‘PoliticalFest’ DNC exhibitions

Political education, in museums and on the streets

Though you might not see it at Philadelphia 2016's PoliticalFest, there’s a major political divide in the United States today. In fact, there are many such divides: Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, blue state vs. red state, Bernie vs. Hillary, Hillary vs. Trump, Trump vs. Cruz, Debbie Wasserman Schultz vs. everybody.

The Union League's display explains the concept of an oxymoron (I kid, I kid). (Photo by Stephen Silver)

There’s another divide that’s just as pronounced but doesn’t get much press: The divide between political activists and political enthusiasts.

Activists vs. enthusiasts

Political activists engage with politics at the grassroots. They protest, organize, and advocate publicly for candidates they like and against those they don’t. For many, politics is a matter of identity, partisanship, and life and death.

On the other hand, political enthusiasts, also known as political junkies, are the sorts of people who view politics as entertainment. They could name all 100 senators when they were 14 years old. They will pass obscure members of Congress or midday CNN pundits on the street this week in Center City and react the way others would to movie stars. If your favorite television show is The West Wing, House of Cards, Scandal, or Veep, you’re probably a political junkie.

Many enthusiasts, if they don’t view politics as entertainment, view it as sports: They root for their team and against the other team. Primaries, debates and conventions are like games, and the election itself is the Super Bowl. There is a great temptation to approach politics in this manner; after all, it’s the way the media presents it every day.

I thought a lot about this divide when I attended the first day of PoliticalFest. Running at six locations throughout Philadelphia during this week’s Democratic National Convention, PoliticalFest is described by its organizers as “a fun, interactive festival related to American history and politics.” It contains a whole lot of stuff that’s a political or historical enthusiast’s dream. Major sponsor/partners include C-SPAN, Facebook and Drexel University.

Democracy in action

There's much to enjoy. In the Pennsylvania Convention Center’s Hall F, there’s a large collection of political memorabilia, a scale model of the Liberty Bell made out of K’nex (a Philadelphia-based company), a replica of the Oval Office, another of Air Force One, and there’s even the actual car that John F. Kennedy was riding in on the day he was assassinated. You can get your picture taken with the plane, the Bell or the Office, but not the JFK car; that, I imagine, would be too morbid.

Over at the National Constitution Center, there’s an elaborate multimedia exhibition called Headed to the White House, featuring facts, photos and videos of elections and political speeches throughout history; there’s also a mainstage featuring appearances by celebrities.

The Heritage Center at the Union League on South Broad Street, traditionally a bastion of Philadelphia’s Republican Party, welcomes the Democrats this week, featuring a look back at past Republican National Conventions held in Philadelphia, from the 19th century up until George W. Bush’s nomination in 2000. Other locations for the fest include The Library Company of Philadelphia, Philadelphia History Museum, the National Liberty Museum, and Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

That’s all well and good. The organizers of PoliticalFest did an amazing job, and should be proud of themselves. If you’re a student or enthusiast of American political history — which, I admit, I am — you should make time to see the exhibitions this week.

But something else occurred to me: Not far from each of those venues, there were protests. A lot of the participating protesters were people who had travelled long distances to march in 90-degree weather, on behalf of a candidate who has since dropped out of the race and was, at that very moment, onstage a few miles away disavowing the notion that his supporters shouldn’t back his opponent. Outside the Convention Center specifically, on nearly every street corner, were heated but respectful arguments between Hillary and Bernie supporters.

The PoliticalFest exhibitions, once again, are interesting and certainly worth seeing. But when it comes to understanding what American politics is actually about, you may well learn even more by observing what’s going on right outside.

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