What Is Left of the Left: Lessons from the Streets of the Philadelphia DNC

Philadelphia, PA (TFC) –  I arrived in Philadelphia for the 2016 Democratic National Convention not knowing quite what to expect – expectations are hard to rely on, in this particular election cycle. I did, however, know one thing: I wasn’t getting in the convention center, and I didn’t really care to. I assumed that the real pulse of the convention would be where the pulse of Philadelphia, where the pulse of any city is: on the streets, with the people. I wasn’t disappointed.


The two major political parties in the United States are “Big Tent” organizations, one for the entirety of the political Right and one for the entirety of the political Left. The Democratic Party, then, is the Leftist organization, and indeed there were Leftists by the tens of thousands in the streets. Curiously, they didn’t seem to have much love to spare for the appointed nominee that was ostensibly there to represent their interests. Among the most vocal – and numerous – were supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, who just recently conceded defeat and openly endorsed Hillary Clinton. Opinions on this move ranged from stunned disbelief, to a belief that the endorsement was some sort of ploy or ingenious political maneuver, to a deep resentment and feeling of betrayal – sometimes all in the same individual.


What is certain is that few among them had any desire to swallow the Clinton pill. Sanders delegates even walked off the Convention floor itself, and booed and heckled a number of the speakers, from Cory Booker being jeered to say something – anything – about the Black Lives Matter movement to Elizabeth Warren, who many Sanders supporters assumed would be chosen as the other half of their ticket, receiving calls of “we trusted you!” The mood of the city, and indeed, the mood of the entire country, seems to have turned entirely against the Establishment, “Big Tent” style of governance that has reigned over American politics for the past half century.


This fundamental distrust has been a long time coming. It is perhaps traceable back to the Global Justice Movement of the 1990’s, or to the twin political insurgencies of the Tea Party Movement and Occupy Wall Street in more recent years. Many I spoke to in Philadelphia had participated in – or wanted to participate in – The Occupy Movement, which surely laid the groundwork for the success of the affable but previously obscure Senator from Vermont to do so well against a candidate with vast name recognition and who had all but been declared the presumptive nominee after the 2008 election. Nearly all of the disenfranchised Sanders supporters I met, including delegates, claimed they were shifting allegiances to Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party. Many see this as a new rise of socialism, especially among young Millennials, and especially among those who, until now, were not especially invested in politics.


This rise in socialist tendencies in the young electorate may not be precisely that, however. A Pew Research poll from 2011 did, indeed, show that among those under 30 had a 49% favorable opinion of the word “socialism” compared with a 47% favorability with the word “capitalism.” Certainly these numbers must be at their highest since before the Red Scare, but compare those numbers to a Reason-Rupe poll that show that only 16% of that same group could give an accurate description of Socialism. What does this mean?


It’s not about ideology.


Time and time again on the streets of Philadelphia, this point was hammered home to me. There is a deep discontent, a deep alienation, that pervades this election season. It’s not about socialism, it’s not about neo-liberalism, it’s not about the clear (and terrifying) rise of American fascism. I isn’t even about Bernie.Take the words of Sanders delegate from Los Angeles, Miguel Angel Zuringa:


We didn’t belong to him. We were Bernie’s warriors. Now, he was our leader, and he will always be, and we continue to fight the revolution. When the leader gets taken down in a revolution, what do you do, do you give up? That’s not how revolutions are won. You find the next leaders, and we might have multiple leaders at this point… I’m not holding Bernie’s hand anymore.


Sanders intended on starting a political revolution, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams – they are continuing on without him. Behind this unrest, not just on the Left, but the Right as well, is a sense that the political machine is rigged in the favor of the capitalist class – the rich. This is something that seems to be almost an intuition, something that was felt by everyone I spoke with. The rise of the Internet and independent media, as well as the obvious crumbling of the system as a whole, has pulled back the curtain and the machinery has been revealed. In a time when the young are facing crippling debt with few job opportunities, when technology has allowed everyone to see the discrimination and brutality that people of color face in their communities in real time, when the prisons are owned and operated by private entities seeking to incarcerate for profit, when the entire world seems to be at war with itself, and when the planet is spiraling rapidly into an unfixable cycle of climate change, the only answer many seem to have is to embrace any potential, any real change. Not ideology; desperation – a sense, right or wrong, that this could be the last chance, and they seem motivated to seize it.


Protesting on the Ritz - Eric Scott Pickard

Protesting on the Ritz – Eric Scott Pickard

What was striking about this is the course that it has taken. I was there filming during the Black Lives Matter march – the “DNC Resistance March Against Police Terrorism and State Repression” – and the solidarity of the crowd was palpable. The group was diverse – from old grandparents to young people, immigrants, people of color and people with white skin, anarchists and communists, liberal organizers and OWS veterans. One of the main chants is the most telling: “Don’t vote for Hillary, she is killing black people.” This isn’t a contest of political ideologies, but a deep desire for justice and fundamental change, an organic uprising in response to a world that many intuitively feel is headed towards disaster. I can only liken it to the New Left of the sixties, a shift in political and cultural values that seems set to shake the Establishment’s windows and rattle their halls.


In the end, my experience in Philadelphia – the place where the set of laws that govern this nation were born – was one that leaves me tentatively optimistic. It is possible that those groups that choose to rally behind third parties will have wild success against the two most disliked Presidential candidates in history, yes, and breaking that two party bio-poly would be positive for American democracy. But I am also encouraged by the potential that exists in the solidarity and unity that I saw; not the “Party Unity” shell game that was so touted in the Convention Hall itself, but the unity of groups of people who come together to express their discontent with one voice. I continually heard rumors around FDR Park, where many protesters were encamping, about a new rise of the Occupy Movement, the networks of which still exist in great strength. Black Lives Matter has become the most vibrant and effective protest group in years. Alternative and New Media organizations, citizen journalists, and impromptu social media groups and organizations are spreading information and educating. Nearly everyone I spoke with – especially young people – told me they planned on returning to their communities and organizing, both politically and socially.


Bringing these groups together can only be a good thing. As Dr. Cornell West put it, the United States faces a choice between a “neo-fascist disaster and a neo-liberal catastrophe.” If the American people are to defend themselves from this dismal vision of the future, they will need to connect and organize. If what I saw in Philly holds true, they are doing just that.