Delegates can’t unfurl a banner, stage a walkout or heckle a speaker from the isolation of their living room couch.
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Jeanna Harris was in Philadelphia when the Democratic Party convened there in the summer of 2016, and she had plenty of ways to “make some good trouble.”
Harris was part of the bloc within the California delegation supporting the failed presidential bid of Bernie Sanders. She and her fellow progressives cheered and jeered, ensuring their displeasure at the party’s selection of the more moderate Hillary Clinton was on full display to the televised audience. They smuggled in sharpies, signs, and banners to unfurl in protest. Halfway through the proceedings, just as Sanders was moving to nominate Clinton, they staged a walkout.
But this year, there will be no walkouts. Harris, a registered nurse and case manager for a health provider, is once again a delegate for Sanders, as are a majority of California’s delegates, But like most every other delegate, she is watching and tweeting along from home.
“You can’t make some good trouble when everything is virtual,” she said from her house near Culver City. “But we’re trying.”
The Vermont senator won California’s March 3 primary. And long after the actual contest for the Democratic presidential nomination was over, the state remained one of the most prominent Sanders holdouts. Going into the Democratic National Convention, more than 54% of the state’s pledged delegates were committed to Sanders. But last night — as unpledged delegates weighed in and former Vice President Joe Biden claimed the nomination — California split 263 to 231 for Biden over Sanders.
Under ordinary circumstances, the convention would give California progressives an opportunity to foment internal dissent — or at the very least, to push the party apparatus and its ticket to the left.
But these are not ordinary circumstances — and not just because the array of delegates puts a premium on uniting to oust President Donald Trump. The coronavirus pandemic has rendered the party’s big coming-together event in Milwaukee this week an almost entirely online affair. That means Zoom meetings in place of boozy after-hours networking events, comments sections — when left open — in place of rowdy caucus meetings, and angry tweets in place of heckles.
Harris said a number of progressive activists made “Medicare4All” protest signs and surgical masks to display during a California delegation morning meet-up — only to realize that only the event’s main speakers would be broadcast to the entire meeting.
“I can’t say I blame them because doing it that way reduces bandwidth,” said Harris. “But it’s like, well, what can we do now?”
Norman Solomon, a California Sanders delegate from Marin County and the co-founder of the progressive activist RootsAction.org, group, said that he would be participating in the week’s events — “there are scare quotes around ‘participating.’” But so far most of the organizing he’s done has taken place parallel to the convention itself.
“We’ve spent an exorbitant number of hours on Zoom in meetings across the Bernie delegates network,” he said. “We’re making the best of the situation.”
Harris, the Los Angeles delegate, is doing the same. This week she and a few fellow Sanders supporters are livestreaming their commentary of the DNC broadcast under the name “DEM Misfit Black Girls.” A recent exchange:
“Did you hear what was missing? I’ll tell y’all: Medicare for All,” said Dallas Fowler, another Sanders delegate over a montage of testimonials from some of the also-rans of the Democratic primary campaign.
“Oh no we can’t talk about these socialist things,” Harris shot back.
“We’re continuing to express what we’re here for,” Harris explained the next day. But, she said, delegating from her couch has “taken the wind out of our sails.”
Democratic activists are generally inclined to take COVID-19 seriously and so there have been no major protests against the party’s decision to hold a socially distanced convention. But both frustrated activists and Biden loyalists agree that this year’s digital gathering has made it much tougher for anyone to cause a stir.
Bod Mulholland, a California Democratic activist who has been a delegate at 12 national conventions, said he had mixed feelings about the new format.
As one of the party members regularly tasked with roaming the convention floor hoping to make sure that “some goofball who puts up a sign” doesn’t end up on CNN, he applauded the party’s ability to control the message so far.
But something else is lost when you strip away that roaring, chaotic crowd.
“Balloons,” he said, “look great on television.”
The last time a Democratic convention actually helped pick the party’s presidential nominee was 1980. Typically in modern conventions, the nominee is a foregone conclusion. Instead the event is a highly publicized coronation: a week-long political infomercial coupled with the political world’s biggest networking event.
Networking is a lot harder to pull off this time around.
Though the televised speeches get the bulk of the national attention, “far more is done in the halls and, yes, at the bar,” said R.L. Miller, a climate activist and newly elected member of the Democratic National Committee. “It’s about meeting people in person and finding out what you have in common and also finding out where you differ — to bridge that gap, of course.”
Biden-skeptics within the party are still finding ways to express those differences and wage protests. Last week, prominent progressives including Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna voted against the party’s platform, largely because it was silent on Sanders’ hallmark proposal of expanding Medicare to all Americans.
Earlier this summer, Sanders supporters also succeeded in getting Khanna named co-chair of the state delegation. Typically, that titular role would go to the state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom. Instead, Khanna shares the role with Rep. Barbara Lee of Berkeley, a progressive who endorsed California’s U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris during the presidential primary, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, a Biden supporter.
“That configuration of three was a fallback from the power structure,” said Solomon, the Marin County delegate.“We took that as a real victory.”
Last night, as the state-by-state roll call played out in a scenic video montage from coast to coast, Lee and Solis appeared — social distancing on a windswept Pacific beach — to cast California’s votes.