After Sanders' Defeat, Delegates Look For A New Road To 'Revolution'

Jul 29, 2016

Many delegates from Vermont arrived at the Democratic National Convention this week ready to continue the political battle for Bernie Sanders. They’re now coming to terms with the fact that the convention in Philadelphia has marked the end of his presidential campaign.

Early Tuesday morning, about 12 hours before Bernie Sanders would formally concede his candidacy, delegates from Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine gathered in the conference room of a chain hotel for the group breakfasts they’ve been sharing all week.

The three states are prime Bernie territory, and the tired faces on some delegates betrayed a sense of looming defeat.

Among the parade of speakers working to salve the emotional wounds was Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and 2004 presidential candidate. Dean said he knows what it’s like to see the long march end for the people who worked so hard to advance it.

“Look, I remember what this was like,” Dean said. “I remember how people slept on floors for weeks and months at a time. I know how hard this is.”

Dean’s observations shed light on why these losses sting so badly.

“The democratic system was intended [to] and has largely succeeded bloody political transfers where vast numbers of people were murdered. Politics was a substitute for war,” Dean said.

"The democratic system was intended [to] and has largely succeeded bloody political transfers where vast numbers of people were murdered. Politics was a substitute for war." — Former Gov. Howard Dean

In a campaign framed by Sanders from the outset as a revolution, some delegates here, like Hartford Rep. Kevin Christie, see the loss through the lens of battle.

“I’m a soldier. We’re Spartans,” Christie said. “We just hope we never have to carry our soldiers out on their shield.”

Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie is a member of the Vermont delegation and a Sanders supporter.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

But many say Sanders’ influence over the political army he’s built during his four decades in public office shouldn’t necessarily wane, despite the fact that he’s no longer carrying the presidential banner.

Matt Birong, a delegate from Vergennes, says the people that followed Sanders’ plea to stoke political revolution should now consider his call to unify behind their former adversary.

“And what I keep trying to remind them is, he is the political leader of this revolution. He started it,” Birong says. “And you talk about revolutions. All revolutions have generals. That general is Bernie Sanders.”

Until this week, Hillary Clinton may have been the enemy for some Sanders supporters. But Birong says sometimes, strategic allegiances necessarily shift.

“And your commander-in-chief basically told you, this is how we have to play this out right now,” Birong says. “So you’ve listened to him to this point, why are you trying to go rogue on him now?”

Sanders attempted to reign in those rogues at a rally in downtown Philadelphia Monday afternoon. Upon hearing his call to vote for Clinton, many in the crowd of thousands who’d shown up to hear him began to boo.

"Your commander-in-chief basically told you, this I how we have to play this out right now. So you've listened to him to this point, why are you trying to go rogue on him now?" — Matt Birong, a delegate from Vergennes

Sanders pressed on.

“Brothers and sisters, this is the real world that we live in,” Sanders said. “[Donald] Trump is a bully and a demagogue.”

Many of the pro-Sanders delegates are now working to find their new place in that world.

As red, white and blue balloons floated from the rafters of the Wells Fargo Arena after Hillary Clinton’s nomination acceptance speech Thursday night, Jo Sabel Courtney, a Sanders delegate from Stowe, struck an optimistic tone.

Red, white and blue balloons descend on the crowd in the Wells Fargo Center Thursday night celebrating completion of the 2016 DNC and the newly-minted nominee, Hillary Clinton. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders are now grappling with what's next for their "political revolution."
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

“So this is our sendoff into the revolution. Let’s put it that way,” Sabel Courtney said. “This is our sendoff.”

Courtney says it isn’t that she was “bowled over” by the speech, or that she’s necessarily going to support the new nominee. But she says Clinton’s focus on the economic and social justice issues that Sanders introduced to the campaign give her hope that the movement won’t end alongside his candidacy.

“Thank you Hillary campaign for our sendoff into the revolution,” Sabel Courtney said, “because we’re going to revolutionize the Democratic Party.”

VPR's coverage of the presidential conventions is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.