PHILADELPHIA — It was Bernie Sanders’ moment of sweet victory. Not a convention triumph —for that was never in the cards. But the moment when he could say with pride to a cheering Democratic convention, “Together, my friends, we have begun a political revolution to transform America and that revolution — our revolution — continues.”
In speaking those words, Sanders undoubtedly remembered Ted Kennedy’s defiant concession speech at the 1980 Democratic convention that ended with the words, “And the dream shall never die.” Kennedy, along with his two martyred brothers, had built that dream over two decades. It was the hope of a restoration, a return to Camelot.
In contrast, Bernie Sanders — a 74-year-old backbench senator with a Brooklyn accent and an unruly shock of white hair — had stoked the fires of his revolution in less than a year. He had fought the Clintons, the most powerful Democratic family since the Kennedys, almost to a draw.
Whatever happens in November 2016 will be remembered as the year when the traditional structures of politics tottered and, in the case of the Republicans, toppled. Bernie Sanders, who won 13 million primary votes, wasn’t even a Democrat until the start of this campaign.
But even as he claimed victory for the cause (no Democratic president is going to rush to sign a trade treaty for decades to come), Sanders also acknowledged political reality. Rather than fume or sulk, Sanders gave his victorious rival the most full-throated endorsement that he could muster: “Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president.”
Sanders, whose dreams of being more than a gadfly depend on a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate, will probably spend the fall doing whatever he’s ask to do by Hillary and the party. He can claim, with some justice, that he inspired the forced resignation of Democratic Party Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz .
But Sanders steps out of the limelight in Philadelphia knowing that he has left his imprint on 2016. Without Bernie Sanders, phrases like “free college” and words like “socialist” would never have left the political fringe.
For the rest of the convention week — and maybe the rest of the campaign year — we will hear about the Bernie diehards who cannot bring themselves to vote for Clinton. In a close election, these stay-at-home progressives and these protest voters for Green Party candidate Jill Stein could make a difference.
They were on display Monday afternoon marching peacefully along the sweat-soaked streets around Philadelphia’s City Hall with their hand-lettered signs conveying their uncompromising mood: “Bernie or Bust” and “Going Green — Come With Us Bernie.”
The mostly youthful protesters could easily be reduced to stereotypes as innocents who didn’t remember left-wing protest votes for Ralph Nader helping elect George W. Bush in 2000. Or truculent dead-enders who didn’t understand the threat that Donald Trump poses to the norms of American democracy.
But people are rarely as easily cubby-holed as political commentary might have you expect.
Shana Lin, 46, a housewife from Virginia Beach, Virginia, was seated in a folding chair in front of the Ritz-Carlton hotel (a favored bunkhouse for Clinton bundlers) holding a sign: “You Lost Me at Hillary.”
Lin admits that she is part of “the 1 percent” as the wife of a physician raising two children in elementary school. Planning to vote for Jill Stein, she argues, “How long do we accept the corruption that’s going on in this country? There’s going to be a serious third-party movement. And I don’t care if it elects Donald Trump.”
Standing next to her with a “Never Hillary” sign, 35-year-old Jacinta Mack from Queens, New York (Donald Trump’s home borough) tried to explain the sources of her rage at politics as usual. Saddled with $85,000 in student loans from Hunter College in Manhattan (which originally was part of tuition-free City University), Mack is convinced that she will never get out of debt.
“It’s not fair the way things are,” said Mack, an executive assistant at a social service agency. “It’s not fair. Bernie is the first person who ran for president in my life who really cared. Hillary doesn’t care.”
As she spoke these passionate words about her dashed political dreams and her economic hardship, tears began to spill down her cheeks. I felt for her and all those like her trapped in an endless cycle of student debt and low-paying jobs.
And watching those tears, I thought about the impoverished farmers — with their mortgages held by callous Eastern bankers — whose rage about perpetual debt fueled the populist movement of the late 19th century. I thought about all those on breadlines 80 years ago when Franklin Roosevelt was nominated for a second term here in Philadelphia.
In his 1936 acceptance speech, FDR railed against “the economic royalists.” The greatest Democratic president in history declared at the height of his political powers, “These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”
These are words that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and maybe even Hillary Clinton can understand. And for one day, at least, the New Deal coalition came back to life on the nation’s TV screens.