Media

Convention Dissent: There’s Less Than Meets the Eye

On a night of inspiring speeches and calls for unity, the media jumped on the recalcitrant Bernie Bros meme and wouldn't let it go.

Convention Dissent: There’s Less Than Meets the Eye

Supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) march from Civic Center Park to the Pepsi Center on Day Two of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Aug. 26, 2008 in Denver. The supporters were protesting the right to cast their elected delegate votes for Clinton during the event. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

We’ve asked historian and author Eric Alterman to watch the national party conventions and share his reactions with us in a series of blog posts.

Cast your memory back exactly eight years, to the opening night of the Democratic Convention in Denver: Aug. 25, 2008. The story that night was the threat of the “PUMA” which either stood for “People United Means Action” or Party Unity My Ass.” According to Adam Nathaniel Peck writing in The New Republic, “PUMAs appeared dozens of times on cable news to defend Clinton and to promise mischief at the nominating convention and in the general election. Their anger epitomized a wider unrest that has been mostly forgotten as Obama went on to win two general elections”.

The PUMAs who Chris Matthews insisted were causing a “civil war” within the party, were always all hat and no cattle.

Peck, writing in the spring of 2015, was seeking to make the point that even PUMAs are not that into Hillary Clinton anymore. But the real truth was, they were almost entirely a creation of a media desperate for a “Democratic disarray” narrative upon which to hang their quote-stringing, I mean reporting. Rebecca Traister did a long pre-convention bit of actual reporting for Salon on the alleged phenomenon and found approximately a dozen reasons some Clinton die-hards were reluctant to jump on the Obama bandwagon in June of that year. She followed up in Denver at the convention and found that their major event — a protest made to order for MSNBC attracted maybe 50 people. I tried to report out the story in Denver by finding the people these protesters represented — i.e., convention delegates who would refuse to vote for Barack Obama but would instead either stay home or support John McCain and Sarah Palin. Thing was, I couldn’t find any. The PUMAs who Chris Matthews insisted were causing a “civil war” within the party were always all hat and no cattle.

Sure, some of them gave great quote. There was Harriet Christian, who warned the DNC’s rules committee that it was “throwing the election away” by awarding delegates to an “inadequate black male.” And most famously, there was the incomparably named Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who complained, “I got in trouble because I said in the newspaper I love my country more than my party.” Poor thing. De Rothschild went on to become charmed by McCain’s running mate that year. While she admitted that the two might “disagree on some issues,” she announced: “I love Sarah Palin,” adding, “I think she’s pretty cool.”

Going into [this week’s] convention, polls showed that 90 percent of Sanders supporters were already on board with Clinton.

The numbers of people represented by die-hard Bernie Bros who booed their own hero yesterday and chanted “bulls–t” whenever the party’s nominee was praised, might turn out to be more numerous than the PUMAs, whose existence soon came to manifest itself only as a metaphor for ridicule. But the signs are hardly encouraging. After all, going into the convention, polls showed that 90 percent of Sanders supporters were already on board with Clinton. One has to figure that the number will rise when:

  • They take a look at Donald Trump.
  • They ponder, even for a moment, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s enormously eloquent speeches directed specifically at their particular complaints.
  • They realize, a la Sarah Silverman that they’ve become “ridiculous” even in the eyes of most enthusiastic Sanders supporters (like Silverman).
  • They get a few months older and more mature in time to actually vote in November.

In the meantime, thanks in part apparently to Russian hackers who may or may not have been trying to undermine our voting system on behalf of Putin Bro Trump, the media had its narrative going into the convention. It was all “party disunity” all the time. “Whatever you thought of Sanders, Warren or Obama, Day One was mostly a disaster. The heckling was loud and distracting for the party,” explained the new PRAVDA, I mean Politico Playbook writers. It was a particularly delicious narrative because it came packaged as a counter-intuitive meme. “You thought the Republicans were mad at each other? Ha. Look that these darned Democrats.”

In fact, all we learned yesterday was that extremists on the fringe of US political parties enjoy going to demonstrations where they can enthusiastically denounce those who hold some of their views but not all of them and without the requisite passion and focus that said extremists believe they deserve.

In Cleveland, this demonstration took place inside the hall and was led by the party’s candidate: Trump. (I’ve been to a lot of demonstrations in my 56 years; I don’t recall ever seeing an “Establishment Republican” at any of them. Golf courses, on the other hand….) In Philadelphia, they were mostly outside the hall, in front of the TV cameras and occasionally inside the hall, behaving rudely during excellent speeches by first lady Michelle Obama and America’s two most important and potentially effective progressive politicians, Warren and Sanders. And as Silverman could not help but noting, while killing time before a Paul Simon performance, they were “ridiculous.” By tomorrow they will be forgotten, save for the rudeness.

Now what about that Russian hack on behalf of Trump? Might there be a story in there somewhere? Maybe in between parties someone could look into that…

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman is CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, media columnist for The Nation, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of nine books, including When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences (2004), Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama (2011) and Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One (2015). Follow him on Twitter: @Eric_Alterman.