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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 15: Will Chicago Protesters Be Thwarted By Another “Virtual Convention?”

As an old Democratic convention hand, I’m fascinated by these archaic events, and am particularly interested in plans to make Chicago ’24 feel like Chicago ’68. I explained at New York why that may not work.

The recent wave of pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses has conjured up many nostalgic images of anti–Vietnam War activism, some (as at Columbia University) self-consciously promoted by protesters whose parents weren’t yet born when those antiwar rallies convulsed the country. The legendary size and influence of the venerable Vietnam War protests is both an aspiration and an inspiration for today’s activists. So it’s not in the least bit surprising that plans are underway for large protests at the 2024 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a sort of homage to the huge and violently suppressed demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and as the climax of months of protests principally aimed at Joe Biden’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

Such protests, of course, are extremely unwelcome to the Democratic pols planning the August convention. Aside from disturbing the desired harmony of the quadrennial gathering, which will be counted upon by Team Biden to generate a crucial burst of momentum heading toward November, signs of disorder will play into Republican law-and-order rhetoric, just as they did in 1968. One stratagem convention planners reportedly may use is to reduce the number of targets for demonstrators by holding certain key events virtually, as Democrats did in 2020, Politico reports:

“Trumpeting the success of their Covid-era convention four years ago, some in Biden’s orbit are aggressively pushing to make the 2024 conclave a hybrid production. That would mean in-person speeches from the president, party luminaries and rising stars to draw television attention alongside a mix of pre-recorded testimonials and videos from other parts of the country.

“The goal: drive maximum viewership on television and the internet while minimizing live programming and openings for protest in Chicago’s United Center. This would mean moving party business, such as rules and platform votes, off the floor and denying would-be demonstrators a chance to seize on contentious debates.”

Decentralizing convention events or even moving them out of Chicago would frustrate the hopes of protesters for a dramatic 1968-style confrontation in close proximity to delegates, party officials, and Joe Biden himself. As protest planners have made clear, they want to be within “sight and sound of the DNC” and share in its media coverage. Dispersed and recorded convention events will make that more difficult.

If convention planners do move in this direction, it will undoubtedly spur complaints that Team Biden and other Democratic wire-pullers are suppressing dissent in order to paper over very real internal party differences over U.S. support for Israel’s war in Gaza. Indeed, those complainers might include the progressive mayor of the host city, Brandon Johnson, who has been jockeying with Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker and national law-enforcement and political figures for control over preparations, as Politico notes:

“’If there’s any mayor that understands the value of protest and demonstration, it’s me,’ Johnson told reporters earlier this week at a groundbreaking, dismissing a question about Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) concerns over unrest in the city during the convention. Johnson said, ‘Without protests and real demands of a government, people of color and women do not have a place in society.’”

What these disputes over parade permits and demonstration sites may obscure, however, is the extent to which the old-school convention staging that protesters crave had already become painfully obsolete before the pandemic conditions of 2020 made junking them obligatory. Comparisons to the 1968 Democratic convention should suffice to make it clear how very much has changed since then in ways that make a three-to-four-day live event with debates and deliberations absurd.

In 1968, there was still some doubt eventual nominee Hubert H. Humphrey (who did not enter a single presidential primary) would win the prize when the opening gavel fell, and many delegates and delegations were free to push the party in a different direction. Three other active candidates (including future Democratic nominee George McGovern) had their names placed in nomination. In 2024, every delegate will be either a product of the primaries (all won by Biden other than in American Samoa) or an ex officio delegate from the Democratic Establishment (i.e., membership in the DNC or in major elected office). All but six delegates will likely be pledged to Biden. The rituals of nomination speeches and roll-call votes are entirely empty beyond their value as Biden infomercials, like the entire convention itself.

An emotional high point of the 1968 convention that connected the convention hall with the protests on the street was the intense debate over competing Vietnam planks. When the antiwar plank lost, the New York delegation put on black armbands and sang “We Shall Overcome” as cameras whirred. Nowadays, platform disputes rarely occur, and when they do, they are invariably resolved before the convention, with the presumptive nominee determining the outcome.

And finally, the 1968 Democratic convention was among the last to be given “gavel-to-gavel coverage” by what were then three dominant broadcast television networks. Now, coverage of conventions is widely dispersed among media and mostly very condensed. There’s simply very little news value in prefab “deliberations” that aren’t deliberative at all.

So if the Hamas attacks of October 7, the Israeli invasion of Gaza, and U.S. support for Israel’s conduct of the war had never happened, Democrats would have been fully justified in refusing to go back to a pre-pandemic model of conventions that no longer make any sense. Indeed, some of us publicly hoped that conventions as we knew them would die a natural death once Democrats made the leap to a purely artificial, made-for-TV event that wasn’t held at all in the supposed host city of Milwaukee. Now, thanks to the struggle for and against the right to protest at the DNC, we could, ironically, see young antiwar protesters champion a return to the baby-boomer era of national political conventions, even as Old Joe Biden and his team try to move things along into the present and future.

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