The Democrats aren't doomed: What I learned from Bernie delegates in Philadelphia

They're demoralized and skeptical — but even Bernie's most ardent backers will likely come around to Hillary

By Sean Illing
July 27, 2016 2:00PM (UTC)
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PHILADELPHIA - There was plenty of unease heading into the Democratic convention. Would the Sanders supporters toe the line or would they revolt on the floor? Would they follow the lead of their candidate and endorse Clinton or would they reject the entire process?

Monday night was shaky. The Bernie delegates made sure their voices were heard. Most of them were amicable, some were aggressive. While uncomfortable at times, it never veered into chaos, and it wasn't the orgy of Hillary hate some feared. But it was impossible to ignore the tension in the room.


About an hour before the prime time speeches began, I walked the convention floor, hoping to engage a few of the Bernie delegates. What followed was a half-dozen conversations with Sanders supporters and several other brief interactions. I wanted to hear from the most fervent, the most disappointed. I wanted to know what they thought and why they thought it. What I heard was mostly encouraging and always illuminating.

Edgar Deleon, a Nebraska delegate, was the only Bernie-or-buster I encountered. He told me he was “100 percent for Sanders” and that he refused to support Clinton in November. “Why?” I asked. “Bernie Sanders is one of the most sincere, authentic public servants I've seen in my lifetime,” he told me. “Hillary Clinton is a confirmed fraud...everything wrong and corrupt with our political system is what she stands for.” I asked him what he would do if reduced to a choice between Trump and Clinton, and he said “Picking the lesser of two evils is still evil. Come November, my ballot will say Bernie Sanders no matter what.”

Mira Bowin, a young and insightful delegate from New York, was more measured. Asked if she planned to vote for Hillary in November, she said “It's not November yet, and right now I'm supporting Bernie...but I have to say I'm not feeling very moved by her choice for VP or what they've done with TPP and the platform. I'm not feeling very courted and I have reservations.” She added that she's “grateful to live in New York, which isn't a swing state, so I feel free to support who I want.” To the question of Clinton or Trump, she answered resolutely: “Fascism is fascism, and fascism has to be stopped.” She may have “reservations” about Clinton's record, but she's aware of the dangers posed by Trump.


Another New York delegate, who wished to remain anonymous, told me she was committed to writing-in Bernie. Like many, she's suspicious of the process, particularly after the DNC emails were released by WikiLeaks. “I'm not comfortable with the way this entire process has unfolded. I'm seeing this machine take over...this has been forced on us by the elites.” I asked her if she considered herself a Democrat or an independent. “53 years I've been a Democrat,” she told me. “I don't remember not voting for a Democratic presidential candidate.” She never admitted it, but my sense was that she'd vote for Clinton if she lived in battleground state.

As I left the floor, I noticed a tall, exuberant man waving a Sanders sign near the press gallery. I approached him, confident he had something to say. “John Sasso,” he told me. “I'm from California.” One of several Sanders delegates, Sasso was here to support Sanders and no one else. “My biggest fear is that Hillary will lose in November,” he said. “Bernie brought this enthusiasm to the party, not Clinton...I think she'll lose to Trump.” After sparring a bit over the latest polling data, I asked him if he had any loyalties to the Democratic Party. “I'm a lifelong Democrat. I've always voted for Democrats.” But this year felt...different. Although he wasn't ready to say he'd vote for Clinton, he told me he “definitely wouldn't vote for Trump.”

And this was a common sentiment. There was no ambivalence on the Trump question. An odious quack, Trump is a living rejection of everything progressives stand for. Bernie voters are skeptical of Clinton for a hundred different reasons – her hawkish foreign policy, her centrist capitulations, her history of distortions, etc. But no one I met in that convention hall wants him to be president.


If you cut through the caricatures and listen to the delegates, here's what you learn: Most of them got a glimpse of what the Democratic Party could be, what it should be, and then they watched it slip away. They understand that Sanders won concessions on the platform. They realize he pulled Clinton – and the party – to the left. But the delegates I spoke with see most of this as cosmetic. There's a bit of unreason here. What, after all, did they expect? A year ago, Sanders was an afterthought; his nomination was unfathomable. And yet he nearly defeated Clinton while putting his stamp on the Democratic Party in a way no one thought possible. He changed the conversation on the left. That's an extraordinary contribution, one most of his supporters fail to appreciate.

Besides, if we ask what's possible, not what's ideal, a Clinton administration is hardly a disaster for progressives. Given the systemic constraints, there are limits to what a president can do. Sanders supporters often glide past the reality of a recalcitrant Congress, and Sanders himself could not muster an intelligible reply to the critical question: “But how will you pass all of this?” For all her faults, Clinton knows how to navigate the legislative swamp. Will she fight for every plank of Bernie's platform? No. But she and Sanders are aligned on most issues, and she's competent enough to deliver.


In other words, a Clinton presidency is not the end of the republic. Nor is it a death blow to the progressive movement. This is lost on many Sanders supporters. In the end, though, they'll come around. Much of the festering frustration is just that – frustration. It will pass. Sanders is a uniquely honest politician. He spoke to issues progressives care about in a way no candidate in recent memory has. It's tough to see him get so close and lose.

But worry not, Democrats. Nearly every Bernie delegate I spoke to hinted that they'll support Clinton in November, and those who said they won't conceded that a Trump administration is a nightmare. Will there be some who abstain? Perhaps. But not enough to matter. And the majority of delegates vowing to write-in Sanders or vote for a third party candidate are doing so because they live in non-swing states.

And that ought to comfort panicked Democrats.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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