The protest story from the Democratic convention so far is pretty similar to the stories from the Republican convention–minus the storms. There are fewer demonstrators than organizers promised or journalists expected, lots of police, and scattered relatively small events mostly insulated from the convention site.
Although party conventions in the past have drawn large and disruptive events–as we’ve discussed–so far, that’s a story about the past. Oddly, the relatively small convention protests have followed a period of intense mobilization on both the right and the left, exemplified by the Tea Party and Occupy. But most Tea Party members, even including that large number disappointed in Mitt Romney, has been focused on electoral politics, and throwing out a greater enemy, Barack Obama.
And Occupy? The largest protest event in Charlotte so far was a march of about 1,000 people, including a few who protested in Zuccotti Park last year, and many who claimed some allegiance with Occupy. The issues were diverse: inequality (of course), but also Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, the treatment of veterans, housing, and Guantanamo Bay’s prison. Some want to support Barack Obama anyway, seeing a clear difference between the incumbent and a potential Romney administration. Everyone at the site doesn’t agree, but there aren’t so many at the site.
This is a critical moment for social movements. As the final push of the general election takes off (doesn’t it seem like it’s been going on forever already?), both major party candidates are going to try to claim the imagined middle of the political spectrum, trying to portray their opponent as a dangerous radical outside of the mainstream. Mostly this is the conventional wisdom about how to win an election–and it generally makes sense. For activists, however, this is the last good chance to try to lash their candidate to a strong statement of principles.
Take a look, for example, at Mitt Romney’s efforts to avoid talking about abortion, much less taking a strong stand against it, now that he’s got the Republican nomination. Assuming that staunch anti-abortion activists won’t desert him, Governor Romney is more interested in pushing other issues and making a play for suburban voters, particularly women, who are uneasy about the Republican platform. Anti-abortion activists are going to work hard to avoid letting him do so, focusing on the Democrats’ position on legal access to abortion and funding of Planned Parenthood. I’d bet that Democratic operatives welcome this effort while Governor Romney’s advisers try to find more attractive story lines for reporters.
In the same way, President Obama doesn’t figure to lose an election by assassinating foreign (and domestic) enemies with killer drones, keeping Bradley Manning in jail, or not doing more for undocumented immigrants. The left activists in the street want to make it hard for him to tack to the center. Listen to the speeches and see if this works.