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Class and Culture at the Republican and Democratic Conventions

Class and Culture at the Republican and Democratic Conventions

Walking around the conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia one could see that there have been many changes in class and culture both inside and outside of the parties in the last fifty years.

In Cleveland I was able to tour the Q while it was still being turned from a sports arena into a convention center. There were some women among the workers, doing jobs they they would not have done 50 years ago. What struck me was how many of the guys had beards and long ponytails. When I went to the counter-conventions that weekend, I saw few of either on the leftie guys in attendance. Many of you remember back in the ‘60s when those of us who marched for civil rights and against the war in Viet Nam were dismissed as bearded beatniks and hairy hippies by working class men. Now they’ve become what they said we were.

I asked the workers I saw how many were union members; 80 percent was the common consensus. I didn’t ask their party preference, but surveys show that union members are less likely to be Democrats than fifty years ago. (The usual question is are you a member of a union family, not are you a union member). The range for the last ten years is between 60 and 67 percent, but drifting to the lower end.

While the AFL-CIO is still an 800-pound gorilla in the Democratic Party, it had a lesser presence in this convention than in past ones. That may be due to money. Union membership continues to go down, and the Republican Party continues to try to put unions out of business. The AFL knows it is anathema to the Republican Party but the working class is no longer sure where its interests lie.

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A lot of that indecision comes from cultural differences, usually called social issues. The white working class thinks that it has been a net loser in the culture wars. Over the course of American history the parties have often fought over social issues, so cultural divides are not new. Only the issues change. One can see these differences by comparing the party platforms, but you can also see them at the conventions.

Let’s start with race. That was the issue which realigned the parties in the mid 20th Century. When the Democrats wrote what was considered to be a strong civil rights plank at its 1948 convention, the South responded by running South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for President and keeping President Harry Truman off of the ballot in four states. Because of his support for civil rights, Lyndon Johnson was not on the Alabama ballot in1964. As the 1965 Voting Rights Act enfranchised blacks, they joined the Democratic Party and Southern whites departed for the Republican Party.

At the 2016 Democratic Convention black women in particular were visible as leaders. Rev. Leah Daughtry was the convention CEO, as she had been in 2008. After Fl. Cong. Debbie Wasseman Schultz was forced to resign as chair of the DNC, her replacement was long-time Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge took over as convention chair. Many other black faces were seen in leadership positions in the various meetings that took place during the day, and as speakers and entertainers during the convention proceedings.

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I can’t tell you what percentage of the delegates were black because the DNC no longer provides those figures, but the party has come a long way since the first black delegate was seated in 1936. Not so at the Republican convention, where the RNC also does not provide a count. However, it looked like there were fewer blacks than I’ve seen at past conventions. Diversity is not a Republican trait.

It is a Democratic trait, and the Democratic Party celebrated its diversity in many ways. During the day 16 official councils and causes met at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The largest of these was the Women’s Caucus, which had the morning slot to itself on Tuesday and Thursday. It also drew the largest crowd with 500 women and a few men. Its chair is Lottie Shackleford, another black woman.

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There was an Hispanic Caucus, an LGBT Caucus, a Seniors Council, a Youth Council and a Jewish Roundtable. There is no official Muslim group (wait until next time), but there was a luncheon for Islamic delegates. While I have no official figures, there appeared to be more Islamic delegates at the Democratic Convention than there were black delegates at the Republican Convention, drawn from a much smaller overall population.

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Diversity was also apparent in the Pennsylvania Convention Center (PCC) where about 50 advocacy groups set behind tables to spread their ideas and recruit supporters. Space was free, though they did have to apply for it well in advance of the convention. The closest equivalent at the Republican Convention was a Freedom Market where vendors sold their wares, usually with Republican themes. This was inside the security zone, so only those with credentials could shop. The PCC was open to the public, though everyone had to go through a search to get in. Freedom Market vendors paid $500 for their space. I asked if they were making money; most said that they were breaking even. The only group that set up shop in both cities was the Urban League. In Cleveland it paid for space for a large tent and subleased space to its members who had something to sell. In Philadelphia, it had a table.

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The newest social issue is gender. While the Republican Party is frightened at the idea that someone with a Y chromosome might use the Women’s restroom, the Democratic party put up official signs that said “Gender Neutral Restrooms.” (It also provided a Lactation Room.) Trump’s boldest gesture was to have a CEO speak to the convention who announced that he was a Proud Gay Man. The Democrats had a transgender woman.

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These cultural issues as well as economic ones have led to changes in each party’s social base over time. Before WWII, one could truthfully say that the Republican Party was the party of the middle class and the Democratic Party was the party of the working man. That is no longer true.

In 1984, columnist Molly Ivins wrote about the clash at the Republican convention between the “ultrasuedes” and the “polyesters.” I didn’t see any ultrasuedes sitting in the delegate seats in Cleveland. At least on the surface, the polyesters have taken over. There used to be a Republican look, at least for women. The Republican woman was well put together, every hair in place, not too much make-up, stylishly dressed. Democratic women covered the gamut, looking more like soccer moms at a playoff. In 2016, the people sitting in the delegate seats at the Republican Convention looked a lot like the Democratic delegates. The Democrats had more dark faces and a few headscarves, and some Republican delegations wore matching costumes, but those were the only noticeable differences in appearance.

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Some of the best known ultrasuedes just stayed away from the Republican convention altogether. Michael Bloomberg, former Republican Mayor of NYC and a very rich businessman, endorsed Hillary Clinton as a guest speaker. More ultrasuades probably would have done the same if there had been more speaking slots.

Both conventions had to deal with a sizable number of delegates who didn’t like their party’s nominee. Although Trump won the primaries, the Ted Cruz and Rand Paul people knew how to work the delegate selection system. They came as delegates committed to Trump on the first ballot but didn’t want to vote for him. That’s why there was an effort to change the rules so they could “vote their conscience” rather than their commitment. At the Democratic convention there was no such conflict. Cruz was criticized for speaking at the convention but not endorsing Trump; Bernie endorsed Hillary and was treated like an honored guest.

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Nonetheless, Bernie’s delegates were much more visible in their opposition to Hillary than Republican delegates who did not like Trump. The latter accepted the decision of their Rules Committee and held their tongues. They did not carry signs for their conscience candidate and cheered along with everyone else for the nominee they did not like. Not so at the Democratic convention. Berniers shouted their opinions to the speakers even to the point of rudeness. When Hillary signs were passed out Thursday night to be waved by the crowd, they didn’t take them. Instead they waved other signs that had been passed out previously or sat on their hands. About one hundred Berniers wore day-glo chartreuse t-shirts so they were easy to spot, sitting while others were cheering for Hillary.

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These different responses reflected the parties’ different political cultures. In the Republican Party dissent is muted; public dissent is viewed as disloyal. While faction fights can be vicious, they are kept out of sight as much as possible. The Democrats look more contentious because their fights are more public. They duke it out then kiss-and-make-up (most of the time). The Democratic Party tries to co-opt its dissenters; the Republican Party tries to suppress them. While much has changed with both parties in the last 50 years, these fundamental differences in their respective political cultures remain the same.

Jo Freeman covered the conventions forSeniorWomen Web.  Her stories were initially posted at www.seniorwomen.com

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