So far, so anticlimactic. The supposed repeat of the 1968 Chicago convention and its disastrous consequences (violence, Nixon’s election) has not taken place. The protesters have behaved themselves and the police have settled for arresting bicyclists and bystanders, some of whom happened to be lawyers and journalists. Things may yet get worse in the coming days, but right now this looks like another Orange alert.
What’s becoming clearer from the sidelines, however, is that one of the largest demonstrations in American history has been mostly purposeless. I bring this criticism reluctantly. There are so many other things to be angry about. Republicans are donning the mantle of sanctimony and collective victimhood five miles from the World Trade Center, all the while ostentatiously crossing their fingers for footage of unruly protesters ready-made for the next wave of attack ads. There is also the election year cowardice of Democrats who can’t run away fast enough from constituents willing to be herded through mazes of steel barriers, possibly pepper-sprayed, beaten, and deafened with a long range acoustic device, and all for Kerry-Edwards in 2004. And don’t forget the sadistic glee with which media outfits set about wrapping the protests for the rest of the nation, priming audiences for a violent spectacle and deploring in advance the actions of ordinary people who’ve done nothing wrong and whom the anchormen hope to see both abused and blamed. All of it’s infuriating! But the protests are infuriating too, less for what they represent than for what they fail to accomplish.
The protesters have mobilized around a zero. They are anti-Bush and anti-war. To call it a platform or an agenda would be doing it a kindness. Their wish is no longer utopian but nostalgic, a return to the status quo ante 2000. A Green Party bumper sticker asks the good question, “What are Conservatives Conserving?” The impostor-activist Yesmen argue that the real anarchists are in the Heritage Foundation; they offer their refined subversions as “A Guide to Not Smashing the State.” A large number of protesters in New York rallied against the proposed national amendment banning gay marriage—an amendment that could not pass, that was never intended to pass, that was never anything but a cynical non-effort cooked up by a pink-baiting White House reelection committee; and yet the protesters’ arguments ran to preserving the prerogatives of marriage for the states. So it’s now possible to understand many of these protesters, our protesters, Democrats and liberals and radicals and Greens, as pro-state conservatives anxious to restore good government and keep to the spirit of the Constitution.
This is what democracy looks like! The marches have taken on the trappings of religious ritual, and have as much immediate meaning as a good Latin benediction or prayer at Conservative synagogues; but those old slogans came from movements toward confrontational and initially unpopular ends, and not a contentless declaration of voting preference. Women’s suffrage, civil rights for American blacks, increased funding for AIDS research, all were won through the use of street protests to shame an indifferent government into enacting reforms. In a democracy, even a vast number of citizens whose only aim is the removal of a government they view as hostile to their interests cannot possibly succeed through shaming, and ought not to. The government in power will only interpret their outrage as a more intense version of balloting. It would take a plurality of protesters in every state of the Union to effect the removal or recall of a sitting president. And where would they do it? At the ballot box.
If 250,000 people united behind a single issue, on the other hand, now that would be a social movement, and it wouldn’t be so mild and comforting and forgettable. It would demand an answer, and part of the Bush burglary of the toolbox of democracy consists in the supposition that mass public demonstrations, as before the Iraq war, don’t require an official response. (The fact that Bush can’t even have a response to the current anti-Bush protests—short of removing himself—means earnest and well-meaning protests wind up reinforcing that supposition.) In its own yawning way, when the New York Times over the weekend called for the abolition of the Electoral College, it proved itself more forward thinking than the radicals it has spent weeks scorning. Of course this editorial should have appeared in January of 2001, not August of 2004, when it is too late to be of any use in the next election. Yet here is a radical claim: We should have a principle of one person, one full vote to decide who controls the executive of the most powerful nation in the world. Imagine if the demonstrators had thought of it instead of the Times: on the eve of the Republican convention, crowds in the streets chanting for the extension of popular sovereignty, rather than against Bush. Imagine the simultaneous marches in other cities, the pressure on the Democratic candidate to make it part of his campaign platform, and the pressure on Congress members up for election to do likewise. That is what democracy looks like.
Why doesn’t the loose coalition of very angry Americans think of this for themselves? The historical sense and intellectual power of popular movements isn’t lacking. But it does seem that the professional organizers of protests the protest groups, who scorn policymakers and platform writers as they are scorned in return have gone away from politics entirely.
In the few instances that the press has bothered to solicit the views of individual protesters, a presiding spirit emerges that seems to be aesthetic and individualistic. Protests are supposed to be empowering, creative, and fun. They are variously achievements and initiations which are meant to charge up the feelings of the demonstrators more than they are supposed to affect their targets. But a pep rally against our pep-rallying president is still a pep rally. The catalog of events offered by the Village Voice is tricked out like the listings for another fringe festival. Plays, films, and art exhibits are all part of the themed anti-RNC listings, alongside the strippers of Axis of Eve, the retro 50s style of Code Pink, and the radical cheerleaders who will strip and form an Abu-Ghraib style naked pyramid. I don’t mean to poke fun, but this is protest as narcissism. The audience (and who is the audience?) is supposed to be wowed into some kind of political conversion or revelation through the stunning avant-garde techniques and displays of sheer personality by the hip and invigorated. Even I can be hip and invigorated, but not as a citizen, please. American democracy was designed to be boring, slow, and tiresome, because it’s supposed to hold off the seductions and demagogy to which majoritarian structures are always susceptible.
When you find democracy entertaining, you know you’re a little off the right track—it suggests you’ve become a spectator of yourself as a participant, similar to watching yourself have sex. Participants are primarily anxious for how the actions of the government will affect them directly, in their bodies, and their ability to live and act with dignity. But when you become a spectator of yourself protesting, and it’s in the service of an electoral outcome your protests can’t attain—and when you’ve mixed up the opinion that more people should vote with the idea that politics should be more entertaining—well, you’ve surrendered to the very empty logic of the society of the spectacle that such demonstrations are meant to subvert and master.
If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.