City Journal sent me to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer. More than 20,000 journalists were there, and since I covered the convention for a quarterly magazine, it’s probably safe to say that my piece was published dead-last.
I had to be sure, then, that what I wrote wouldn’t be dated before it even saw print, and I tried to write one that will be relevant for many years.
Here’s the first part.
In this year’s race for the White House, American voters nearly had to choose between a fake Republican and a fake Democrat. Billionaire real-estate developer and reality TV star Donald Trump thumped his opponents in the Republican primary after spending his entire adult life as a boorish Democrat. Bernie Sanders nearly grabbed the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton despite spending his entire Senate career as an independent socialist, well to the left of the Democratic Party.
Sanders and Trump are flip sides of the same populist coin. At a glance, they appear to be ideological opposites. Whether incidentally or on purpose, Trump appeals to the so-called alt-Right—the ragtag crew of white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, Muslim-haters, neo-Confederates and “birthers.” Sanders, meanwhile, appeals to what might be called the alt-Left—assorted Marxists, “safe-space” activists, cop-haters, anti-Zionists, anti-vaxxers, and blame-America-firsters. Look closer, though: both candidates are populist anti-elitists who claim that “the system” is “rigged.” Both promised to kick over the garbage cans in Washington. Both railed against money in politics. Both claimed that immigration depresses working-class wages. Isolationists in economics and in war, they bucked mainstream Republicanism and Clintonism. And, as Troy Campbell put it in Politico earlier this year, they are both “enabling dissenters” who have “legitimized for discussion ‘fringe beliefs’ that millions of Americans beforehand had been unsure of or too shy to fully embrace, but nonetheless felt strongly about.”
Trump mounted a successful insurgency against the Republican establishment; his rise has ignited fratricidal warfare in the GOP, and no one knows where it will end. The Democratic Party establishment had better luck battling against the Sanders insurgency, putting it down, at least for the time being. But Hillary Clinton is the standard-bearer for a status quo that huge numbers of people on both sides of the political spectrum can no longer stand. In the years ahead, Sanders’s overwhelmingly young supporters will only become more numerous and engaged. If they pull off a hostile takeover someday, the Democratic establishment can’t say that it didn’t hear the warning shots—they rang out loud and clear at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this past summer.
If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that Philadelphia was ground zero for an anti-Clinton insurgency. When I went downtown to pick up my press credentials the day before the convention, furious Sanders supporters swarmed the sidewalks, blocked streets, snarled traffic—and guaranteed overtime pay for local police officers. They chanted, “Hell, no, we won’t vote for Hillary!” They carried placards and signs. CAPITALISM HAS OUTLIVED ITS USEFULNESS, read one. I saw “Bernie 2016” T-shirts everywhere and not a single Hillary shirt. Even without the T-shirts, the Sanders activists were easy to spot. They were the ones who looked like they’d just eaten a sack of lemons. Right in front of Philadelphia’s gorgeous City Hall—it’s the largest in the United States and could fill in for the Paris City Hall in a pinch—a Sanders crowd impersonated a Donald Trump rally, chanting “Lock her up!” and carrying “Hillary for Prison” signs.
Traffic ground to a standstill. My taxi driver ranted and raved, banging on the steering wheel over and over again. He called me “sir,” but I nevertheless felt guilty for being one of tens of thousands of outsiders who had effectively colonized his city and made it nearly impossible for him to do his job. “I’ve been a Democrat my entire life,” he said, “but this year I’m voting for Trump.”
At first glance, it appeared that nearly everybody in Philadelphia hated Clinton, until I saw that the city center was packed with DNC volunteers. They, too, were easy to spot. All wore the same light-blue T-shirts reading “Democratic National Convention” on the front and “Ask Me” on the back. I chatted with some of them, partly because I needed directions and also because I wondered what they thought of the protesters. They made no secret of their contempt for “the Bernie people,” as they called them.
Sanders activists weren’t the only ones taking to the streets that week, hoping for coverage from the journalist hordes. Even more extreme leftist demonstrators gathered as close as they could to the delegates. They screamed, “Go home, F*** Hillary,” and burned American and Israeli flags. Some shouted “Long live the Intifada!,” referring to the wave of Palestinian suicide-bombers who exploded themselves on Israeli buses and in Israeli cafés in the early 2000s.
Philadelphia native Erica Mines led a protest march against police brutality, yelling, “Hillary Clinton has blood on her hands.” One of the signs in her rally read, “Hillary, Delete Yourself.” “Hillary, you’re not welcome here,” read another. “I need all white people to move to the back!” Mines thundered. “This is a black and brown resistance march! If you are for this march and you are here to support, you will take your appropriate place in the back!”
Those whose favored candidates lose a primary election often feel bitter toward the winner, but the Sanders supporters were furious at the entire Democratic Party for allegedly stealing the nomination. Just two days earlier, WikiLeaks had dumped a trove of e-mails onto the Internet, probably acquired from hackers backed by Russian intelligence, that proved that party elites had had it in for Sanders all along. Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had just resigned her position, and at another rally downtown, Sanders supporters chanted, “Debbie is done!”
