We’re Having a Different Conversation Than Them

Bernie Sanders didn’t attend Netroots Nation last weekend. That’s because he knows who the real audience for his democratic-socialist politics is (working people, not the Daily Kos crowd).

Hahnemann University Hospital, Philadelphia, PA, July 20, 2010. Scott McLeod / Flickr

On Monday, at Bernie Sanders’s rally to save Hahnemann University Hospital, the Philadelphia teaching hospital that was purchased and then run into the ground by California-based private equity firms, I asked a few attendees a simple and yet profoundly stupid-sounding question: “What is Netroots Nation?”

The liberal and local press have been, over the past few days, making a big deal out of Bernie’s absence from the progressive conference (organized by the Daily Kos; held in Philly last weekend; about 4,000 attendees this year; cost for registration ranged from $255 to $895, with the latter being the “true, unsubsidized cost to attend”), which a few other presidential candidates, most notably Elizabeth Warren, did attend. “He’s letting Warren have the conversation to herself,” said Daily Kos spokesperson Carolyn Fiddler in an interview with the Guardian, “and I don’t know why he would do that.”

People on the ground at Hahnemann, however, didn’t seem quite so concerned. “Netroots? I’m not familiar,” said Lamar, a Hahnemann patient who told me he’d checked out of the hospital to attend the rally and would have to check back in afterwards (he raised his wrist as he said this to show me his hospital wristband). “I’ve always sort of heard about it but not exactly known what it was,” said James, a software developer from Washington, DC. “I actually don’t really know,” said Maria Gutierrez, an oncology nurse at Hahnemann. “If I was to take a guess, I would guess it has something to do with a grassroots movement involving social media or an internet connection?”

Will Bunch, in his coverage of Netroots for the Philadelphia Inquirer, tried to tell you on Monday that Netroots is where we choose the “president of the American left,” that Sanders’s absence was “palpable,” and that Warren successfully claimed a “moral victory” by attending the Daily Kos’s 2020 presidential candidates forum on Saturday and giving a speech and being enthusiastically applauded by the audience. While the things she was being cheered for were good and fine (an end to Trump’s immigration enforcement policies), the claim that Netroots Nation is where the American left selects its candidate is dubious.

To say that is to argue that an expensive progressive confab moderated by longtime Bernie critic Markos Moulitsas represents the US left is to say nothing for or about the American working class, who absolutely have to be central to any movement for real political change — and who were on Philadelphia’s streets in the hundreds this week with Bernie Sanders.

Absent from the rally in front of the hospital? Every other Democratic candidate, including Joe Biden, whose campaign headquarters is less than a mile away, and, though she was in the neighborhood for the weekend’s Netroots Nation conference, Elizabeth Warren.

A Matter of Life and Death

Philadelphia’s left has bigger problems to worry about right now than who is or isn’t at Netroots.

Local unions like PASNAP, politicians including City Councilmember Helen Gym and State Representative Elizabeth Fiedler, and Philly DSA, along with other local activist groups, have been holding rallies and pickets protesting the impending closure of Hahnemann University Hospital since it was announced on June 26.

The situation at Hahnemann is dire: the hospital was purchased in 2018 by Joel Freedman, an investment banker whose full-time grift seems to be buying at-risk hospitals in working-class neighborhoods, cutting union jobs and necessary services to save money, relying on government money to eke out a profit, and shutting the hospital down if he can’t.

The nurses’ union, PASNAP, suspects that Freedman’s plan for Hahnemann was always to close the hospital, with one nurse telling the Philadelphia Weekly, “I used to see him telling people, ‘What a great building, great location …’ There’s a reason why you say ‘great location’ when you’re talking about a hospital.” Local real estate developers are already “sensing opportunity.” Freedman has spoken in interviews about the “continuing, unsustainable financial losses” suffered by Hahnemann and about the need to cut costs in order to keep the hospital open, but the essential problem, the one that no amount of corner-cutting can solve, is that providing necessary health care for poor people is not and will never be profitable, which is why, as Sanders points out in nearly every speech, every other major country on Earth treats health care not as a potentially profitable industry but as a human right.

Hahnemann University Hospital sees more than fifty thousand patients annually, most of whom are working class, two-thirds of whom are people of color, many of whom are uninsured or underinsured, and some of whom would have no other option for medical care. In North Philadelphia, the poorest neighborhood in one of the poorest large cities in the country, shutting down a safety-net hospital will have dire consequences. “The closure of Hahnemann hospital will cost people’s lives,” Hahneman Nurses United President Sue Bowes said in a speech in front of the building on Monday. “People will get sicker waiting for care. This is a public health crisis.”

“I’m really concerned about the hospital shutting down,” said Gutierrez, who works on the fifteenth floor of the hospital’s north tower. “I’m concerned about what the patients are going to be doing when there’s an influx in other hospitals. I’m concerned also for my coworkers. There have been nurses who have been working here for over thirty years … This is a travesty. It’s unbelievable. It’s too big to close.

“But us nurses, and I know the patients, too, probably, really appreciate Bernie coming down and standing up with us, alongside of us.”

As of now, Hahnemann is still slated to close in September, though Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney and Governor Tom Wolf have committed $15 million of state and municipal money to keep the hospital operating in the meantime. During his speech at the rally, Sanders announced two pieces of legislation aimed at not just saving Hahnemann but preventing future Hahnemanns: a bill, soon to be introduced in the Senate, that would reserve $20 billion for states to directly buy hospitals in financial distress, and another bill that would ban private equity funds from owning hospitals in the first place. Both plans received raucous applause from those gathered in front of Hahnemann.

What Makes Bernie Different

Bunch’s column on Netroots claims, in its conclusion, that “only Warren can unite two critical primary voting blocs — 2016 Sanders voters shopping for a newer progressive, and suburban women who’ve been the backbone of groups like Indivisible and who still resent Sanders for challenging Clinton.” Like all the other pro-Warren pieces you’ve seen and will continue to see in the progressive media, Bunch’s article is based on totally backwards premises about how politics and power work.

If Sanders manages to win the 2020 Democratic primary, it won’t be because professional-managerial class voters who “shop” for candidates came around to him, and it certainly won’t have anything to do with the mythical suburban moderates whom the Democrats are always using to justify moving to the right. If he wins, it’ll be because of the people the Left has always needed to win: organized labor, nonvoters traditionally shut out by the political process, working-class voters, and others who are demanding systemic change.

So is it “telling” that Bernie wasn’t at Netroots, a $900-a-head conference run by a blogger who hates him and featuring such events as “New Tools Showcase curated by New Media Ventures” and “Morning yoga with Reggie”? Was it telling that Sanders “pretty much surrendered this particular venue to Warren”? If anything, it says what we already know: that the media hates Bernie Sanders and smears him to shift attention away from his popular but paradigm-shifting ideas: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a living wage, an end to foreign intervention.

It’s way more telling, though, that the fight to save Hahnemann, a fight about which the other 2020 Democratic candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, have been totally silent, was entirely surrendered to Bernie.