“And the sign says, you gotta have a membership card to get inside. Uh!” -Tesla
You can’t really expect a major national political party to have fully reckoned with the fact that some time during the last few years, America went over the edge. National political parties tend to follow behind the social vanguard by years, if not decades. The Republicans certainly had no fucking clue what to do this time around, overwhelmed as they were by an anger-driven orange wave. It turns out the Democrats do not know either. This is the year to watch how things used to be done, as they are done for one last time. One time too many.
The Democrats are supposed to be the party of the people, of the progressives, of the left, and yet the Democratic Party is roughly equivalent to a major corporation, operating with all of the ruthlessness and profit-driven mindstate that that implies. This has always been the embarrassing truth about the Democratic Party. Generally party faithful agree to keep this truth behind the curtain during campaign season, for the sake of beating the other side. But things are spilling out in 2016. Everyone knew that you can’t push inequality in America up and up and up infinitely without at some point suffering a crumbling of the social order, a backlash against the legitimacy of all authority, and a widespread sense of Fuck This Shit. All of that is happening now. Donald Trump voters are just one half of the pissed off people. The other half are here at the Democratic convention, screaming at the party they were told was supposed to be taking care of their interests for the past 30-plus years.
On Monday morning in downtown Philly, just outside the door of the Marriott where hundreds of delegates were staying, a thin white man sitting on a low black milk crate nodded off. In slow motion, he keeled over to his left until he was at a 20 degree angle, his wrist dangling on the ground. Then he would slowly right himself, reluctantly. Between his feet sat a Starbucks cup for spare change. Nobody paid him much attention. He was there in the morning, and he was still there in the late afternoon.
A few blocks away at City Hall, the Bernie people rallied. The white Rastas and the weed people, the commies and the Mumia-freers, the old hippies and the college backpackers, the Assata Shakur reverers and the Fuck Police Brutality t-shirt wearers, the drum carriers and the horn blowers, the tattoo people and the tittie-barers. They were all there. Thousands of them. Middle-aged white businessmen here and there would stop and argue with young women angrily waving protest signs and men with ponytails and rainbow-colored Bernie shirts about the value of casting protest votes. They were sweaty and they waved clever photogenic signs. This very typical scene was played by the media as a big gag. We, the reporters, who learn to make fun of hippies in the womb, cannot help it. Even those of us who applied a quick and dirty level of political analysis to these protesters concluded that “Bernie or Bust” was little more than a dead-end slogan for sore losers. As a matter of strict political analysis, that is certainly true. But people are not just mad about the minutiae of Hillary Clinton’s policies any more than raging Trump supporters are simply upset about Marco Rubio’s tax policies. People are mad at the world. And the world will end up changing before they do.
The Washington Post rented out an entire restaurant, the City Tap Room by Logan Square, and dressed it up into a lounge for visiting reporters, an event space with free food and drinks, and a general brand-building exercise to assert the fact that Jeff Bezos’ company was a player at the heart of the political-industrial complex. Inside, you could munch from platters of charcuterie and crudites and type your stories in cold AC as jazz played softly in the background and many men in Oxford shirts wandered around. The space was sponsored by, among others, Vote4Energy.com, a public relations campaign by the American Petroleum Institute. It was a wonderful refuge from the heat. If you were a Real Political Person With Credentials who could get yourself On The List, you could exist in this world. If not, you could stay outside and sweat. I saw a brief panel on police violence and Black Lives Matter in the sparkling studio space up front.
Just a few blocks down Market Street, the SEIU and various political supporters of the labor movement held a press conference to announce a new campaign to raise the minimum wage, branded as #RaiseItDamnIt. Eight young people were made to stand behind the podium holding “$7.25 Is Not Enough” signs as a charming human backdrop. One after another, labor leaders and politicians took their turns demanding a higher minimum wage. Chris Shelton, the gruff head of the Communication Workers of America, who just won the Verizon strike not long ago, said, “I would go way past ‘raise it damn it.’ $7.25 is bullshit. $7.25 is a joke.”
