Insiders and Outsiders Mingle at the Democratic National Convention
PHILADELPHIA—The fact that the Democratic National Convention is being held at the Wells Fargo Center, right next to the AT&T subway train stop, with special access for Uber cars to the convention, seems to be part of a natural backdrop for the historic political gathering happening in Philadelphia. The birthplace of the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence is sadly just as corporatized as any other major American city. While many ordinary Americans are weary of a system built on low wages, overwork, consumerism and serfdom, Wall Street and the two major parties seem blind to the collective despair.
The WikiLeaks email dump revealed in clear terms how the Democratic Party is beholden to moneyed interests and cut off from its stated values of backing middle- and working-class liberal Americans. The party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, has well-established ties to the corporate world that go all the way back to her breaking of the glass ceiling when she became Wal-Mart’s first-ever female board member. Still, delegates are being required to unite behind her candidacy despite mass discontent with the state of the economy.
But the unity project is not going quite as smoothly as expected. The disconnect between the party stalwarts and its newest members, as embodied by Bernie Sanders, has been very palpable in Philadelphia. Many 1 percenters are partying it up, assured of the outcome, while newly politicized activists are vainly attempting to affect change inside and outside. Well-coiffed insiders are rubbing shoulders with one another while newly activated delegates, rough around the edges, are arguing in the hallways about things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the merits of voting for the Green Party candidate in “safe states” and whether they can join street protests and still make it to the convention floor in time to hear speakers.
Insiders included a young convention volunteer I met on the first day of the event. Sally (not her real name) is a cheerful, young woman from Washington, D.C., wearing a signature blue T-shirt, like hundreds of other volunteers, with the words “Ask Me” emblazoned on the back. I asked her for help getting to the Wells Fargo Center from the city center, and after determining that the intended shuttles were not stopping where they should, she generously offered to share her Uber ride.
Choosing efficiency over principles in the searing 100-degree weather, I swallowed my reservations and jumped into the back of her ride along with another volunteer. While mentioning the work she was doing with the Walton family (of Wal-Mart fame), Sally lauded the convenience of Uber, a company that has been the focus of intense opposition from taxi companies and grass-roots organizations. Unlike other transportation companies, Uber has a dispensation from the city for drivers to pick up special passes and gain greater access, and drop riders off at a special air-conditioned Uber tent next to the Wells Fargo Center. Inside the tent, Sally joyfully pointed me to a refrigerator filled with complimentary water bottles and to shelves of fancy granola bars, free for Uber riders. Clearly she was thrilled at the ride-sharing company’s presence.
Another insider was a delegate, one of many that I interviewed, who supported Bernie Sanders but said he would vote for Clinton. After the interview he admitted he supported a “safe-state” strategy of progressives voting for Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein but couldn’t say so out loud. When I asked why, he simply said he needed a job and to be able to pay his bills.
Meanwhile, “outsiders” are everywhere, and their presence has irked many of the party insiders. I overheard many conversations among the party faithful in elevators, cafes, hotel lobbies and subway trains in which there was strong contempt for the unexpected Sanders rebellion. Just as common as the insider contempt, if not more so, is the energy of Sanders delegates. At the local Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia, two beaming California women sat down next to me during lunch, and as soon as they realized I was a journalist they were eager to talk. Ramona Erwin and Elizabeth Levertu told me a story I have heard over and over again—that they were energized by Sanders’ candidacy and that they would not have been delegates were it not for him. Erwin was angry, saying that the Clinton camp was “trying to tell us to be loyal to a party that has not been loyal to us.” She added, “I’d rather cut off my right arm than vote for Hillary Clinton.” Erwin, who is 44, was also upset about Sanders supporters being dismissed as “millennials.”
Levertu impressed me by rattling off a list of policies that she wants the next president of the United States to adopt: “a $15 minimum wage for all Americans, we need to get the money out of Wall Street, we need to break up big banks, we need to get a ban on the TPP, we need to ban fracking, we need to overturn Citizens United.” Insiders are not used to delegates and voters focusing on issues, preferring instead to rally around the personality traits of candidates.
Travis Traber, a 22-year-old self-described “millennial” who is also new to the political process, explained that Sanders delegates like him are tired of being misunderstood. He said, “I don’t want to see Donald Trump in office … and the reason I’m here is because I think Hillary Clinton will lose to Donald Trump in November. That’s why I’m here.”
On the train to the Wells Fargo Center, I spoke with a white working-class Philadelphia native, a man who had been part of the construction crew that put together the massive tents for media and security check points around the perimeter of the convention. The word political “outsider” applied to this gentleman more so than anyone I’ve spoken to. In his thick East Coast accent, the construction worker said he didn’t trust Hillary Clinton and would have preferred Sanders as the party’s presidential candidate.
Of course, there is not a perfect split between insiders and outsiders. Many are anguished over the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, such as indigenous climate justice activist Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh, a teenager who was at the March for Our Lives on Monday. Tonatiuh expressed support for Sanders, saying that the senator had “inspired a movement,” and he added, “I feel that we’ve got to put our ego and our pride aside” to “continue the political revolution the next time.” Regardless of who prevails, one thing is clear: This presidential election has drawn the most exciting levels of political participation we have seen among the American public in a very long time. And, in the long run, that can only be good for American democracy.Wait, before you go…
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