Sanders and his supporters had a right to be angry, but it doesn’t matter what the establishment wants if the voters want something else. Just look at the GOP. The Republican establishment went after Trump with hammer and tongs, but primary voters put him over the top, and their second choice, Ted Cruz, is another antiestablishment crusader. Establishment pols can’t force voters to do what voters don’t want to do.
The Democratic establishment didn’t have to fight as hard as their Republican counterparts. If Sanders had been ahead during the primary season instead of perpetually lagging behind, the Democratic establishment almost certainly would have blasted him with both barrels, but a Sanders win never looked likely. He won small, overwhelmingly white, states; but Clinton won larger, racially diverse, states in one landslide after another, not because the system was rigged but because Sanders came across to most nonwhite voters as an alternative novelty candidate. The establishment could hold its collective breath and ride out the storm.
The 2016 Democratic National Convention actually sprawled across two main venues: downtown, at the Philadelphia Convention Center, the place for untelevised (and unscripted) meetings and panel discussions between delegates and other party officials; and, a few miles south, the Wells Fargo Center arena in the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, where party big shots delivered speeches in front of the television cameras.
On the first day, I headed for the Convention Center for the morning meetings before the televised portion from the Wells Fargo Center kicked off in the late afternoon. On my way inside, a man on the corner handed me a pamphlet for the Communist Party. Everyone who went in got one. The DNC couldn’t keep Communists away from the perimeter any more than it could keep the angry Bernie legions away.
I tossed the Communist propaganda into the garbage and sighed, relieved that I could put the heat, the anger, the yelling, and the political whack jobs behind me. No one could set foot in the convention center without credentials, and the air inside the building was 30 degrees cooler and 50 percent less humid. Still, 100 percent of the T-shirts inside the Convention Center had Bernie Sanders’s name on them. Had I been whisked into an alternate universe where Hillary Clinton lost the primary? Were the halls of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland the previous week filled with people wearing Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio T-shirts? Not a chance.
After a few minutes, I figured it out. Clinton supporters didn’t wear T-shirts. They dressed professionally. Some sported a small Hillary button next to an American flag pin, but they otherwise looked like managers and corporate executives. Sanders supporters looked like hipsters who’d just spent the night on somebody else’s couch, and they appeared to be, on average, about 20 years younger than everyone else.
The data support my observations. Young primary voters overwhelmingly pulled the lever for Sanders, while older voters went overwhelmingly for Clinton. In New York, for instance, Sanders beat Clinton among voters under 30 by a whopping 53 points, yet Clinton still carried the state by 16 points.
Those aren’t the only political data that set young millennials apart from their elders. According to an exhaustive report by political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in the Journal of Democracy, young people today are considerably more authoritarian and antidemocratic by attitude and temperament than any other generational cohort, especially baby boomers. Only 30 percent think that it’s “essential” to live in a country with a democratic system of government, and a terrifying 24 percent actually think that a democratic system of government is a bad thing. Only 32 percent of millennials think that it’s “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.” According to a Pew Research Center report, 40 percent of millennials want the government to ban “offensive” speech.
“The decline in support for democracy,” Foa and Mounk write, “is not just a story of the young being more critical than the old; it is, in the language of survey research, owed to a ‘cohort’ effect rather than an ‘age’ effect.” In other words, millennials are likely to carry these ideas and attitudes with them for the rest of their lives. Their contempt for free speech is a stunning reversal of the Free Speech Movement on university campuses in the 1960s led by young boomers who fought hard to topple institutional censorship. Many of today’s young adults, by contrast, want to impose institutional censorship—not just on college campuses but across the nation.
I slipped into a Small Business Council meeting, attended by perhaps 150 people along with a handful participating in a panel. I saw plenty of Hillary buttons and small American flag pins. Nobody wore a Bernie T-shirt. In fact, no one in that room wore any kind of T-shirt. This was a room full of professionals, not unemployed college kids. It had the look and feel of a Rotary Club meeting.
By contrast with the unglamorous and somewhat dreary discussions going on at the Convention Center, the program at the Wells Fargo Center was a pep rally and commercial for TV. The arena is far removed from the city center, in a gigantic ocean of parking lots near two other stadiums. Federal and local authorities set up a perimeter a mile and a half away, manned by police officers who ensured that everyone who passed that point had the proper credentials. Protesters and would-be assassins could not get any closer without being arrested—or shot.
Those of us with credentials had to walk for a half-hour through blazing sunshine, without shade. Temperatures pushed 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. The air was as heavy and hostile as Baghdad’s. My clothes stuck to my skin. I could smell the tar bubbling on the asphalt. I envied, for once, the Sanders delegates in their soft shoes and T-shirts.
Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and heavily armed Secret Service agents manned metal detectors. Black jeeps with the words “Counter Terrorism” stenciled on the sides roamed inside the perimeter. Helicopters flew overhead. Snipers took up positions on the stadium roofs. I haven’t seen so much security anywhere in the world except on military bases in Iraq.