Jonathan Tasini: Dems urging party unity at the expense of passion or principle miss the mark
For another view: Why Sanders must take the high road
Editor’s Note: Jonathan Tasini (@jonathantasini) has been a frequent commentator on CNN and is a Bernie Sanders supporter. He challenged Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Senate primary in New York in 2006. He is the author of “The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America,” president of the Economic Future Group and the publisher/editor of Working Life. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The recent Nevada Democratic state convention confirms one thing: The elites in the Democratic Party don’t understand the revolt that is underway in the party. And those elites, who want to saddle the party with a deeply flawed candidate in Hillary Clinton, have exacerbated tensions by blaming those who want to renew and revitalize the party.
Let’s settle a few things about the Nevada convention. Threats of violence or death posted to social media or telephoned in to party officials are unacceptable, as Bernie Sanders has clearly stated. Despite what was said, no video shown on national networks depicts a single act of violence.
The convention was raucous. People yelled, waved signs, interrupted and booed speakers, including Sen. Barbara Boxer. So what? I’ve seen a lot more tumultuous political discourse in my time. Sometimes debate gets a little untidy, and maybe even uncomfortable, for those in power. But debate — along with open dialogue — is also a fundamental component of political freedom.
And that’s what’s missing from the media coverage about Nevada: the key question that animated the uproar. Were delegates disenfranchised from exercising their right to vote at the convention? Rather than try to keep the dialogue open, the state party chairwoman did everything possible to shut it down.
To “shut it down,” as Hillary Clinton supporters have demanded in sweeping terms, dishonors our history. If millions of people had fallen in line, stopped protesting, stopped sitting in, or accepted the status quo by letting themselves be shut down, we would still live in a fully segregated society. Workers would be making even less than the poverty wages they earn now. People would not have the right to marry whomever they want.
The efforts to shut down debate and dialogue in Nevada are part of a much broader picture of the campaign itself, on which party unity takes a backseat to principle. In the past nine months, as I’ve traveled to speak on behalf of Bernie Sanders, I’ve seen the revolt against the party underway in scores of cities and towns all across the country, expressed by small groups and mass rallies of thousands (where, by the way, no violence took place other than perhaps the trampling of grass).
For months, their enthusiasm and sense of purpose has often been met by political elites with irritated tones or backhanded acknowledgments like “Bernie Sanders has contributed a lot but…” offered under the guise of a need to unify the party. To Sanders people, this has accurately translated to: “Why are you people interrupting our coronation, why don’t you just pipe down, give up, and unify to defeat Donald Trump?”
But party unity, though important in some respects, is secondary to people for whom the political revolution is not just a slogan. For some, it’s been very specific: advocates for single-payer health care, people who oppose bad trade deals, supporters of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. For many others, it’s been more general: They dove into the political fray, either for the first time or returning from a long hiatus, to challenge the status quo in our party that they feel has failed the country.
So as we head into the final stretch of the primary season, I’ll offer some unsolicited advice to longtime party leaders and activists.
Accept the fact that the Sanders movement will compete, loudly, so that every Democrat has a chance to vote right to the end. That means shelving the disingenuous, “He has a right to continue his campaign” mantra, which is a thinly veiled version of: “He can’t win so why is he doing this to us?”
Stop treating those with “BernieorBust” on their minds like they are crazy or ill-informed. While I do not share their sentiment, in my view, those who do offer a legitimate critique of the system and should be engaged and debated with on that basis.
Be smart and encourage public debate at the convention. Create a large space right near the convention area and invite large, noisy protests, and orchestrate a very light, almost invisible police presence. De-escalation is almost a no-brainer here: Let people express themselves peacefully. And, to mix it up further, open up the convention floor to a lively debate on the platform, moderated by co-chairs from each campaign (and not the current DNC chairwoman).
Here’s the bottom line. The Democrats are a party in the midst of a serious debate about what we stand for. Accept the fact that the convention will likely leave many divided on significant policy issues. But, there are areas where agreement can be forged. We should all embrace the complexity of our approaches to policy.
Bernie Sanders has been crystal clear that we must work hard to defeat Donald Trump. The threat he poses is real, and we can accomplish that mission more effectively with dialogue than with lockstep party unity.
Jonathan Tasini (@jonathantasini) has been a frequent commentator on CNN and is a Bernie Sanders supporter. He challenged Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Senate primary in New York in 2006. He is the author of “The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America,” president of the Economic Future Group and the publisher/editor of Working Life. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.