When I told people I was going to Philadelphia to cover the protests at the Democratic National Convention, they asked the same question over and over: Why do liberals protest aggressively at Democratic conventions, and hardly at all at Republican conventions? Many people assume almost any candidate on the Democratic side should be preferable for progressive protesters to Donald Trump or any other Republican. So why make the party closer to their own interests look so bad?
I decided to ask a cross-section of protesters that question on day one of the convention. The answers I received varied, but also overlapped in some important ways. Almost everyone I talked to mentioned the recently leaked Democratic National Committee emails as a big reason for raising their voices against Hillary Clinton. But most said they had planned on protesting even before those revelations. They assured me the leaks had only confirmed their already deep suspicions.
Nobody I spoke to had anything very nice to say about Trump, but they did not have the same fear of a Trump presidency that many more moderate Democrats, or even anti-Trump conservatives, share. Make no mistake: they viewed Trump as a bad person, but not as the symbol of systemic oppression and corruption they feel Clinton is.
‘They Were Cheating’
Before getting into specific responses, it is important to note this year is not an anomaly. Ever since the 1960s, Democratic conventions have been protested more vigorously than their GOP counterparts. Also, of note this year is the geography. Philadelphia is easily reached by many more people than Cleveland, where Republicans held their convention, and is a more popular destination. Some people I talked to even suggested Cleveland’s gun laws allowing armed protesters may have tamped down participation.
Mary from Washington DC and her friend Ed from Columbia, Maryland, were fairly typical of the older, calmer contingent at the protests. Both were clad in Bernie Sanders T-shirts, and Ed was puffing away on his vape. Mary had volunteered and donated to Sanders throughout the past year and felt the DNC had ill-used her and Sanders.
“We had a candidate and they were cheating,” she said. But she added that her protest was “not about one candidate or the other, but about a revolution.” As is often the case in such matters, Mary was a bit vague about what that revolution would look like exactly, but it clearly included a system less rigged by those in power.
Ed answered my question more directly. “If we had gone to Cleveland,” he said, “it just would have been negativity. This can be more positive.” Both of them agreed that Democrats and the protesters were their “family.” But they also agreed Hillary Clinton is actually a Republican.
This idea that Democrats would be more receptive to protesters’ complaints was a common theme in the answers to my question. It makes sense: while Republicans could simply laugh off their ideas about income inequality and climate change, their demands paint Democrats in more of a corner. Like Hillary Clinton nodding nervously while being lectured by Black Lives Matter protesters several months ago, Democrats must give some level of credence to the causes of the protests.
No Regrets Despite Trump
A group of young women in their twenties who had travelled to Philly from St. Louis for the protests struck a different chord. They held a large red flag, a common sight at the protests, and had a much more defiant view. One sensed their vision of revolution was less metaphorical.
I spoke to Julie and Erin, who both said leftists’ real frustration was with the Democrats, not the Republicans. It wasn’t that they have any positive feelings about Republicans, more that the GOP is so heinous as to be beyond redemption. But when Trump came up, things got interesting.
Julie told me, “Trump is a fascist, but he’s not a politician. Hillary represents neoliberalism.” There was a sense of betrayal in her eyes and voice, as if a perversion of liberalism was a deeper sin than fascism. She went on to accuse Hillary of supporting coups in Central America and committing “femicide.” As we finished up, I asked Erin if she thought Trump could win. She said she did. I asked if that gave her any mixed feelings about protesting Hillary. Both assured me it did not — the same answer I had received to that question from Mary and Ed.
This no-regrets attitude in the face of a potential Trump presidency was common, but not universal. Earlier in the day, I chatted with Del and Michele from Kansas, outside of Philadelphia’s towering City Hall, where a Sanders protest was being held. He sported a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, while hers commemorated the march on Selma.
“The big shots need to hear us and think critically about what we are saying,” Michele told me. “That’s what we need to be a united front.” Del added, “People need to vent.” When I asked if they worried their participation in the protests might help Trump, I got a different reply. Michele winced a bit and began nodding her head. I could see the multitude of implications playing out in her mind. When she stopped nodding, she looked at me and said, “I do, I really do.”
Keeping Their Own Team Honest
Clearly, Hillary Clinton has to hope that in spite of their frustrations, most Sanders supporters take Michele’s balanced approach. Interestingly, unlike the more strident protesters I spoke with, Del and Michele had been in Philly for a different occasion. They were not veteran protesters, and perhaps might better reflect Sanders supporters on the whole.
In the end the question about why liberal protesters are so much more vociferous at Democratic conventions boiled down to the idea that these are the people who are supposed to care.
These are the people who are supposed to be on their team. It would be a mistake to confuse a few thousand dedicated protesters with the millions of Sanders supporters across the country. Many, likely most, will make peace with Clinton’s candidacy. But for the next few days, right across the street from her coronation the masses will be pushing back. How many do they speak for when they chant “Hell, no, DNC, we won’t vote for Hillary” nobody knows. But for a candidate as deeply unpopular as Hillary Clinton, none of this is a good sign.