Within Shouting Distance: Physical and Technological Dissent at the 2016 Conventions
JULIE RUBIN

“The Convn. is shouting. The people in the streets are shouting. The news went to Washington and back by Telegraph whilst the votes were counting and the Congress is shouting. There is one general Shout throughout the whole land, and I can’t write any more for Shouting… I am yours shouting.”

Telegraph sent to James Polk by one of his supporters, 1844

With Elizabeth Warren to my left and Lance Bass to my right, I listened intently as former CIA Director Leon Panetta’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC) was interrupted by chants of “No More War!” from the Oregon delegation and watched as the lights above their section were cut off.

Days earlier, I found myself at “The Anti-Watch Party” on the night of Donald Trump’s address to the 2016 Republican National Convention (RNC). I sipped a specialty cocktail created for the evening, “The Combover,” and grasped my Trump-ism Bingo Card as I sat in a bar full of fellow progressives, waiting for the speech to begin.

The 2016 National Conventions (Source: Various)

The 2016 National Conventions | Source: Various

1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore (Source: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives/Flickr)

The 1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore | Source: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives/Flickr

The evolution of political conventions in the United States is driven by technological changes throughout history. From the first convention held in 1831, to the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2016, the way that the party organizers, delegates, and the voting public interact has been driven by these external changes. The shift from early closed door conventions to radio to television to our current state of 24-hour information access has largely opened the doors of the convention proceedings to anyone who has the capacity and patience to follow. This democratization of information gives more power to those who are not in attendance, but at the same time stresses the tension between party organizers and the public. As information is given more freely and production values of the conventions soar, conventions became Hollywood affairs — more plastic and lights than strategy meeting. The public retains several options —both physical and technological — to disrupt the official party narrative, and these disruptions, instead of the well-run political pep rallies, are what often has staying power.

At the same time that access to content about the conventions has exploded, the convention proceedings themselves have become better-produced affairs in an effort to present a cool, collected, and unified version of party proceedings.

1884 Republican National Convention in Chicago (Source: Cornell University Library/Flickr)

The 1884 Republican Convention in Chicago | Source: Cornell University Library/Flickr

The first national party convention was held in Baltimore for the Anti-Masonic Party in 1831 and provided candidates a chance to meet and present a unified platform at one time. The Democratic and Republican parties soon followed suit with national party conventions of their own. At these early conventions, the public had little opportunity for direct interaction in the proceedings like what we enjoy today. Lobbyists, party officials, and delegates conferred for days and voted for longer, but were generally given freedom to discuss convention proceedings behind closed door. Not to say that there was no “shouting” to be had, but the convention remained an internal strategy meeting closed to public intervention.

Campaign slogan for Calvin Coolidge, the Republican Party's presidential candidate in the 1924 election (Source: Source: Center for Public History + Digital Humanities)

Campaign slogan for Calvin Coolidge, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in the 1924 election | Source: © Center for Public History + Digital Humanities

When the 1924 Republican Convention in Cleveland broadcasted proceedings via 20 radio stations, party organizers recognized the opportunity to advertise their candidates directly into the living rooms of Americans. No longer were convention speeches focused on those in attendance but instead focused outward. Strategy meetings were no longer held publicly but taken off-air. By the 1950s, television had become ubiquitous in households around the country and Americans could view their representatives and convention proceedings in “gavel to gavel” coverage. Conventions soon became well-produced affairs. In a newsreel from 1952, presidential candidates are shown stepping off private planes, their wives in furs, waving to assembled crowds. Those viewing at home are given the illusion of full access. They can view the convention happenings from start to finish, with backstage glances at the different political celebrities. Viewers interact with convention proceedings mostly after the fact via reading op-eds, watching recaps, and discussing convention proceedings with friends and family.

Social video platform Twitch's national convention coverage graphic (Source: Twitch/The Verve)

Social video platform Twitch’s national convention coverage graphic | Source: © Twitch/The Verve

The doors to the convention hall were demolished with the advent of the internet and its evolving sophistication. In 2016, the options for following, interacting with, and influencing convention proceedings are infinite. Never has the public had this much power. Earlier conventions that relied on radio and television broadcasting allowed major broadcasting networks to retain control of narrative and structure. Now with streaming capabilities and live posting, those in the convention hall craft and broadcast their own experience. And more importantly, those who are not present can experience a multitude of dialogues and conversations from afar. Twitter, Facebook, and others create and sustain a web of constantly flowing arguments and fact checking and meme-creating and a host of ways to interact. There’s a network of chaos constantly floating above our heads.