“I don’t know how working people could ever vote for Donald Trump. He is truly an asshole,” he continued. “Working people voting for Donald Trump is like chickens voting for Colonel Sanders.”
The goal of this campaign was clearly enunciated by Mary Kay Henry, the head of the SEIU and one of the labor movement’s top political power brokers: “Fifteen dollars an hour should be the standard, the federal minimum wage,” she said. If such a thing were to become law tomorrow—not the piecemeal local and state measures that we have now, but a real live drastic federal minimum wage increase—it would certainly do a great deal to mitigate the problems that had so many people marching in the streets. Mary Kay Henry and her union endorsed Hillary Clinton at a time when Bernie Sanders endorsed a $15 an hour minimum wage and Hillary Clinton did not. I asked her why. She seemed exasperated at the question. She said that the endorsement came strictly from her members. “They believed she got it,” she said. “They came to our executive board and said ‘we need to get with this woman.’”
I have still never heard an honest and convincing answer to the question of why the majority of the most politically powerful segment of the left chose to endorse the candidate who agreed with its goals the least. The honest answer is probably “we backed the politician we perceived to be the strongest.” If that is the answer then that is what they should say. Downstairs and a few blocks down the street, thousands of angry people who were not invited to any press conferences or to any media work spaces were sweating through their t-shirts and getting sunburned demanding the same answer, in their own way.
To get to the arena where the actual convention is being held, you take a train from downtown Philadelphia. If you have credentials, you emerge from the train and are funneled by a barrage of police down a certain walkway. Flanking that walkway is a large temporary metal fence of the sort seen at refugee camps and militarized border crossings. And on Monday night, pressed up against that fence were thousands of Bernie Sanders supporters yelling and chanting and waving their fists as you walk by. Everyone with credentials—the press, the delegates, the various connected political operatives—walked down a spacious sidewalk, guarded by armed police and Secret Service members, and three feet to their left a horde of their fellow Democrats, held back by steel barriers and cops, hollered at them not to vote for the party’s nominee. Most of the credentialed attendees fixed their eyes straight ahead and walked by like American tourists being accosted by Indian beggars. It was a surreal experience.
People are upset. Yes, “Bernie or Bust” is an unrealistic and counterproductive position to hold. Yes, it is foolish to imagine, as some expressed, that Bernie would stage a last-ditch floor battle for delegates and somehow pull out a great populist triumph at the last second. Yes, the Democratic nominee is far preferable to the Republican one and will do far more to advance (at least a little) towards these progressives’ ideals.
But people are upset. People are fucking enraged. All is not well. People are not just mad at Hillary Clinton, or at the current crop of Republican losers. People are mad that they have gone fifty fucking years without a raise. People are mad that it’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights Act and we have the same segregated slums and the same people getting shot by police. People are mad that life in America is unfair, not due to an act of god but due to many small acts of the two political parties that are celebrating themselves this month. This is a hole that has been dug over years, over decades, over generations. The people at the bottom of the hole can’t see the sun any more. They will not be satisfied with a small stool to stand on. They want to live on solid ground. That’s not an option that our major political parties take seriously. Hence our current mood.
The Democrats are the smart vote. But the Democrats are also the cynical vote. They are the ones who promise to be better than they actually are. Michelle Obama’s speech last night, powerful and bracing and unifying, offered a taste of the extraordinary oratorical strength that has helped to hold this nation together, barely, over the past eight years. That oratorical strength is leaving in January of next year. After that, it will take something stronger to sustain us.
The Democratic convention is a sterling affair if you have that credential. If you don’t, you will be herded behind steel gates to stare at those who do. You will be mocked by reporters who sit in an air-conditioned fully comped lounge as you sweat outside. You will be simultaneously asked for your support and threatened with a materially worse life if you withhold it. The dynamic is the same in the Republican Party, but the repugnance of many of the positions its outsiders hold make it harder to sympathize with them.
Everything is not good. The Democrats can enjoy this convention behind the security barriers and closed doors. When they emerge, an angry country will be there waiting for them.