‘”Can we sit in those seats?”
“No, these are for the finance committee.”
“Oh OK, where is the LGBT section?” She indicated a section going off to the left.
“This is the LGBT section.”
“So can we sit in those seats?”
“No, those are for the finance committee.”
The large woman in the light check shirt and the Mao cap looked up and down the three empty rows of seats behind the press section, which was crowded, people sitting on concrete bleachers, tapping at laptops. Thought for a second, then she said to the woman blocking the seats:
“You know, I think we have come a long way … but I do not think that the DNC finance committee has FORTY LGBT MEMBERS AND THAT IS HOW MANY SEATS YOU’RE BLOCKING! NOW CAN WE SIT DOWN?”
“This is for the finance committee.”
Down below, on the floor of the auditorium, another vast, covered stadium, the delegates were streaming in, mingling and milling, meeting and greeting, while the music pumped, a sort of hard rock with a black touch, but done by whites: Chicago, Grateful Dead, and Uptown Funk, which I have heard about 338 times at Dem events.
There were Uncle Sams, in redwhiteblue top hat ‘n’ tails, black delegations dressed like tap outfits in white suits and spangle fedoras, there were Bernie Bros in St Pauli T-shirts and cargo shorts, older black people in Sunday church best, a lot of old white men in blue suits, and quite a few people dressed like maths teachers in rumpled suits and Walmart slacks, though a few of them may have been reporters.
There was life, there was movement, and there was a positivity, an independence of spirit utterly absent from the RNC. There was also the worst logistics I’ve ever experienced — a mile-long walk in the sun over concrete from the shuttle bus, a shuffling between three different doors, a barely concealed disdain by security for attendees — that seemed to summon up all the arrogance and entitlement the Democrats are being accused of. There was barely a concession stand open, and beer was nowhere to be had. On the alpine heights of the press bleachers, there was no indication of who could sit where. The day had begun in chaos, and it looked like it was heading that way all day. Then the PA kicked in:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the New Bethel choir of Philadelphia …” and 40 black people in black robes came out. One singer began:
“Mine eyes have seen the glory …”
And, well, yeah, that was that. Any feeling that one was uninvolved in this, or that it could be assessed in the same manner as the Republican convention — assessed in much the manner that a pathologist assesses a wound putrefying in a novel manner — goes out the window.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on
Great radical hymn, joining politics and religion, written by Julia Ward Howe, an anti-slavery radical. It stilled the hall, each verse going up a key, and then the hall joined in. It took us all up, and pointed us in one direction. It stilled the beast.
The beast needed stilling. Through the weekend, and into Monday, the whole city had been going crazy over the DNC emails released by Wikileaks over the weekend, which showed serious conniving by the DNC to damage the Bernie Sanders campaign. Sanders supporters had been up in arms all weekend, and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had resigned, effective at the end of the convention. But she was still going to “gavel” it in — open proceedings — and “gavel” it out, and it was clear that there were going to be protests. But how big would they be? One problem was that the emails, while showing connivance, didn’t show much competence. There were no grand-slam dirty tricks contained therein — simply vague thoughts of targeting Bernie for his Jewishness or his atheism (they couldn’t decide), There was no indication it was decisive in the contest.
But it was enough to rile up a section of the unreconciled Sanders supporters, who pledged to disrupt Wasserman-Schultz’s opening address. They staged a protest through the centre of Philly – which has a twentieth of the cops that were present in Cleveland, and four times the protesters – and again on Monday. On Sixty Minutes Hillary, said she ‘oh look I don;t know what’s in any emails…’. Gah.
Any hope the DNC had of struggling through it was gone on Monday morning, when protesters disrupted a breakfast meeting Wasserman Schultz was speaking at, shouting her down, and waving placards reading “e-mails” in front of the cameras. Four hours later, the announcement came out — Wasserman Schultz would not be gaveling in the convention. Rumours got out she was already negotiating her flight back to Florida. When the convention opened, mid-afternoon, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, mayor of Baltimore, was at the podium (and forgot to actually bang the gavel — she had to be nudged back to the podium, which sums up the whole operation in a moment).
What followed then was a strange and telling roll-call of speakers, of blacks, Latinos, the disabled — a testament to the full diversity that the Democratic Party now embodies, but also a sign that it had overshot the mark. The speakers had a curious rhythm: there were black and Hispanic “everyday” people — those facing deportation, etc — as well as Hispanic and black congresspeople and leaders. There were white people with disabilities — a mother with a heroin-addicted son, a governor with learning disorders — and a bunch of white middle-class officials, including union leaders.
The one unrepresented group, the one with no one like them on stage, was the white working class. In Philadelphia, a union town, which saw the most hard-fought battles as European immigrants carved out a life for themselves — not for nothing is Rocky set in this city — there is virtually no presence of the class that for more than a century was the rock on which the Democratic Party was built.
I watched — I’m watching — this unfold in real time. At first I thought well, fair go, emphasise the tougher struggles from rock bottom. But as it went on and on it became clear that the Democratic Party simply no longer had white workers as part of their imagination — unless they have a disability. Non-whites and the disabled represented themselves; the rest were represented by their authorised leaders.
It is quite, quite extraordinary. There isn’t even much of a focus on women per se. Were white workers to be watching this on TV, they would reasonably conclude that this is a party that has not the slightest interest in their lives or future. The language is all on aspiration — I dragged myself up from a New Mexico shack to become a circuit court judge — and none of it on what was once the bread and butter of such parties, the betterment of modest and ordinary lives lived by the vast majority of people.
However heroic, intersectional or subaltern-resistant this strategy may be, it is electoral suicide in the one year that the Republicans have allowed their commitment to free markets and capital to be subordinated to economic nationalism. Now I’m sure they have some of this in the wings, but this is the first day for chrissake. How is it possible for this to happen? Surely it can only be that the party has genuinely transformed — whoever put together this program no longer seems to have an idea of the Democrats as a party with a class component. Unless of course, it is the rising knowledge class, who prize cultural and identity issues above all. I have no doubt that the program was put together with the same breathtaking arrogance you see in Labor, Labour, and everywhere else progressive — a sense that the “workers” are with them, even when the evidence clearly points otherwise.
Interspersed among these speakers are celebrities — Demi Lovato and Sarah Silverman — and a few lame video sketches, before the big guns come out: Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The latter two will be the only speakers of the evening to talk about working people at any length. Oh sorry, here’s Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey, son of erm former Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey.
Bizarre, truly bizarre. You can read the same attitude off the convention logistics, some sort of blithe unresponsiveness that has become native to the party. Nothing the Republicans are offering is real, except the feeling that it is — and for many desperate people, less than zero is better than nothing. Maybe this is part of some insane cunning plan, but I doubt it. I suspect it is part of the great political transition we are a part of, one that will leave politics unrecognisable in a decade. For tonight, it’s the same old rule by the finance committee.