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Attracted by Bernie, deflected by the Democratic Party process

Matt Lester sat down recently with a Precinct 213 Bernie delegate to the 2016 Thurston County Democratic Convention.  Antoine Federici (pseudonym) is a fellow traveler of social movements and first time delegate. Reflecting on his experience, Federici discussed the opportunities and pitfalls of the delegate process, and how to funnel people into movements beyond the grasp of the Democratic Party. The hope is that processing the Bernie moment with Federici and others can open pathways for a rich, socialist movement that is bigger than Bernie.

Let’s start by talking about how you got involved in being a delegate.

I became interested in becoming a delegate for Bernie Sanders because he was the first candidate in my lifetime with that much popularity who was able to speak about accessible healthcare and trying to eradicate the high cost of college tuition. He was someone who was really speaking about the unfettered power of big banks, and did not fit into the typical neoliberal democrat candidate category. I went to the caucus with the intention of becoming a delegate because I really did believe that Bernie was a positive change as a Democratic candidate.

It was really striking to me how many more of my peers had become interested in politics because of Bernie Sanders. These were people who might have had the general idea that we live in a dysfunctional society but the campaign catapulted a lot of people into a political awakening of sorts—a mass emergence.

What made you decide to become a delegate versus simply showing up to the caucus? Was being a delegate what you thought it was going to be? Did you feel like it gave you the influence that you hoped for?

For starters, I really did not want to have a delegate who would later become a Hillary supporter because of the fear of Trump. I was really there for people who I had spoken to on the streets who were excited about Bernie Sanders. It was one of the first times in my lifetime that there was not a “lesser of two evils” candidate.  I also wanted to make sure I could push certain issues that are important to me, such as the defunding of the Merida initiative. I wanted to push issues beyond a large tax on corporations. I became a delegate with the intention of meeting like-minded people—people who had just gotten their feet wet in the political pool. I wanted to inspire them to see that capitalism is unsustainable and destructive and needs to be stopped and that there are movements outside of the electoral process. Maybe these political newcomers were people who didn’t have much education regarding the political economy of the United States and of the world but they wanted to learn more. Those were the types I wanted to meet at the caucus.

Those were some of the hopes that you had as a delegate but how did it actually go down? What lessons did you learn?

As I mentioned, I was hoping that somehow the Sanders campaign would influence a lot of people, especially younger people, to mobilize politically as activists, not just as delegates for Sanders.

I went to the County Caucus expecting to quickly be organized by precinct. The reality was very different. Instead we essentially waited around in the auditorium for six hours as we heard different excuses for why our next delegate selection process was taking so long. We also heard empty speeches.

So many people left remarkably frustrated that they hadn’t voiced their opinion or even taken part in the selection process. So many young people there who were recently engaged by Sanders left very disengaged. 

Did the structure that they gave you allow a way to meet people?  What would you have done differently to achieve your hope of meeting like-minded people?

Instead of being concerned about the wording of my initiative, I think I should’ve been a little bit more pessimistic. I could have been plugging the group Economics for Everyone or another group, or upcoming events. I think that might have been more worthwhile than just writing initiatives—funneling people into something outside of the terrible delegate process.

How long did this process take?

 I definitely went there with the intention of leaving after 2 1/2 or three hours— I’m certain that few people were prepared to be waiting there for six or seven hours, which was what ended up happening.

Did the structure of the caucus limit who was able to participate? In other words could people who had a full-time job or parents be delegates?

The main thing I noticed was that people with families were concerned that they had just spent their entire Sunday afternoon at the caucus when it probably should’ve taken 45 minutes, if it was efficient. I think it shaped who could participate because if you were working a night shift or perhaps working very early in the next morning, you would be concerned about getting home and spending some time with family and friends or just getting rest.

Did they pay or feed you during the process?

There’s no compensation at all for being a delegate. There were some crackers and chips but it was pretty minimal. There was definitely no meal provided. I think having these things should be a minimum standard for people who are trying to participate in a democracy.

There’s a phrase often aimed at people who are not participants in the electoral process—“if you don’t vote you don’t get to complain.” That thinking seems to extend to all aspects of electoral politics. After you participated to a much greater extent than many people, did that make you want to participate in Democratic Party politics more or less?

Well, the Democratic Party is definitely a fairly hopeless cause. However I still don’t regret that I made an attempt to provide a strong counter-narrative during the process. Even though it was a time suck, I still think I would’ve wanted to participate because I am very pro Sanders. But I think it’s more important to funnel people into social movements.

How were movements like the Fight for 15, #blacklivesmatter, Occupy, or Palestine Solidarity represented in the delegate process? Were these movements present only in the insurgent Democratic platform or did people encourage others to show up to events that they were planning?

Basically the structure was so terrible that there really wasn’t a moment to be seized by Black Lives Matter or Palestine Solidarity. Mostly, resolutions were read and occasionally there would be votes to change the wording. A lot of these changes were pretty minor in my opinion. I thought a lot of it was just semantics, or the distracting nature of fights over language on the left, where they often take precedent over actual issues. The small changes definitely exasperated people, even if they were a contingency of people who were really pushing for them. It became clear after the first two or three platforms were read that our efficiency was terrible and we shouldn’t focus on semantics—it was preventing too many people from participating.

What was the highest level you got to you as a delegate and how long did it last?

I never got past the county level because I left at 11 at night, something like that—and I wasn’t even among the last to leave. I started at 2 pm, so that’s nine hours.  It’s amazing how many people stayed even longer than I did.

Did you get breaks?

We had too many breaks.

Was the poor structure due to not enough people helping to plan, or was this structure designed to diminish the role people played as delegates?

I can’t confidently say that the structure of this delegation process was intentionally designed to prevent people from participating in the Democratic Party. But it is clear that the Democratic Party is so “establishment,” with so few people actually in the know, that these kind of things are a natural result of politics that excludes massive amounts of people. The process ends up being in the hands of a few highly educated, often privileged people who have managed to find their way to the top of the Democratic Party.

What advice would you give or what lessons would you pass on to someone who wants to be a delegate if there were another Sanders-like candidate running as a Democrat?

You should be going to these types of events with the hopes of meeting people that you can funnel into social movements.

I know you have participated in a number of social movements. As a student organizer, you’ve been involved in Black Lives Matter, antiwar causes, and solidarity with undocumented people who are struggling against ICE detention. Those movements are often accused of being disorganized and unstructured—especially if they’re in influenced by anarchism. But after being a delegate, how would you compare the Democratic Party’s organizational structure with social movements?

Because people are attracted to the anti-authoritarian aspect of leftist movements, sometimes the “enforcement” of non-hierarchical structure takes precedent over actual issues. Democrats who are in administrative positions at the caucus are more than just complicit with a highly bureaucratic, hierarchical, and exclusionary political model. They are likely fearful that a more inclusive structure could result in mainstream Democrats forfeiting some of their power to more leftist individuals. Because of this, few make it to the Democratic National Convention because it’s a remarkably rigorous and bureaucratic process.

It is true that there’s often a lack of cohesive planning between movements on the left, but the disparity in resources between leftist movements and the Democratic Party cannot be overstated. In spite of this, I think that leftists cannot afford to dismiss any candidate or opportunity just because the Democratic Party is involved. The sheer amount of human resources the Democratic Party has, demonstrated by the amount of people they were able to draw to the caucus on a Sunday afternoon with little to no compensation, means that leftists must take advantage of these resources when possible.

Matt Lester is involved in a variety of Olympia social movements. He is a member of Economics for Everyone, a group that hosts free monthly workshops, presentations and book groups discussing economic literacy, inequality and the crises of capitalism.



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