The Democratic Convention Aims for the Center and Spurns Progressives

“I cast New York’s votes,” said nurse Scheena Tannis, “44 votes for Sen. Bernie Sanders and 277 for our next president Joe Biden.” She pointed at the camera. “It’s Joe time!”

On Tuesday night, the Democratic National Convention showcased a delegate roll call from U.S. states and territories. Each time one of them announced how many votes went to Sanders or Biden, it inadvertently exposed the split between the centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic Party.

One goal of the Democratic National Convention is to suppress that split for the sake of party unity. Yet the cost of that suppression is that popular progressive policies are obscured by a cult of personality boosterism. In contrast, the Progressive Democrats of America is holding a five-day People’s Convention (from August 16-August 20) that focuses on ideas (not personalities), strategies to safeguard the elections and a vision to hold the country accountable for racism.

When compared to the substance of the People’s Convention, the Democratic National Convention’s use of emotional appeals looks increasingly vacuous. The Democratic Party is torn between the corporate world, a college-educated white middle class and a multiracial working-class base, and is attempting to reconcile them with centrist reforms. In doing so, the Democratic Party is missing a chance for systemic change that can rescue the masses of people sliding into economic depression. Democrats may win the election, but they risk losing the future.

A Tale of Two Conventions

The Zoom call that launched the People’s Convention on Sunday felt like an intimate conversation between activists and organizers. Led by Progressive Democrats of America, which was founded in 2004 in the wake of the Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich presidential campaigns, the group’s guiding strategy is an “inside/outside” method that works alongside but also independent of the Democratic Party. This is why Progressive Democrats of America takes bolder positions like calling for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, protecting voting rights, an end to war and overturning Citizen’s United.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the Democratic National Convention hit the big screen. According to The Hill, roughly 18.6 million watched, but that is a 30 percent decrease compared to the 2016 convention. As the flagship program for the Democrats, it was a slick, well-produced show. Side by side were Zoom call-ins from voters at home and in cars and stately flag-draped backdrops where party officials made their pitches for Biden. The overall arc of the convention builds from individual stories and party stalwarts invoking history toward the official nomination at which Biden reintroduces himself to the voting public. Before, he was Obama’s wingman. Now, he will save “the soul of America.”

Back at the People’s Convention, Progressive Democrats of America Executive Director Alan Minsky told Truthout: “If Biden wins, we have to focus on moving an agenda forward in an administration that’s not a Sanders or Warren one. I think there is one vibrant, ascendant movement, and that is the progressive movement. It’s rooted in a rejection of the neoliberal direction the country started on under Reagan.”

The People’s Convention is singularly focused on naming explicit policies that the larger, glitzier Democratic National Convention sidesteps. One example is Senator Sanders’s signature issue of a national health care system.

On Sunday’s online Zoom conference, a segment was set aside for a panel on Medicare for All. It came on the heels of the exclusion of Medicare for All from the Democratic platform. On the panel, Paul Song said, “It is easy to be a little dejected … but I want to shed a little perspective…. Many times, we felt like lone wolves speaking out in the wilderness…. [We] now have overwhelming support [for Medicare for All] — I think it’s 80 plus percent among Democrats and 69 percent among independents.”

In contrast, at the second day of the Democratic National Convention, Biden’s personal story of immense loss was used to anchor his commitment to making health care accessible. His wife, Neilia Hunter, and daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash in 1972. His son Beau Biden died from brain cancer in 2015. Biden described the presidency as “a duty to care.” In a recorded talk with families, he assured them, “We’re going to make sure we don’t lose the ACA [Affordable Care Act]; we’re going to provide a Medicare-like option as a public option.”

Yet, as reported in Jacobin, despite the talks between the Biden and Sanders teams on policy, and the public option being in the official Democratic platform, it’s most likely a ruse. Andrew Perez and David Sirota write that a Biden victory will be due to “red and purple” states with moderate representatives. Meanwhile, Democrats have been given $86 million from the health care industry, and that same industry is likely to spend tens of millions on ads to “demonize” the public option. For these reasons, despite Biden’s intimate knowledge of pain and loss, a Biden administration seems likely to only offer modest tweaks to the Affordable Care Act.

Another telling contrast between the People’s Convention and the DNC was the ratio of Republicans to progressives in the Democratic National Convention. In essence, the left was left behind. On the first day, Republicans from Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to former Congressman and Gov. John Kasich were joined by former Secretary of State Colin Powell on day two in lining up for Biden. Yet “The Squad” was not showcased.

Only two nationally known faces of the progressive movement, Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were allotted time to speak. Sanders said, “Our campaign ended months ago, but our movement continues … many of the ideas that just a few years ago were considered radical are today mainstream.” But it was Ocasio-Cortez who had the most memorable moment.

A Long, Slow March

A famous saying in progressive circles is that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. It is a bitter, if humorous, semi-truth — one countered by the famous line by German 1960s student Communist Rudi Dutschke of progress being “a long march through the institutions.” Dutschke’s sentiment is akin to the Progressive Democrats of America’s strategy of working inside and outside a larger, more mainstream organization. The near-torturous work of going against the tide is not lost on its members.

“The Democratic Party is unwilling to break with the policy wishes of Wall Street, and the whole corporate logic. But since the 2008 crash, it is the logic that has been rejected,” Minsky told Truthout. “Now they have Biden. If he gets elected and the establishment pursues the Blackstone agenda of finance capital, the Republican Party will rise from the dead.”

When asked why the Democratic Party doubles down on centrist policies when progressive ones are gaining popularity, Minsky replied, “The party has two core constituencies that are at odds: You have finance capital and billionaires, [and] you have lower-middle- and working-class voters.”

Each night, that tension runs between the People’s Convention and the Democratic National Convention. Here are two competing — and in a few places, overlapping — visions. The only sign of hope in the hype and bombast of the DNC is that refusal to concede in Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s face as she stares into the camera and sees a future that we need right now.