Why the Bernie Sanders speech at the DNC failed

Throughout his speech at the DNC last night, Bernie Sanders spoke from multiple perspectives—too many perspectives for the speech to function as a unifying, mobilizing moment for this former democratic candidate who endorsed Hillary Clinton earlier this month–and who wants to prevent Donald Trump from winning the White House.

At the beginning of the speech, Bernie Sanders started speaking as presidential candidate—which he (despite the DNC email controversy) no longer is.  Thanking his supporters in the opening of the speech (and I was one) only fueled the anger and division he claimed to be fighting against in his explicit endorsement of Hillary Clinton.

This directly contradicted the statements at the closing of his speech that argued that we become stronger when we fight together.

Emphasizing how much his campaign raised—“an unprecedented 8 million in individual contributions”—likely left many of his supporters disillusioned and questioning if that money went to waste.

Effective speeches evoke strong emotional ties with the audience members.  At the beginning, Sanders really only addressed his supporters, his delegates—delegates he still expects will vote for him during tonight’s role call.

This leaves us asking: “Bernie, are you pushing for democrats to support Hillary or not?”

He thanked 13 million people “who voted for the political revolution.”  These are the people who voted for him.  This implies to 16 million plus voters who supported Hillary Clinton and who favor her nomination now that there is no revolution.  And that would be fine—if Sanders were not intent on ensuring Donald Trump does not win the presidency.

Maybe this was his way of calming the 1, 846 pledged delegates at the DNC who will vote for his nomination tonight.  But then we’re still left—divided as an audience—wondering: “So what’s your point, Bernie?”

Almost seven minutes into the speech, he recognizes the disappointment in the result of the nomination process.  Just when we think the speech will turn and focus on the need for unity in the democratic party—which is what Bernie emphasizes later in the speech—he still focuses on his supporters who should “take enormous pride in the historical accomplishments we have achieved.”  (He should have used “historic.”)

We’re still wondering, “Where are you going with this, Bernie?”

He says “our revolution continues” but we’re wondering, “How?”

What follows came off as a hodgepodge of stump speeches that rattle of important issues but create no emotional tension or connection between Sanders and the audience.  We hear about the decline of the middle class, the single mom from Nevada, the fight for higher minimum wage and Trump’s opposition, potential Supreme Court nominees, student debt, and the list goes on.

When I listen to speeches, I listen for the arc—some highpoint that will make the audience feel solidly emotionally connected and deeply intellectually engaged.  In Bernie Sanders’s  speech, there was no arc.

The way he talked about every issue, in tone, in structure, in detail, in social merit, made all of them blur.  Perhaps he aimed for equality in the treatment of the issues in his speech.  But when speakers aim to mobilize large groups, there has to be some unifying idea that brings all supporters and potential supporters together.

The structure, the order of Bernie Sanders’s ideas left us feeling we could give importance to the issues the mattered the most to us individually, not collectively.  This, therefore, leaves the audience divided and ready to mobilize in separate directions toward the individual issues that matter or don’t.

He takes specific jabs at Donald Trump, especially with healthcare, which moves Sanders into another identity at the mic: Trump critic.  So we ask again: “Bernie, what’s your point?”

There could have been a high point in the speech.  The audience in the arena and at home could have erupted in applause when Sanders says:

We become stronger when men and women, young and old, gay and straight, native born and immigrant fight to create the kind of country we all know we can become.

But we didn’t.  In the long litany of social issues, this series of identities felt like a long list of ideas—too many ideas for the audience to feel unified.

And because Sanders admits that he and Clinton “disagree on a number of issues” at the closing of the speech, the audience is left doubting the value of the collaboration he stressed early in the speech.  And we still wonder, because of this, if the presumptive nominee should have our full support.

The most ineffective part of the speech, however, appears at the end when, almost as if he’s been told to (and maybe he has) he says that he is “proud to stand with her here tonight.”

And so the last image that we have of Bernie Sanders is that of a disappointed man who once seemed unbeatable.  That’s just not a good way for a politician popular among so many–so many young people especially–to go out.

Added 6:28 p.m.

After I watched Bernie Sanders’s brother Larry dedicate his delegate vote for his brother, I thought, “That was it! THAT’S the story Bernie Sanders should have opened with last night.”  And if his speech had been tightened a bit, he would have walked off the stage a winner in the eyes of many.

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