While this has dampened the prospect of tourism dollars, “Milwaukee is still going to be the setting for the biggest show on Earth,” said Steve Baas of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. The Cream City also gives Democrats a combination of optics only the postindustrial Midwest can provide. By holding the convention in Milwaukee, a city that is facing severe economic and housing inequality, rampant gentrification and abusive and murderous patterns of policing of Black and Latinx peoples, the party hopes to align itself with two simultaneous narratives: first, that the party is in touch with the Midwest working-class base it seeks to regain, and second, that the party is in touch with multiracial America and the structural injustice that plagues it, a base it presumes to have firmly locked in.
These were the same narratives at play when the Democratic National Convention was last held in another Midwestern city: Chicago. During that 1996 event, Democratic leaders failed to reconcile how many of the social and economic policies they were promoting at the convention — notably welfare reform, crime legislation, border security and privatization — were harmful to Chicagoans. The Democrats of that convention displayed little compassion to its host city when they celebrated a platform that actually exacerbated the very racial and economic disparities that plagued urban areas like Chicago then and now. Unifying the party today will require bridging the division ushered in that year.
The 1996 convention was erected on the ashes of urban unrest that burned down portions of the city in 1968, the last time the Democratic National Convention had been held in Chicago. That earlier convention transmitted images of palpable volatility through the television screens of Americans who witnessed police beating antiwar protesters. Between 1968 and 1996, Chicago’s social conditions grew worse. Economic inequality and racial segregation expanded, largely as a result of federal and municipal disinvestment in housing and schools, unchecked banking and loan discrimination, and a restructured economy that failed to produce living wages. At the same time, deeply segregated Black and Brown communities were the focal point for decades of violent forms of policing.
For communities of color outside the convention arena, the stakes could not have been higher. During the convention, residents in Black and Brown neighborhoods such as Bronzeville, Woodlawn, Austin, North Kenwood-Oakland and Pilsen mobilized, having grown weary of the increased role of privatized money in community reinvestment that stripped them of decision-making over their own neighborhoods. Community organizations such as the South Austin Coalition Community Council and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council held rallies and community gatherings to challenge the agenda advanced at the convention. Grass-roots organizations such as the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and the Alianza Pro-Inmigrante fought school budget cuts and the deportation of undocumented workers.
Rather than addressing these issues or providing an outlet by which to listen to community groups, the Democratic establishment appeared tone deaf to the needs of its host city, unable to link local realities to its national agenda. Thousands of delegates danced the macarena on live television, and President Bill Clinton spoke of a hopeful future based on welfare-to-work programs, charter schools and personal responsibility. It was clear that Clinton’s neoliberal message was at odds with Chicagoans’ needs.
But it wasn’t just Clinton. Indeed, Chicago’s own mayor, Richard M. Daley, worked to reshape government to create more incentives for private investment in social infrastructure. As one journalist put it in 1996, “once Clinton took office,” Daley’s siphoning off city land to corporations “became a multimillion-dollar river.” The Democratic establishment did not question the increasing role of corporations and banks in the life of the public good. On the contrary, it helped to normalize it.
Clinton’s political ascendancy through the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) reflected the transformation that had taken place over the previous decade. Spearheading new market-based solutions to economic and urban problems, the DLC pushed policies — like welfare reform and tax incentives for privatized urban redevelopment — that allowed business to enter and alter the structures of society for working people, particularly in the realms of education, housing and employment. This ultimately empowered banks and other financial lending groups to make critical social policy decisions affecting people’s lives, frequently allowing profit to surpass social good.
During the 1996 Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton celebrated the benefits of corporate reinvestment in minority neighborhoods, highlighting, for instance, the value of charter schools. And yet the negative consequences quickly hit the very city that hosted him that year. Chicago’s first charter schools opened in 1997, including the Academy of Communications and Technology, Chicago International Charter School and a handful of others, that would funnel resources away from public schools and the communities they served.
This was a canary in the coal mine, signaling that the city was now open to a new kind of laboratory for corporate reinvestment in Black and Brown neighborhoods. The result: the rise of new schemes, such as enterprise or empowerment zones, to infuse struggling minority neighborhoods with a mix of private and federal grant dollars in the service of reform and progress. Sometimes this “progress” amounted to bulldozing much-needed affordable housing and creating bureaucratic loopholes to privatize land and gentrify neighborhoods.
In Pilsen, a working-class Mexican-majority neighborhood, residents questioned just who was being “empowered.” Local artists and activists pushed back against new tax policies designed to attract private investors because of the displacement of low-income renters and homeowners that frequently happened as a result. “These profit speculators are running our low-income people out of our historic neighborhood,” wrote the Frente de Artistas en Defensa Del Barrio de Pilsen.
In the programming of the 1996 convention, there was hardly a mention of the crisis that gripped Chicago and other cities across the Midwest. Since then, the postindustrial region has played a bigger role in the party’s messaging. This was true during the historic election of 2008, when Barack Obama became the nation’s first African American president but also the first president to be a former community organizer from Chicago. The party has worked to recognize its multiracial constituency, which has been influential in helping shape its national policy agenda and even the party’s ticket in 2020.
It is to the party’s benefit that Milwaukee not get lost over Zoom speeches and virtual performances. Milwaukee remains one of the most segregated cities in America, in part because of the very policies promoted at the 1996 convention — punitive “law and order” positions, tax incentives for market-based urban development and less government assistance and more personal responsibility, all of which greatly exacerbated economic and racial inequality while redistributing wealth upward.
Today’s low-income communities of color in Milwaukee remain confined to areas in the central city that are experiencing housing and food insecurity and overpolicing and where WiFi and computing resources are seriously lacking right when children need them the most. Will the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party dispense with the pomp and circumstance of a political convention and truly engage Milwaukee? Whether Democratic Party leaders virtually beam into the convention or are there in the flesh, Milwaukee will remind them of the stakes of this election, and it is incumbent upon Biden and the Democratic Party to listen and make actionable changes to address its past and meet the current moment.