ran believing that they would have a say at the convention by becoming a delegate. And when they won their posts, they were elated and felt empowered. Because this convention will be virtual and therefore highly scripted, they are about to be disappointed and this concerns me.
During the week of August 17th, 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 vote electronically on the party platform and for their candidate 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 cancelled, it should have been clear that we were going to have problems bringing tens of thousands of delegates, supporters, and media to an in-person convention in Milwaukee. Of course, I fully recognize the political calculations that had to be made, the problems of disappointing the host city, and 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 who were looking forward to playing their part in this quadrennial drama.
Given this, it was troubling how little recognition there was for the expectations of 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 their assessment of the planning process, whether they felt respected as delegates, and ideas they might have shared had they been consulted.
The responses were troubling. More than 80% of those who responded said they felt disrespected or ignored. And their comments made that clear.
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 concerned that they were unsure whether their participation was even valued by the party.
Some may want to 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 victors or 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, you lost.” They felt shut out of the proceedings and left the convention demoralized.
This year should have been different. There isn’t the same degree of rancor as there was four years ago and 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 by leaving grassroots delegates in the dark and by reducing their role to passive online viewers, we run the risk of producing a 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. Unity will not have been achieved.
As Democrats go forward into the fall campaign season, this can still be addressed. The progressive wing of the party will support Joe Biden for president, because they want to defeat Donald Trump. But it will be important to directly engage the hundreds of activists who worked hard to become delegates and who represent important constituencies Democrats will need for their “two wings” to fly.