Who’s Afraid of a Few Little Boos?
Chaos in Philadelphia! Unity shattered before the Democratic National Convention could begin! A fight brewing, a convention divided, a Revolt on the Convention Floor! Hot off a contentious weekend that saw Debbie Wasserman Schultz resign her position as DNC chairwoman, the convention had barely begun before reports began pouring out of booing and—
Well, just booing, really. That became The Story of night one at the Democratic National Convention.
But despite the reports of supporters “hijacking” the convention and turning it into an “ugly family feud,” of sore losers booing “so much that by halfway through the evening they began to grow hoarse,” of an “angry uproar” and “repeated disruptions,” this was not a convention in disarray. There were some boos early on, but those—after a quick text message from Bernie Sanders—subsided. It wasn’t until 9 p.m., when Sarah Silverman inexplicably announced from the stage that “Bernie or Busters” were “ridiculous,” that a renewed chant of “Bernie, Bernie!” broke out for nearly thirty seconds. Over the three hours that followed, all the way until Bernie Sanders managed to deliver a speech despite efforts by his supporters to filibuster a Clinton nomination via sustained cheering, and the convention was gaveled to a close for the night, basic peace prevailed. A few boos were heard, even a few for Bernie Sanders, but there have been C-SPAN segments in recent memory more contentious than last night’s convention proceedings.
There wasn’t so much as a floor fight. No delegations walked out. When the platform came up for a vote, the ayes had it without any more protest than some scattered no’s. When speakers announced, one after another, their enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, they were not interrupted or shouted down. When it was announced that a picture would be taken of the full convention and that this photo would require stillness from every person in the hall for well over a minute, it went off without incident.
To the extent that any real protest was going on, it was outside the gates: a few thousand activists cordoned off in a park well beyond the enormous perimeter that has been erected around the Wells Fargo Center.
This is not a raucous convention. It is not even contentious, at least not in comparison to the average party gathering of the latter twentieth century, before we became accustomed to the perfect choreography of recent years. Despite some early invocations, it is nothing at all like Chicago in 1968, and it never threatened to be. A few boos, while potentially embarrassing to party managers, do not constitute a rebellion. Inside the hall, they barely caused an inconvenience.
Indeed, throughout Monday afternoon and night, it was not clear that most people inside of the Wells Fargo Center were aware that some kind of revolt was meant to be afoot. The ordinary jumble of people excited to find themselves at an important event stood in long lines for hot dogs, ran into old friends, and mobbed political celebrities for autographs and pictures. They played with the toys that tech companies were showing off at sponsored booths in the hallways, and asked who knew about the really good parties. Outside, in the early evening, a delegate smoking a cigarette by the fence asked if I was “press or something.”
“Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of Bernie people fight?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I guess they passed the platform,” he said, shrugging, and went off looking for some new excitement.
But if the threat of a serious revolt by Bernie delegates had largely dissipated by primetime, you wouldn’t know it from the contempt. Beginning in the late afternoon, serious liberals took to social media to denounce Bernie’s diehards and continued well after any suggestions of disarray had passed. They declared that the discord on the floor was “on him,” a consequence of his failure to prepare his supporters for defeat. Even if they’d boo’d him earlier in the day, these were the delegates “he” had chosen. One journalist—an employee of the Center for American Progress, which has backed Clinton this year—declared the protesters “garbage people,” “children” who are “helping Trump,” and a reflection of how hard it is to get “100% of folks not to be dumb.” Another suggested, bizarrely, that heckling Bernie supporters are “so cynical they might actually qualify as Green Party members.” A third was more blunt: these mild booing delegates were “shitheads.” This was not terribly different from the feelings of some journalists on the convention floor, although their particular terms were less printable still.
For hours, any odd sound remained suspicious. Anything not clearly a cheer sent murmurs through the press—were they at it again? When Elizabeth Warren emerged to deliver her keynote address, it took twenty or thirty seconds and a string of murmured oh jesus christ’s for one reporter to realize that the chanting from the rafter was the Massachusetts delegation shouting “We want Liz!” According to one staffer who was in the room, this nervous disposition even reached the Democratic leadership, with Clinton’s floor manager telling both campaigns that Bernie had lost control of his people, and that some “gains” might be lost if they weren’t brought under control.
What is remarkable in all of this is the strange and schizophrenic insecurity it betrays. Sanders delegates are taken to be a mortal threat to both the success of the Democratic Convention and to the electoral prospects of Hillary Clinton in general, a force accused, day after day, and in spite of all available polling evidence, of tipping the election toward Donald Trump. Yet at the same time, they are regarded as a force so tiny and irrelevant that in the face of their shadow of a protest in the early hours of the DNC (an indication that something has gone sufficiently awry in the lives of ordinary people that a portion of its natural constituency is threatening to revolt on television over it), the response of liberal commentators was not “What has the Democratic Party done to motivate this kind of discontent among its own membership?” but “Why are they doing this? To hell with them.”
The convention is mundane in Philadelphia, and this is not something to be taken too lightly. In a year during which the Republican Party’s governing establishment was forced to nominate Donald Trump, during which a serious and unexpected insurgency by Bernie Sanders nearly overthrew the establishment of the Democratic Party, the party leaders in Philadelphia have found themselves with something remarkably ordinary: the beginnings of a four-day television commercial, a renewal of the powerful’s lease on power, at least for the moment. And yet they have spent the day telling themselves that they are on the brink of some ugly, embarrassing disaster.
Maybe they’re right. Despite a convention where discontent barely snuck in—and despite the victory of the expected nominee, the likely retention of the presidency, and the defeat, for the moment, of insurgents threatening to turn the Democratic Party over to the proposition that the United States could achieve a social welfare state comparable to the rest of the industrialized world—there may still be some subterranean instinct that tells the present managers of the Democratic Party not to trust their evident success, that the world cannot go on like this forever. And that has them spooked enough to scream and curse at every little boo.