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Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Joan-Josep Vallbe is a professor at the University of Barcelona who some while ago took my e-book [in the form of blog posts] about The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy and converted it into a cleaned-up .pdf version.  He just sent me the following fascinating account of his visit to Clinton's big boffo wrap-up event in Philsdelphia the night before the election.  [He also sent me two delicious recipes for rabbit, but that is another matter.]  He has agreed to allow me to reproduce it on this blog.  It is worth a read.

"I decided not to mention a thing about the catastrophic election results. But now I've read some of your blog entries and feel compelled to say something. I happened to be in NYC during the election days. Last year my partner Carmen enrolled in a postgraduate degree on political communication, and my birthday present was to be in NYC and live the US presidential elections in situ. We landed on Nov 5th and the first thing we noticed was precisely the lack of notice: nothing on the street made one aware that three days after a crucial election was to take place. You noticed that a marathon had to take place on Sunday, nothing else. On Sunday we visited the Democrat's campaign headquarters in lower Manhattan and we were surprised that, despite the millions of dollars that Clinton raised for this campaign (well, for any campaign), the resources allocated to these final pre-election moments seemed quite modest. People on the floor calling to potential voters from their own phones. Guys just volunteered and were given a list of names and phone numbers, they sat and off they went. This surprised us, for we expected a larger, more resourceful mobilization effort. 

Later that day, we realized that the final Democratic rally before the elections was taking place in Philadelphia, with Obama and everyone there to speak. We decided to go and see. We rented a car and by noon were in downtown Philly. The rally would take place at the Independence Mall and the doors would open at 4pm (the main event should start at 7.30pm). Just before 2pm we were having a walk and realized that an incredible amount of people were already on the line, waiting. Suddenly we thought that unless we joined them immediately we might not get in the rally and therefore our trip would have been in vain. The people were quite cheerful, and quite young too, which made us reassure ourselves of the expected result on the polls. Two hours later the file was immense, like 30,000 people. We were not, though, prepared for the Philly cold and humid weather. At 4 pm the line starts to move and we finally get in there around 5pm. 

Once we were in we realized that something was wrong. The spatial arrangement of the place was strange. The public zone---i.e., people sufficiently mobilized so as to be waiting for 5 hours in the cold to hear what the speakers had to tell them---was located on one side of the stage, not before the stage. The distance between the stage and the audience was around 70 meters. Also, a transparent security wall had been placed between the audience and the stage. Before the state there is no one. This reminded me of Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall":

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

Well, the whole thing was just to get worse, obviously. At around 6.30pm the first speakers came out: state-level candidates and politicians, and the Philadelphia Mayor. Now there are people before the stage, but they are just TV people recording with cameras. At 7.30pm Jon Bon Jovi comes out, and after his three songs comes out Bruce Springsteen. They sing for the TV people, they just don't look at the people, they don't play for the audience. We realize that we are just the audience in a TV program, we are physically there, but not where we should be. 

We couldn't believe what we were seeing, we haven't seen anything like that here at home. We find the whole thing profoundly humiliating for the people who take the time to attend a political rally.

After the artists, a 30 min pause---I guess for commercials to be aired---and the main event begins. First, Bill and Chelsea Clinton. Chelsea introduces Bill, Bill introduces Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama is a great speaker, very moving. But she doesn't look at the people, she delivers it to the TV cameras. We are stunned. What strikes us most, though, is that the people around us don't seem to realize how humiliating this is. Michelle introduces President Obama. The silence among the audience is incredible. This man is just adored. He goes beyond being a good speaker, he's a enchanter. He has a few invited people seated behind. When he speaks, a man from these reduced group engages in a "call-and-response" pattern with him. We can hear it because Obama's microphone catches these responses. It all obviously gets a church-like aura.

Finally, Obama finishes and introduces Hillary Clinton to the audience. When she starts talking, though, I start hearing voices behind me. When I turn around I see that most African American people among the audience have begun walking out of the place. While this happens, some (not African American) attendees reprimand their behavior saying that it is rude to walk away before SHE finishes. I can't help thinking that those who walk away think that THEIR man has already talked and that they don't care much for Mrs Clinton. I haven't been able to get this image out of my head, and it naturally came up during election night. 

In my opinion, there are two main issues in this story. First, what has happened in the US that makes people accept (1) being publicly humiliated by their own party, and (2) not being even aware of (or not caring about) it? This I find particularly unacceptable but also incomprehensible. It seems contradictory to have a primary process which is very local-based, which engages people directly, and then humiliating voters like that when things get serious. I don't see the point here.

Second, while I was a visiting scholar at Cornell University, a very good friend there told me that "Americans [meaning mainly politicians] talk about race so that they don't have to address the obvious social class problem." Democrats and Republicans alike have played this game for a long time now. Taking place in Pennsylvania, I hoped I would hear some class-based, old-Democrat discourse, but I only heard stereotypical catchy phrases that the previous week had proven successful in Twitter. It was ridiculous. The only parts of discourse where you could clearly tell the difference between a Republican and a Democrat where the ones referring to how Trump horribly treated women or other non-Caucasian people. But, as nauseating as it seems to me, honestly, you can't possibly think of engaging your voter base on just this. Nor can you base it on catchy phrases whose subtle irony makes well-educated voters patronizingly smile.

Everyone before the elections said that after Trump losing, the GOP should make a profound soul-seeking reflection about what led to having such a monster as presidential candidate. Now it looks like that it is the Democrats who should seek their soul, and I sincerely hope they find it again.

We were so disappointed that we decided not to attend the Democratic election night event the day after. Well, in that I think we were right, at least."


Jim Westrich said...

This is a great account. Thank you and Joan-Josep.

Matt said...

Thought I live in Philadelphia, I did not attend this event, and would not have wanted to. (I don't like rallies and things like that, don't care for crowds, and hate standing in line.) But, I'll admit that this account really rubs me the wrong way. Whether something is humiliating or not is at least in part a cultural feature that changes from time to time, and from place to place. I am not rejecting the idea that people can be humiliated without realizing that this is happening to them. But, I do very much think that people should be slow and careful when attributing features like this to large groups of other people (perhaps especially people from other countries or cultures). All too often, this is just a projection of one's own prejudices and preferences. When I read this account, this is mostly what I see. It strikes me as facile, and a projection of the authors preferences and desires more than anything else.

On a broader but related point: the one thing I have learned for sure in the aftermath of the election is that people will find a way to use it to ride whatever hobby-horse they were on before into the ground. This isn't surprising, but is disappointing. Many of the comments on this blog (not the posts, which have mostly been good) are fine examples. (There are, of course, some significant exceptions.) This does not fill me with encouragement for going forward.