We exist amidst the tension between highly-produced singular conventions and the infinite multitude of unregulated conversations on internet platforms.

At the same time that access to content about the conventions has exploded, the convention proceedings themselves have become better-produced affairs in an effort to present a cool, collected, and unified version of party proceedings. A live band plays at the DNC in Philadelphia to keep proceedings flowing with style, and signs are handed out during speeches so that when Hillary mentions being “Stronger Together”, the camera only need to pan over the crowd to see thousands of delegates holding signs that say just that. Speakers at both conventions rely on teleprompters for everything from their speech to the Pledge of Allegiance. Speakers and party organizers expect social media users to view speeches while concurrently surveying accounts dedicated to fact-checking and commentary — and so plan their conventions with that in mind.

We exist amidst the tension between highly-produced singular conventions and the infinite multitude of unregulated conversations on internet platforms. While party organizers have the power to create beautiful, patriotic stages and control what narratives are depicted on them, the rest of us have the power to engage with each other and control what makes news. And often it’s not what’s being said or what’s supposed to be said on stage.

The official #RNCinCLE hashtag reached a peak during the RNC proceedings during Melania Trump’s speech when it was discovered that large segments of her speech had been plagiarized from a speech made by First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Immediately after her speech concluded, #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes began trending and videos of Trump’s speech were juxtaposed beside Obama’s to highlight their similarities. Amateur and professional commentators utilized the official discussion channel — that RNC hashtag — but successfully shifted the conversation into one of their own, not at all sanctioned by RNC organizers. In this case, viewers redirected the online conversation to one of their own making — strengthened by the collaborative and hyperactive center of the internet.

Michelle Obama (Source: Joe Keene/Twitter)

Source: Joe Keene/Twitter

Even as the power of armchair protesters strengthens, it’s heartening to know that good old-fashioned physical protests persist, strengthened in large part by online organizing and exposure. At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, delegates fought on the floor of the convention hall over party organizers’ power, while outside in the streets of the city protesters rallied to “End the War in Vietnam”. Almost half a century later, protesters crowded streets of both Philadelphia and Cleveland to march and shout and cause a general ruckus to advocate for their respective beliefs. Inside convention halls, delegates protest by holding up opposition signs and interrupt speeches with chanting. Sometimes screaming very loudly with others remains the most powerful way to disrupt a production and a manufactured narrative that you don’t agree with.

The rest of us have the power to engage with each other and control what makes news. And often it’s not what’s being said or what’s supposed to be said on stage.

Hedwig Reicher as Columbia in Suffrage Parade (title on slide is incorrect) (Source: Library of Congress/Flickr)

Hedwig Reicher as Columbia in Suffrage Parade (title on slide is incorrect) | Source: Library of Congress/Flickr

It seems unlikely that political conventions will ever become less-produced, less-establishment. It is in their very nature. But it also seems unlikely that there will never be protests or critiques to accompany them. One begets the other. Technology has expanded access to convention proceedings and allowed viewers to interact and effect in new and unimagined ways and will likely continue to progress in this manner — an infinite swarm of ideas will emanate. As much power as the internet holds for connecting people and for sharing views online, it won’t upend convention proceedings as immediately as a protest. One must still ultimately be in the “room where it happens” to cause a physical disruption. And so we still need protests.

As the lights went off over the Oregon delegation during CIA Director Panetta’s speech, delegates began to turn the flashlights on the back of their phones on. Others joined them throughout the hall. And though “No More War!” was drowned out by fellow delegates and attendees shouting “USA!”, when Panetta faltered in his speech, I felt slightly more at peace in a space where dissent was allowed to some extent and where even this red, white, and blue balloon-filled production could be upended by some shouting.

Sometimes screaming very loudly with others remains the most powerful way to disrupt a production and a manufactured narrative that you don’t agree with.

The convention is shouting. The people in the streets are shouting. I can’t write anymore for shouting. I am yours Shouting.

 





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