MEE spoke with Egypt-hand Robert Becker, director for Sanders campaign in four key states
PHILADELPHIA, United States - Hillary Clinton may have won the crown, but the Democratic Party will never be quite the same after the insurgency carried out by grassroots activists working on the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Middle East Eye had the chance to sit down with one of leading figures of the Sanders campaign, Robert Becker. He told MEE that this is only the beginning of a broader movement by progressives to transform the Democratic Party - both ideologically, and in how it functions - from the inside.
The veteran campaign manager directed the Sanders campaign in California, Iowa, Michigan and New York. This week, he was chief whip on the floor at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) for the Sanders delegates. That was no easy feat, especially with many Sanders delegates openly rebelling against Sanders’s message that they needed to accept Clinton as the party nominee.
“We all have to come to grips with the defeat, and realise that the fight goes on, and we also have to realise how devastating the impact of a Donald Trump presidency would be,” said Becker, who has been working for the Democratic Party, domestically and internationally, for 28 years.
“What the movement needs to focus on is defeating Trump, holding this administration accountable, and working on fielding more progressive candidates.”
That message was too much for some supporters to swallow, and the Green Party’s presidential candidate Jill Stein was in town to rally disaffected “Bernie or Bust” Democrats. The chant “Jill not Hill” could be heard both from delegates inside the Wells Fargo Center and from thousands of supporters protesting on the streets of Philadelphia throughout the week.
It was a tough week for Sanders and his staff, as anyone who saw the Vermont senator’s face during Clinton’s speech on Thursday can attest. Sanders, however, is urging his supporters to see the bigger picture and has vowed to campaign for a Clinton presidency. His team points out that Sanders had said from the beginning that this would be his stance, and so, they say, he is being true to his word.
“I’m certainly not a fan of Hillary Clinton’s politics, never have been. But I won’t be going over to the Greens,” Becker said. “While the Greens might stand for some good things, they’ve never really built anything in this country [compared with] what we’ve built.”
It might be through gritted teeth, but Sanders is hoping that by backing Clinton - and therefore maintaining some leverage - other hard-fought gains will be maintained. One of the biggest such victories for the movement has been the ability to win major concessions on the party's platform.
Certainly her speech on Thursday picked up on many of the key progressive themes first put forward by Sanders. For many among Sanders' supporters, this will not be enough.
“Never lose your sense of outrage,” has been a rallying call of his campaign, and for many of the hundreds of thousands who responded to Sanders' call, that outrage is directed primarily against the Democratic Party establishment.
Beneath the calls for unity lie some serious wounds that the newly empowered left-wing faction of the party would like to see addressed. Longstanding allegations of bias against Sanders by the Democratic National Committee appear to have been justified by leaked emails.
Debbie Wasserman-Shultz has resigned as chair, but the salt has been rubbed in the wound for the Sanders team by the fact that she has been since appointed as “honourary” chair for the Clinton campaign team. Wasserman-Shultz on Thursday further raised eyebrows by declaring that she had “taken one for the team”.
“Some of the emails show that there were operational decisions to hurt Bernie Sanders,” Becker said. “I think there’s been a corrupt core in the leadership model of the Democratic National Committee. I don’t think their actions would have caused our defeat, but they did throw roadblocks in front of us.”
Clinton’s speech on Thursday represented a considerable swing to the left compared with where she had stood at the beginning of her campaign for the Democratic nomination. Major differences remain, however, between many of her views on foreign policy, and those held by Sanders supporters. Sanders has been especially vocal in his criticism of Clinton’s advocacy of a Kissinger-style “realist” foreign policy.
“I do have grave concerns about Clinton’s world outlook,” Becker confirmed.
One significant difference is over Palestine-Israel. There were disputes on the floor of the DNC after Sanders delegates held signs declaring support for Palestinian human rights that were confiscated. Becker wore a “Yalla Vote” T-shirt during his interview with MEE, part of a campaign to encourage and Arab- and Muslim-Americans to vote. Sanders has proven especially popular with this often-neglected constituency.
“We need to stop outsourcing America’s foreign policy to the Israelis,” Becker said.
Like many of the Sanders staff and supporters in Philadelphia, Becker views the campaign as part of a bigger, even global, movement. There’s a certain symmetry to the fact that he joined the Sanders campaign for grassroots-style democracy after doing similar work in post-uprising Egypt, before the curtain fell there.
Becker first received a phone call from Sanders in 2013, asking him to join his campaign.
He had just been forced to leave Egypt, where he had been the only one of 19 American NGO workers facing charges to stay and face trial. He was sentenced to prison in a politically charged case for his work at the National Democratic Institute, helping young Egyptians who wanted to form new political parties. He chose to stay on in Egypt out of solidarity with the Egyptian national staff.
He said that there are similarities in various popular movements demanding a more empowering form of democracy that have sprung up around the globe in recent years.
“I think establishment politicians around the world need to take note,” he said. “There was a day when if you control the media, you control the message. That’s not the case anymore.”