PHILADELPHIA — America is experiencing a bubble, and that bubble is the Democratic National Convention. That bubble is around Hillary Clinton, and around the convention floor, and around Wells Fargo Center itself, which this week is a kind of trashy Versailles: gated, blithe, debauched, and just now beginning to understand that it’s under assault.
We’re mixing our metaphors, so let’s just go to the scene:
“Looks like this is as far as I can go,” says our Uber driver, as he stops a mile and a half short of the arena — or rather, the vast acreage of asphalt parking that surrounds the arena. “Now I’m leaving Philadelphia and not coming back.”
There’s no choice but to walk the rest of the way through Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, which should be renamed Herbert Hooverville for its clusters of tents and aura of meagerness. The Occupirates Camp is denoted by a skull-and-crossbones flag strung between two trees. Its denizens are inspired by the Pirate Party, which has little presence in America but is apparently “really big in Iceland.” The camp has had problems already; last night the sprinklers on a nearby baseball field turned on and soaked its tents.
“In an event of this magnitude, the sprinklers coming on is not an accident,” notes pirate Max Neely of Frederick, Md.
When you feel that you’ve lost your country to oligarchs and strongmen, every slight is evidence of a conspiracy — even the nonchalant middle finger from a Hillary supporter who was somehow able to get on the other side of the gate. Go through two more rounds of security, though, and theories start to grow wings.
Men in oxfords play cornhole outside the CNN Grill, whose circular sign is like a neon sun over this amusement park of corporate sponsorship and paramilitary police vehicles.
A cameraman smokes a cigarette beside the food trucks, whose gas-powered generators grumble and spew soot. The heat is despotic.
“It’s the end of times, man,” the cameraman says, dripping with sweat.
The price of bottled water in the bubble ($4.25) suggests we’re running out of it. The constant chop of helicopters makes it sound like this convention is either under assault or being evacuated.
You need a couple of passes to get this far, and another pass to get inside the arena, which smells of charred tubular meats, and another pass to get on the rich royal-blue carpeting of the convention floor — democracy’s inner sanctum.
A 40-something woman in a sheath dress can’t quite get there. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she bellows, waving a plastic badge at a volunteer, “but this was a lot of money, and now you are telling me I’m still not on the inside of the inside?”
Inside of the inside, we find Florida delegate Judy Mount. She is wearing a bedazzled denim jacket that’s puffy-painted with statehood pride.
The jacket “was created for my granddaughter, who has not even been conceived yet,” says Mount, the Democratic Party chair for the panhandle town of Marianna. “But I want to pass this on to her so she can be just as political.”
There’s a lot of talk about our children and grandchildren here, and about what we’re leaving them. It’s what propels Mount to cheer for Hillary Clinton, pioneer and bogeywoman. It’s what triggers the tear ducts of a legion of Bernie Sanders supporters, who are roundly mocked this week for clinging to their principles instead of falling in line, as well as the tear ducts of 102-year-old Geraldine “Jerry” Emmett, who pledged Arizona’s Hillary delegates with the vigor and volume of a 22-year-old.
After Bernie calls for the nomination of Hillary on Tuesday night, his supporters walk out of the arena and into one of the media tents for a sit-in.
“RIGGED,” says one sign of protest.
“Unity!” says every speaker onstage in the arena.
Outside the bubble, downtown, the metal placard astride the Liberty Bell says that it “first cracked soon after its arrival in Philadelphia,” which might also be said of the Democratic Party — except when confronted by the Westboro Baptist Church. On Tuesday afternoon, 500 progressives gathered on Locust Street (fitting!) to drown out exactly three anti-gay religious extremists from Kansas. It was enough to make an establishment Democrat wish that Hillary were running against Shirley Phelps-Roper instead of Donald Trump.
“GOD H8S TRANNIES,” said Shirley’s sign. Her counter-protesters held signs saying that God hates, among other things:
THE SCHUYLKILL EXPRESSWAY
This was all taking place 100 feet from the Musical Fund Hall, site of the first Republican National Convention 160 years ago. Philadelphia is ripe with symbolism. At Geno’s Steaks, a sign by the register says “This is America. When ordering, ‘speak English.’” Across the street, Pat’s King of Steaks offers a “sandwich contest showdown” featuring cheesesteaks named after Bernie (with onion) and Hillary (without).
One order equals one vote.
“Too close to tell,” says an employee. The owners of each establishment appeared on the “Today” show Wednesday morning; the rivalry is all in good fun and all good for business.
If only that were the case for the “I’m with her” and the “Never Hillary” crowds. The Clinton folk flit through the air-conditioned downtown convention center between gender-neutral restrooms and lesbian political-action committees and coffee mugs emblazoned with Hillary’s signature in gold script that go for $25. If you’ve got more cash on hand, a $467,000 contribution to the DNC would buy access to the VIP lounge at the arena and an “exclusive roundtable and campaign briefing with high-level Democratic officials,” according to emails identified by the Center for Public Integrity from the WikiLeaks dump earlier this past week.
Outside, in the hot hell of the real world, hundreds of Bernie people gather near city hall in a plaza named after Thomas Paine, who once said: “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”
The volume on the sound system is turned to the max. The idealism and anger are ear-splitting.
“He’s the one that will clothe you!” says one speaker of Bernie.
“We’re headed to a class war!” says another, railing against superdelegates.
“Let’s keep this revolution going,” says Maine delegate Denise Groves. “No more Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Clinton.”
Fittingly, the ongoing rally encircles an abstract bronze sculpture of a pile of bodies twisted together in an orgy, or a struggle — it’s called “Government by the People” — and people move about on top of a huge game board (another piece of public art), with a giant rook here, a giant domino there. A Hillary supporter dares to take the microphone in solidarity and then feels the flying spittle of fury.
Has anyone ever told the Bernie people that politics is chess, not checkers?
Yes, they say. And that’s the problem.
“We want the system to change, no matter what the cost,” says Marcia Bartha, 53, a kitchen designer from Connecticut who remembers when the middle class could afford cars and houses and whose college-age daughter is working three jobs and still has trouble with rent.
“I can’t do $35,000 a plate to get [Hillary’s] time,” says Carmen Fund, 39, a sonographer from Texas who’s wearing a big yellow button that reads “It’s always Bernie in Philadelphia.”
“That,” Bartha says of those donor dinners, “is where the bubble happens.”
Several blocks away is the Bud Light Party, where a few hundred young people drink and dance to Chubb Rock on the esplanade of the Comcast Center. In big blue letters on the side of the beer truck: “IT’S HAPPY HOUR AGAIN IN AMERICA.” If the 2012 numbers hold, less than half of the revelers will vote in November.
Four miles south, back in the bubble, the closed captioning in the arena concourse is also staging a revolution. The text on the flatscreen TVs introduces the “convention chair” as the “conning vengeance chair.”
Symbolism everywhere. The best place in the arena to hear the proceedings, it turns out, is a place that has speakers piping sound from the stage but is otherwise free of the booing, the chatter, the soundtrack of a dyspeptic democracy. The best place to hear what’s going on is in the toilets.
Monica Hesse and Ben Terris contributed to this report.