PHILADELPHIA – Now we know why the GOP convention in Cleveland last week was so quiet: the protesters were saving their fire for the Democratic National Convention this week in Philadelphia. Bernie Sanders supporters—along with every stripe of left-wing activist, Baby Boomer hippie, and olive-clad anarchist—are pouring into the City of Brotherly Love. They are not happy, and they mean to be heard.
The City of Philadelphia is bracing for about 30,000 protesters each day of the convention this week, although the activists themselves claim many more will show up. A group calling itself Occupy DNC Convention is planning a major demonstration for Monday afternoon, and there are murmurs of a “million man march” on Tuesday.
An inaugural demonstration that began at City Hall on Sunday afternoon and moved south to FDR Park, near the convention arena, left no doubt that protesters are coming here from all over the country. Many I spoke with had volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, either formally or through grassroots organizations, and they felt strongly that it was far more important to protest the nomination of Hillary Clinton this week than to demonstrate against the nomination of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention last week.
Like Trump, DNC Protesters Think the System Is Rigged
Ironically, the reigning sentiment among most protesters here seems to echo something Trump said in his acceptance speech at the RNC: “the system is rigged against our citizens, just like it was rigged against Bernie Sanders—he never had a chance.”
The conversation, chanting, and signage at Sunday’s demonstration conveyed this sense of outrage. For as many Sanders signs and T-shirts on display, there were just as many anti-Clinton placards. One pair of demonstrators carried signs warning “the criminal Clintons must be brought to heel.” Another group loudly denounced Clinton for picking Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate, claiming the “conservative” Kaine just confirms that Clinton herself is no liberal. Two men carried a coffin labeled “DNC.” An RV making its way toward the marchers was emblazoned across the side with “Wikileaks” and “Occupy DNC.” One woman told me she had never been involved in politics before, but planned to protest Clinton “because of what they did to Bernie.”
The release of a large trove of DNC emails on Friday by Wikileaks is only adding fuel to the fire, confirming Sanders supporters’ worst fears about their party. The emails reveal how the DNC tried to undercut the Sanders campaign in ways large and small (one official even wanted to smear Sanders for being Jewish). In response, Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced Sunday that she’s stepping down as chair of the DNC, throwing the convention into last-minute confusion.
The Democratic Party Is in Crisis
Up to this point in the election cycle, the national news media has focused more on Trump’s usurpation of the GOP than the simmering civil war within the Democratic Party. This week in Philly, the simmering could easily come to a boil as the left wing of the party asserts its anger and frustration. “We’re here because the nomination was stolen from us,” one thirty-something Vermont woman told me. “Our democracy is rigged.”
Having just watched the GOP nominate a vacuous reality TV star who isn’t actually a Republican, I admit to feeling some sympathy for all these outraged Sanders supporters. With good reason, they feel like the DNC is cramming Clinton down their throats, and they want no part of it.
In fact, they have a better case to make than disaffected NeverTrumpers do on the GOP side. Republican leaders, after all, have only themselves to blame for Trump. They couldn’t stop a plurality of primary voters from casting their lots with a carnival barker who promised to shake things up. In the end, the GOP establishment turned out to be weaker than it seemed: it was unable to stop Trump’s takeover of the party, and now it finds itself in uncharted waters.
The Democrats might also find themselves in uncharted waters before the week is out. But in contrast to the rise of Trump, the impending nomination of Clinton has been rather less democratic, with hundreds of Democratic “super delegates” seemingly having settled the nomination long before all the primary votes were cast. The Wikileaks dump of DNC emails is just more evidence of what many Democratic voters suspected all along: the system was rigged against Bernie—he never had a chance.
What all this will mean for the general election remains to be seen. But this week in Philadelphia will illuminate a reality that the mainstream media has been eager to downplay: the GOP isn’t the only party in crisis. Democratic elites will almost certainly come out of this convention with their preferred nominee. But they will not come out unscathed. They’re about to find out firsthand, as the GOP establishment did, what happens when you ignore your party’s base.
In this case, the base appears to be all-in for the European-style socialism Sanders preached during his insurgent campaign. Whether Clinton can lurch that far left, and whether a majority of Americans will lurch with her, will then become a question as immediate as the legions of angry protesters amassing this week in the streets of Philadelphia.