Everyone Is Calling The DNC Unity Tour A Disaster. That’s Not True. I Was There.
Thousands of Utahns stumbled across the tracks and into the wrong side of town last week to pack Salt Lake City’s Rail Center. The long line of people circling the block and vendors hawking t-shirts and buttons were reminiscent of a concert, but the only headliner here was a Senator from Vermont, recently named the most popular politician in America.
Progressives came out in a big way for the Democrats Unity Tour, meant to reconcile warring factions under the leadership of newly elected chair, Tom Perez. In front of an enormous American flag, speakers rallied a sea of progressives to “come together and fight back.”
Despite a long wait to enter the venue, the crowd’s enthusiasm and energy was palpable. And while there were plenty of progressives and Democrats, many were also drawn by Sanders political stardom. Aahd Benchaouch, a University of Utah student from Morocco, said this was her first Sanders rally. She was joined by friend Sushmita Murthy, who admitted she’s only ever followed Sanders on Facebook.
Some attendees expressed skepticism of the DNC’s intentions, including Louise Edington, a former Sanders delegate. “I feel like they’re just giving us the crumbs,” she said.
Many continue to express outrage at the selection of Perez over Keith Ellison for the party chairmanship, a favorite with progressives and endorsed by Sanders himself. This traveling troupe of politicians was an effort not just to introduce America to the new DNC chair, but to soothe ruffled feathers over the recent fallout.
So how did it go? Did the DNC’s big, fat mea culpa work or did it fall flat as an insincere overture?
To be sure, the rally hit all the right notes, but with a tone of humility new to the DNC. Perez played second fiddle to Sanders, his quiet voice crackling with good humor as he was booed by a raucous crowd. He was folksy, referring to locals as “my friends,” and seeming at ease with his portion of humble pie.
Perez reiterated that he was there to learn, stating the DNC needed to earn back trust, and peppering his speech with tried and true liberal talking points. The DNC chairman also threw in a few local references that earned him a modicum of respect and hearty cheers.
“They were writing the obituary for the Affordable Care Act, and now they’re writing Jason Chaffetz’s obituary.”
By the time Sanders took the stage, the crowd had been treated to a full menu of criticism of the current administration and a sampling of the entire Dem platform, including healthcare, immigration, and education. But they were hungry for more and Sanders delivered his satisfying stump speech like a pro.
“I was told Utah was a conservative state. Doesn’t look like that from here,” he quipped, scanning the hordes of adoring fans.
Bernie launched into a diatribe about class warfare, focusing on raising the minimum wage and railing against Wall Street corruption and those who evade tax responsibility, including billionaire Donald Trump. And unlike Democrats, Sanders brought up Trump voters often, encouraging empathy for the difficult position they’ll be in when a Trump presidency leaves them high and dry.
Sanders also touched on a pain point that drew an unexpectedly resounding reaction from the Utahns in attendance. He apologized that blue dots like Salt Lake had felt abandoned in state and local politics by the Democratic Party, and he assured progressives that Tom Perez and the DNC were ready to invest in a fifty state strategy.
“The Democratic Party turned its back on some states. Those days are over,” he assured the cheering crowd. Sanders went on to offer encouragement, echoing Perez’s comments that Utah is no longer a flyover state but one that Dems believe they can win.
“I’m aware that here in Utah you have four representatives, two senators, and a governor that are Republican. This puts you in a great position. You have no place to go but up.”
While he doled out plenty of criticism for the Democrats, Sanders reminded his base that he doesn’t believe in red and blue states and that the resistance is about something much larger than personal support for his leadership.
“This is not about Bernie or Tom. It’s about you. Your children. Your parents. And the environment.”
Still, the basic divisions in the party appear to remain much the same, despite pretty speeches about seeking common ground. Democrats maintain a pragmatic approach, working within the system and striving for incremental progress towards platform goals. They’re frustrated by the constant criticism from progressives that they feel should be focused on the current administration. And for the most part, Democrats don’t seem to want to talk much about Trump voters, seeing efforts to empathize with that demographic as next door to condoning intolerance.
Progressives are convinced that Dems can’t win because they’re playing the game that Republicans set up, rigged by capitalism. They want to throw out the rule book and turn the system on its ear, supporting ideas like universal healthcare and free college tuition that Democrats say are too radical to win widespread support. And while these may seem like small differences that are a matter of degree, it’s the kind of thing that undermines efforts to advance legislation and candidates.
While the room was not an enthusiastic tidal wave of support for Perez, let’s not take a few boos and turn them into a dumpster fire of a rally that didn’t happen. Progressives showed up and they listened. Cautiously and with reservations. And Dems had to have known that headlining Bernie was going pull exactly that demographic and precisely that reaction. This tour was symbolic, an effort to prove that the DNC is comfortable with dissent and ready to embrace criticism.
Both sides are still licking their wounds from the election, disappointed not so much in the punishment received from opponents, but in the betrayal felt from allies. The Unity Tour message was clear. We’re sorry. We’re comfortable with dissent. You want Bernie, we’ll give you Bernie. But come back.
What’s not clear is if that’s an apology progressives are ready to accept.