PHILADELPHIA — I was there, in the arena of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, when a woman accepted the nomination of a major American political party for president. But don’t envy me for witnessing history, because that’s not really how it felt.
To people watching Hillary Clinton’s Democratic National Convention speech on TV, like my colleague Dylan Matthews, “The first speech as nominee of the first woman nominated by a major party was always going to be a moment. And sure enough, Clinton delivered [...] She nailed it.”
She delivered the speech fluidly. The crowd’s enthusiasm seemed to boil over spontaneously into chants of “HIL-LA-RY!.” The speech ended with a spectacle that included not only more balloons than Bill Clinton or anyone else had ever seen, but fireworks.
But in the arena, Clinton couldn’t hold the audience; it wasn’t hers to hold. There were just too many pockets of dissent and rejection.
Chants of “No more war!” and “No TPP!” felt liable to erupt at any moment. The back of the California delegation booed for 20 or 30 seconds at a time.
What sounded on TV like oddly-timed “Hillary” and “USA!” chants were usually attempts by Clinton supporters to drown out attempted disruptions. In the arena, you’d hear a buzzing undercurrent for a few seconds, then an over-strident “Hillary!” chant surge dutifully to meet it.
These are the instructions for counter-chanting: pic.twitter.com/gXCyIprmEv— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) July 29, 2016
Pockets of Bernie Sanders supporters in Day-Glo T-shirts refused to participate in the “card stunt” at the end of the speech. Cards distributed to audience members was supposed to turn the audience into a living bunting of red and white; it ended up looking like an awning someone had tried to deface with a highlighter.
The interruptions weren’t constant, but they were frequent enough. Even after one round of boos subsided, it was hard to return attention to the speech instead of bracing for the next one. The arena never felt uncontrolled, in the literal sense. But despite the amount of energy the Democratic Party poured into the spectacle, the dissenters managed to signal-jam the vibe.
The Democrats wanted transcendence. But politics is about dissent.
It’s ironic that Clinton’s speech felt a lot more momentous on television than it did to those of us who were in the room. (And I can’t help but feel bad for the delegates who’ve exhausted themselves for months, only to see or hear less of the speech than their less-invested peers who were watching at home.) But in a way, it’s fitting.
It’s often true in politics that things that look very smooth and unified from a distance are actually, up close, the result of a lot of scuffling and scratching: a coalition held together with athletic tape and bruises.
As others have pointed out, Democrats’ convention presented democracy as a kind of civic religion; it was designed to give everyone watching at least one reason to feel proud to be American. It was brilliant stagecraft. Hillary Clinton is not a candidate who inspires the ecstasy we’ve seen this year at rallies for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump; her party built up an ecstasy around her.
It made sense as a declaration, over the next three months, of a unified threat against Donald Trump; it was not in any way a coherent expression of who the party will be if Trump fails. At a certain point, it will have to choose between the patriotism of the Chamber of Commerce lobbyist who spoke against Trump on Thursday and the patriotism of the Sanders supporters who Clinton, and everyone else, bent over backwards to praise.
Actual politics is about making choices. It is about dissent. Things only happen because people disagree and someone wins.
For eight years, we’ve had a president whose rhetoric, almost to a fault, always emphasized unity and endorsed the middle path between two competing extremes. But the things he’s done of consequence are the result of fights his side won. And Obama and his administration, in turn, have been pressured to change along with the rest of society — in how it views same-sex couples, transgender people, unauthorized immigrants, black communities’ relationships with the police — by activists challenging the status quo.
It’s impossible to say, especially after the last several years, that dissent and disruption — whether it’s Black Lives Matter activists blocking intersections, or Lt. Dan Choi chaining himself to the White House fence to protest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — don’t work as tactics. It feels inappropriate, honestly, to get mad when a political event is interrupted by a reminder of how politics actually works.
Clinton’s going to continue to be challenged from the left — but she’s shown she responds to strategic demands
So far, the media has characterized dissenters within the Democratic Party as Bernie Sanders supporters. So far, that’s made sense. Sure, Clinton formally defeated Sanders during the roll call vote on Tuesday, but hundreds of delegates had come to Philadelphia for the purpose of supporting Sanders over the course of the week.
After this week, that won’t make much sense. Opposition to Hillary Clinton, from the left or right, is going to be about opposition to Hillary Clinton. (Support for another candidate, like Jill Stein, isn’t necessarily about Clinton — but protesting Clinton rallies with Stein signs is.)
