Last week, the Democrats announced that their next national political convention will be held in my city, Philadelphia. The Republicans already announced their site would be Cleveland.
My first convention protest was in 1964 in Atlantic City, N.J., when we were supporting the racially integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation’s effort to be seated in place of the segregated regular delegation. Since then I’ve shown up in other cities, but not lately.
The following are some reasons why I now think convention protests are counter-productive.
1. The national conventions are a sham, and more and more people know it. Television coverage has been reduced to reflect the reality: Conventions are about fundraising and hokum, not serious politics. Why should we who are deeply concerned about issues dignify the proceedings by bringing our moral seriousness? Why imply that the conventions are still a forum of significance for decisions about justice?
2. Protest is most likely to be valuable when we’re able to engage the target of our concern. Look at any movement that successfully changed something — it gained momentum when the target found it had to respond to the movement, when it had to engage. In 1964 the movement found a way to force the Democratic Party to respond at the convention.
For decades, leaders of both major parties have simply ignored the protesters and left them to the police to handle. Final score: the party leaders, 1; the protesters, 0. The protesters do find someone to engage — the police — but that’s not the goal and I’ve never seen a coherent message about national issues sent to the public via police engagement at a convention.
3. Convention protests are one-off events that drain energy from what works: sustained campaigns with a clear target and goal. Actually, what gave the 1964 protest in Atlantic City its power was that it was one more tactic in a nonviolent campaign that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee started in 1961. The Global Nonviolent Action Database includes a thousand campaigns, most of which were successful, some against nearly impossible odds. One-off protests have little impact because, even if there is a meaningful target and goal, the target knows that the protesters will soon scatter and that’s the end of it.
4. U.S. citizens are now re-evaluating the meaning of the national electoral system. Only about a third of the electorate bothered to vote last year, the lowest in 72 years. More people do vote in presidential elections, but the trend is likewise pointing downward.
While many people concerned about justice issues shake their heads in dismay at this voter trend, I hold a contrary view. I believe the disappearing voters perceive the value of their vote correctly. For one thing, polls show that public esteem of politicians is in the cellar; the trust gap is enormous. For another, last April, a pair of political scientists revealed hard evidence that strongly confirms the people’s cynicism is based in reality.
Professors Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern examined 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002. On each issue they determined what the majority of the public wanted and what the economic elite wanted. When those two views differed, the scholars wanted to know which policy was actually chosen by government. They took into account that ordinary citizens often combine to form mass-based interest groups to represent their views. (Examples are unions and the American Association of Retired Persons.)
What the researchers found was that, when the majority differed, the economic elite generally got their way. Even the mass-based interest groups with a different view had little or no independent influence. In their words, “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule – at least in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”)
The BBC’s account of the study used the word “oligarchy” to describe the findings of the research, although Gilens and Page do not yet have a conclusion on whether it is the top 1 percent or the top .01 percent who are the most influential within the category of “economic elite.”
If you haven’t heard of this study, there’s a good reason. The “political class” — composed of what NPR calls “political junkies” — largely chooses the news to circulate among progressives and activists. Last week, I talked with a veteran political consultant well connected to labor and other progressive leaders. He hadn’t heard of the Princeton oligarchy study, either. The study, after all, questions the mission of the political class.
The good news is that people outside of the political class are recognizing futility when they see it. In light of that, isn’t it confusing for protesters to assemble at conventions? Whatever the message on our signs, our sheer presence implies that political parties have substantial independent power in this country, and the truth is, they do not.
I’m not advising that we ignore politicians always. Daniel Hunter’s book, “Strategy and Soul: A Campaigner’s Tale of Fighting Billionaires, Corrupt Officials, and Philadelphia Casinos” tells how a powerful grassroots direct action campaign found ways to get politicians to come to the people rather than the other way around.
5. We do know about a powerful alternative to the corrupt electoral system — mass nonviolent direct action movements. As the number of disillusioned voters grows, more become available to such movements. However, as activist-sociologist Bill Moyer argued in “Doing Democracy,” people need to become clear that official channels are clogged or corrupt before they’ll risk action.
We saw the lack of clarity playing out in 2009 in the health care reform fight. Presidential candidate Barack Obama had previously acknowledged that the sensible health care plan for the United States was a single-payer system, now often called Medicare for All. However, the realist Obama also observed no mass nonviolent movement demanding such a plan, and therefore knew he couldn’t get it.
I believe he was correct; he was boxed in by the 1 percent and only a civil rights-style movement could give him the leverage he would need to do what he knew was best. In his frustration with the “people’s coalition” that was supposed to be leading the grassroots mobilization and was too tepid even to name the opponent, Obama found himself having to initiate attacks on private health insurers and others resisting change. I regret not doing more to help build the kind of movement that was needed by tens of millions of people.
On the other hand, delegitimization of the U.S. political process hadn’t developed very far in 2009. Even though the pragmatic Barack Obama had told us in 2008 that, once president, he couldn’t make change without our throwing people power into the equation, few of his fans believed him. After gaining the White House, Obama extolled in a major speech the value of nonviolent action and civil disobedience (hint, hint!), but most who voted for him chose to believe their middle school civics textbook’s picture of U.S. democracy rather than to create a movement.
And we weren’t visibly there to show them how. The direct action-based anti-Keystone XL pipeline movement wasn’t then up and running.
Since that time, thanks partly to the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Americans are waking up and smelling the coffee. I want to support that maturing of political consciousness, and not confuse the issue by acting as if we believe that the national electoral process is the Big Deal.
6. Convention drama can actually reverse the process of movement-building. When I was working for Training for Change we went all-out to give training support for the demonstrations at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the “R2K.” We spent untold hours with activists from outside Philly as well as local people preparing for the big event.
I noticed in them a widespread hopelessness under the surface. It’s pretty hard to feel powerful if one has neither a clear change outcome in mind nor a target that can deliver that change. To motivate themselves, activists generated fear, including a buzz about infiltrators that gave rise to security culture. Of course, security culture does build its own excitement, as well as a self-absorption that prevents expansive organizing.
In the weeks prior to the convention, Philadelphia police were caught in a brutality scandal that soiled them. On the eve of the convention the media portrayed the demonstrators in a fairly neutral way.
By convention’s end, the roles were reversed; the highly disciplined police work was lauded by the general public, while the helter-skelter protests were deplored. I was not surprised; without a strategic goal, what were activists to do with their justifiably anxious and angry energy?
The real set-back, however, was the split that opened among progressives and activists in Philadelphia, accompanied by feelings of disappointment, anger and abandonment. One cleavage was intergenerational; another was among young people themselves: campus-based vs. non-campus-based. At Training for Change we led a reconciliation project for a year to help the healing start, joining others in putting additional movement energy into mopping up the mess.
In Philadelphia, it turned out that we did not need a convention protest. We probably still don’t, and I have a hunch that Cleveland doesn’t need one, either.
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