Marcia Fudge never stood a chance.
Though party officials had just named her chair of the Democratic National Convention the day before, the Ohio congressmember looked more like an exasperated public school principal, patience already worn thin mere hours into the first day of school. As Fudge addressed the crowd from the stage, a mutiny was under way at the Democratic National Convention.
As Fudge spoke, a vocal minority of delegates booed any mention of party unity or Hillary Clinton, chanting Bernie Sanders’ name at every opportunity. Finally, unable to control the rowdy crowd, Fudge did what any self-respecting disciplinarian would do. She lifted a hand in the air and said “Excuse me!”
“I am going to be respectful of you,” she said, the crowd briefly stunned to silence. “And I want you to be respectful of me.”
It worked, but only for a moment, much like a lonely plea for civility in the comments section. Sanders supporters were soon back to shouting down everyone from US representative Elijah Cummings to their one-time #FeeltheBern comrade, comedian Sarah Silverman.
The online pundits were shocked—shocked!—that the Democratic convention was turning out so much hairier than the Republican convention last week. But if you didn’t see this coming, you haven’t really been spending a lot of time online this election season.
After all, the Internet is what transformed Bernie Sanders—once a marginal independent, a congressional curiosity—into a primary threat, a credible rival to one of the past three decades’ consummate politicians. Far from shocking, the voluble dissent expressed on the convention floor was simply Sanders’ online campaign spilling out into real life. As they are on the Internet, Sanders’ supporters were noisy. They were opinionated. They were divisive. They were unapologetic. They weren’t polite, because the medium on which they met, discovered the movement, and banded together to life Sanders so close to the nomination is none of those things.
Only one day in, the 2016 DNC is already the defining convention of the Internet age. A cyber-attack straight out of Mr. Robot turned the event upside-down before it even started, re-inflaming Sanders supporters’ festering resentments toward the party establishment. Those feelings and the urge to express them weren’t going to go away just because party regulars turned on a few stage lights, not for a movement forged in the aggressively impolite arenas of Reddit and Twitter. The great irony then, was that on Monday night, the tool upon which the Clinton campaign had to rest its hopes for quelling this rebellion was an old-fashioned, made-for-TV, prime time speech by Sanders himeslf.
Well, that and Paul Simon singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Who can stay mad after that?
The brutal primary competition between Clinton and Sanders exposed fractures in the Democratic Party, but you had to go online to see how deep those divisions went. Anger and antagonism have reverberated through the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook for the past year. Now in Philadelphia, those divisions echoed across the convention hall for all to hear.
“This is as real as a heart attack” said Cenk Uygur, host of the progressive web series The Young Turks.
Dissent on the convention floor was simply Sanders’ online campaign spilling out into real life.
The role of the Internet in facilitating Sanders’ rise can’t be overstated. A truly transformative digital campaign empowered the progressive masses to speak for the candidate, not the other way around. The Sanders campaign welcomed volunteer coders and wound up hiring some of its biggest digital cheerleaders. Tech-savvy Berners launched an app that encouraged people to go canvassing without ever having to step foot in a campaign office. They held Debate with Bernie nights to push Sanders’ debate stage message across social media.
And it worked. The Sanders campaign received a staggering, record-breaking eight million individual donations, out-raising the Clinton campaign several months over. And the more Sanders’ supporters declared they were #BernieorBust online, the more compelled they were to live it offline. What the rest of the country is seeing in Philadelphia this week is the result of thousands of online promises kept.
“That bond creates a situation where they don’t want to break and go back and fall in line,” Uygur says of Sanders supporters.
The vibe in the hall wasn’t altogether unlike a hashtag battle.
Instead, they get angry—not only because their candidate lost, but because for so many of Sanders’ young supporters especially, he was the first candidate they ever actually cared about.
“We believed we had a chance to elect someone who was different,” says Jennifer Leister, a 24-year-old delegate from Virginia. “For a lot of people it was the first election they ever paid attention to.”
That’s not to say Sanders’ older delegates weren’t upset, too. “I did cry,” said Sarah Mahler, a delegate from Reno, Nevada. But at a rally for his supporters earlier in the day, Mahler watched with dismay as her fellow Berners booed Sanders when he suggested Clinton should be president. “They do things much more publicly,” Mahler said of the younger backers. “This is a different generation. Maybe this is a stage of grieving.”
As the arena filled Monday evening, however, that grief looked a lot more like rage. Chants of “Not for sale!” and “Bernie! Bernie!” drowned out the sound of Hillary Clinton supporters trying their hardest to force unity on the hall. The vibe wasn’t altogether unlike the hashtag battles that played out on any primary debate night, pitting #FeeltheBern against #ImWithHer. As on Twitter, neither side could hear or wanted to hear what the other was saying. As scorned Sanders supporters jeered Silverman’s endorsement of Clinton, the comedian ad-libbed, “Can I just say to the #BernieOrBust people, you’re being ridiculous.” Within moments, Silverman’s name was trending on Twitter.
Still, even the most Reddit-hardened online combatants are not immune to the powers of IRL charisma. First Lady Michelle Obama held the room as she described the feeling she got seeing her daughters, “two beautiful, intelligent, black young women” playing on the White House lawn and waking up as a black first lady in “a house that was built by slaves.”
“So don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again,” Obama said in an undisguised dig at Donald Trump. “Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth.”
Not a boo was heard, not even when Obama subtly wagged a finger at Bernie supporters themselves by slipping in a line about how Clinton responded to her own primary season loss eight years ago. “Hillary didn’t get angry or disillusioned,” she said. “Hillary didn’t pack up and go home.”
But even through New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the only person who really had a chance to extinguish the flame war brought to life was Sanders himself. Originally scheduled to appear before the First Lady, convention planners rearranged the schedule late in the day. Sanders, as ever, would be the headliner.
He took the stage to more than two minutes of steady, deafening applause from both Clinton and Sanders supporters, all of them on their feet. Within minutes, photos of his tearful backers had gone viral.
What Sanders said wasn’t materially different from what he’s said for the last year: that income inequality is a societal ill, that the country needs to get corporate money out of politics, that the “system” needs to work for everyone, not just those at the top. The big difference was his unqualified support for Clinton.
“Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.” Sanders said. After a full day of infighting, Sanders managed to end the night—and, in effect, his campaign—on a note of mutual assent and compromise, political realism and an eye toward the greater good. No one even booed. In the Internet age, sometimes that’s the most you can ask for.