It’s going to continue. Maybe not over the next few months, during the general election (though maybe so). But definitely after the election. Winning for Clinton doesn’t mean her leftist dissidents will go away. The American public may like Hillary Clinton better when she’s holding office than running for it, but activists of all stripes have been aware from the start that they’re going to have to mobilize to pressure a President Hillary Clinton to do right by them.
There were times during the Obama administration when it was fair to assume he’d be interrupted during a big public speech: before the repeal of DADT during his first two years; before he implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young unauthorized immigrants in 2012.
Whenever it happened, you could almost feel Obama stiffen in annoyance. President Obama usually believes he’s doing something (or not doing it) because it’s the right thing to do; that always makes it hard not to take a heckler personally.
But in private, he more or less acknowledged it worked. In meetings with progressive activists, Obama often tells a story about Franklin Delano Roosevelt telling labor leader A. Philip Randolph, "I agree with you, now go out and make me do it." Ironically, FDR probably never said that — but Obama's use of it reflects how he himself understands politics. And when pressured enough, on immigration or the Keystone XL pipeline, he delivers.
Hillary Clinton has also shown that she can be made to do it. She's a transactional politician; her biggest selling point is that she can deliver things to her constituents. If her constituents demonstrate that she'd better show an awareness of mass incarceration to earn their trust, she'll call for criminal justice reform and become the first nominee to use the phrase "structural racism" when speaking to a primetime convention audience.
Is there anything Hillary Clinton can do to redeem herself to you?
Here’s the thing, though, about working to get a politician to move to the left (or in any other direction): when the politician tells you what you want to hear, and supports a policy to pander to you, that’s a victory. It doesn’t matter whether they actually believe the sentiment. It matters that they know you believe the sentiment, and they’ve decided the most important thing is to do what you want.
That usually means that the most effective activists in this style make clear demands of politicians about what they want to see, and then praises the politician when it happens.
When Bernie Sanders was asked to say that black lives matter, and did — and started name-dropping Sandra Bland in speeches — that was a victory. The activists who’d criticized Sanders and his campaign acknowledged and praised it (even while remaining annoyed with some Sanders supporters).
Compare that with, say, Code Pink — which is very good at interrupting speeches, but less good at articulating what it is asking politicians to do (beyond ending war). It’s worth noting that, by the end of the week in Philly, the loudest and most constant protests in the arena were from antiwar protesters even though Sanders barely touched on foreign policy in his campaign (another indication that ultimately, this is about Hillary Clinton).
If you believe that Hillary Clinton is a fundamentally corrupt politician in a fundamentally corrupt system, this makes sense. In fact, Clinton’s willingness to tell you what you want to hear merely confirms your thesis that she’s insincere and not to be trusted. But at that point, your problem is not with the things that Hillary Clinton is saying or not saying — it’s with Clinton herself.
At a certain point, moving a politician to the left is not the goal anymore. The goal is to demonstrate that the politician is illegitimate. When protesters interrupt speeches as part of a pressure campaign, the interruption is usually finite; they know they’ll make their point and be escorted out. Constant booing and chanting doesn’t communicate a discrete point; rather, it delegitimizes the politician, and the whole pageant. (Think of the Chicago protesters who successfully shut down a Donald Trump rally before it began.) Breaking the spell of the Democrats’ convention stagecraft was a goal itself; it exposed the whole thing as a sham.
Denying a politician’s legitimacy is a very, very big deal. You can no more be half-legitimate than half-pregnant; you can’t make fine distinctions between two illegitimate politicians (or rather, you can make them in your head, but you shouldn’t be surprised when you fail to communicate them clearly).
It’s essentially a call for revolution. And if the revolution fails to materialize, it’s just an expression of belief that it should.
This is the question that left dissenters need to ask themselves about Hillary Clinton, if they haven’t already: is there anything that Hillary Clinton can do to redeem herself to you?
If there isn’t, you can continue to protest her existence, but don’t be upset if she doesn’t respond — you wouldn’t accept a response if you got it.
If there is, figure out how you can make her do it — especially (if she is elected) in January. You won’t be alone. In fact, you might be surprised to see that some of the people who supported Clinton in 2016 are right alongside, waiting to remind her of what she owes.