Some rally speakers called for the death of the Democratic National Committee; others, for an end to the deaths of war. Some called for local political action; others focused on the national demise of the two-party system. For those watching from home, it may have been confusing. For those on-site, it wasn’t always much clearer: At times, law enforcement and rally attendees had difficulty naming the groups in attendance.
"It's not over till the superdelegates have voted," Cheryl Miller, from Austin, told The Post. Less than two days later, it was over.
Convention week protests have long been a staple of the presidential campaign cycle. At their most intense — the Chicago 1968 model — they even have the potential to impact the outcome of the election itself.
Of course, this time around, the DNC, the two-party system — and, for that matter, war — all ended last week in roughly the same shape they began. Pro-Sanders protesters inside Wells Fargo Arena were disappointed by what they saw on stage. Those outside may have been disappointed by rallies where attendance overall, although robust, fell short of the most ambitious expectations.
But that doesn’t mean the gatherings were a bust, academics say. The point of modern protest isn’t always delivering a message to the world; sometimes, it’s just about solidifying your own buy-in. In a digital age, the most analog forms of political persuasion are often the most effective — even when the person whose beliefs you’re reinforcing is yourself.
“The people [protests] have the most effect on are the people that participate,” said Michael T. Heaney, a political sociologist at the University of Michigan. “It becomes a way to learn about democracy, how to think about politics and how to act in politics.”
Maybe the Bernie or Bust crowd, which dominated many gatherings, will emerge from convention week motivated to invigorate third party movements such as the Green Party. Maybe they’ll be even more determined to work for major change within the Democratic Party. Either way, the act of standing with other like-minded individuals tends to strengthen resolve and solidify beliefs. And whatever strategy they land on, they may have created or reinforced a network to help turn it into reality.
Or not. The thing about the sort of strong emotion that can drive protest participation is that the act of attendance itself can provide the sort of personal fulfillment attendees are looking for.
Sara Gudat, 53, drove more than three hours from York, Penn. to take part to express her support for Bernie Sanders and her frustration with two-party dominance. Sanders's stance on universal health care resonated for her because supporting four kids and a mother on Social Security has become a financial burden.
“Rallies are important because it helps people get motivated,” she said at a Bernie Sanders Appreciation Day rally hosted by Black Men for Bernie held on the hottest part of the day Wednesday. “Everybody here is feeling involved.”
They may feel involved. But the week didn’t involve any concrete action to effect the changes they’re looking for. And motivation doesn’t necessarily translate into momentum.
“To actually accomplish a goal, you have to work with other people,” Clayborne Carson, the director of the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. “You have to develop a strategy of how you’re going to be developing the energy from protest into policy.”
And so those convention week protests in Cleveland and Philadelphia -- and even election-year organizing in key swing states -- don’t actually tell you much about how effective a movement will be in the long term, Carson says, or how involved those in attendance will remain.
“If you can maintain some type of intensity between elections, then you can affect elections,” he said. “If you’re waiting until election year, then it’s too late.”
Success often comes with a side effect for protest movements birthed out of street action: Its appearance can signal that that movement’s days are numbered. “One of the ironies is protest movements have more success in making inroads into the mainstream of both parties, which takes some of the steam out the protest in the street,” says David Meyer, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who teaches about social movements.
And, Carson notes, the week was full of signs that Sanders supporters and protesters have influenced the Democratic Party. The party platform, the string of speakers on stage paying tribute to the senator from Vermont, the creation of a commission to reassess the role of superdelegates in the voting process: All of those pointed to an establishment move to embrace, endorse or otherwise co-opt the movement’s objectives (or at least to send a sign that they thought those objectives were worth paying lip service to.) And so the fact that the protests that featured Bernie were a bit of a bust may actually have been the best sign of all for his fans.
“When you listen to [Clinton’s] speech, most of her policies were Bernie’s,” says Carson. “This was one of the most successful movements ever.”