Bernie Sanders, Sheepdog Socialist

Bernie Sanders, Sheepdog Socialist

Bernie Sanders speaking at the Democratic National Convention, July 25 (ABC Television Group / Flickr)

For Unconventional, Dissent's DNC blog, David Greenberg and Jesse Myerson report from the convention floor.

“I’m going to be really honest with you,” says Sandy Przybylak, a Bernie Sanders delegate from Buffalo, New York. “Up until a year ago, I was a pretty moderate Democrat.” She fits the bill: as a homeowner with a 401(k), a union job at a medical assistant at a county hospital, and good insurance through AFSCME, she says “I have the American dream.”

Then, she got “sheepdogged” by Bernie Sanders. “Sheepdogs are herders,” wrote Bruce A. Dixon, “and the sheepdog candidate is charged with herding activists and voters back into the Democratic fold who might otherwise drift leftward and outside of the Democratic Party.” Sanders herded Przybylak not into the Democratic flock, though, but into the Democratic Socialists of America.

Just after the formal roll call vote on Tuesday evening, at whose conclusion Sanders officially nominated Clinton, Przybylak and several comrades were taking refuge in hall of the Wells Fargo Center, its star-spangled decor better catered to the many excitable Democrats taking selfies with party figureheads than the small group of leftists regrouping after Sanders’s loss.

“What brought me to Bernie initially was the college tuition thing,” she explains. “My son-in-law had to take a job with the border patrol because he couldn’t get a job as a teacher, with a Masters in Secondary English Education, that paid enough to pay off his college loans.” Once she began following Sanders, the realizations cascaded. “Compared to a lot of my brothers and sisters, I have it good. It just kind of hit me. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Because Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist, and because the organization held a fundraiser picnic to help the Buffalo delegation afford the trip to the convention, Przybylak began to look into DSA. “I like what they have to say,” she found, about economic justice and income inequality—“you know, all the things that Bernie’s about, basically.”

With her new membership in a socialist organization, Przybylak plans to support progressive candidates like Zephyr Teachout with petitioning and fundraising, and may run for local office herself. “I know the revolution’s going to continue,” she says. “It’s not him, us.”

She remains reluctant, however, to support Hillary Clinton. In this, she is joined not just by other members of socialist groups, but even by people whose “sheepdogging” unfolded more traditionally.

Cat Williams, a Sanders delegate from Redmond, Washington, has long been registered as a Democrat, but only recently became an active member in the party. A new member of the King County Democrats and the 45th Legislative District Democrats, her post-convention plan echos Przybylak’s: volunteering and working hard for the campaigns of progressive down-ballot candidates. “I would never have been that involved if it weren’t for Senator Sanders,” she says.

Her participation in the Democratic Party is not without some agony. “It’s a lot of pressure for us to switch and support Hillary,” she says. “But we’ve put our lives into this movement, and if that is going to happen for certain Sanders supporters, it’s going to take time.” Recent days have exacerbated reservations about Clinton. In selecting Tim Kaine as the Vice Presidential nominee and awarding Debbie Wasserman Schultz an Honorary Campaign Chair after Wikileaks revealed her to have violated her charge as DNC Chair to remain neutral during the primary process, Clinton appears to be asking less for party unity than total capitulation. “When we talk about party unity,” Williams says, “I want to be united with as well.”

Like Przybylak, Williams’s eye is on the horizon. “We always knew that this was just the beginning,” she says. “I’m looking to what Bernie has inspired for decades to come. I’m excited to see what we can do, I mean all of us, in solidarity, as a movement, in the future.”

It is clear that Przybylak, Williams, and many Sanders delegates view their political orientation as meaningfully distinct from—and often in opposition to—Clinton’s. At the DNC, they are being asked to become enthusiastic about someone whose politics they don’t admire or agree with. It is more likely that they will join with Clinton’s supporters along different lines—in a temporary alliance devoted to defeating Donald Trump.

While the polling suggests the vast majority of Sanders supporters are open to this alliance, Democrats ought not to be too pleased just yet. It does not benefit a party to alienate its activists, whose mobilization is required to actually turn out votes. The more other political operations like DSA or Sanders’s burgeoning Our Revolution become viable, the less benefit Democrats are likely to derive from sheepdogging.


Jesse A. Myerson is an activist and writer living in New York City.

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