August 28, 2008

Democratic Convention Even More Interesting Than Newspapers Tell You It Is

After the American Century

The nominating convention is not an institution invented by the Founding Fathers, and is not mentioned in the Constitution. It emerged in the 1830s, as voting was democratized and as the nation continued to expand well beyond the original 13 states. By the time convnetions were becoming a standard feature of US politics, the telegraph was available to publicize major speeches and the nominating process. One is tempted to think of the later nineteenth century as a golden era, when conventions really mattered, because real debate took place and because real choices between candidates had to be made. Judging by the general quality of the presidents from Grant to McKinley, however, perhaps Mark Twain and Dudley Warner were right to call it only the Gilded Age, or superficially golden.

Since then, every generation has reinvented the convention, which today is a showcase of unity, not a forum for debate. The Democratic National Convention in Denver is certainly a case in point. After a intra-party civil war all spring, the Clintonites have given their unequivocal support to Barack Obama. Moreover, the party has paraded a host of other speakers before the public, to show the diversity and talent that the Democrats can bring to the White House, if given the chance.

I watched all of the speakers on Tuesday night, and recommend going to YuuTube for a look at some of those who have not gotten much subsequent attention, particularly in Denmark where the quality of the coverage has been superficial at best. One of the best performances was that of the Governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, who literally had the entire convention standing up and shouting their support by the end of his 15 minutes. He came across beautifully as a shrewd rancher turned politician, with economic policies that had already done for his state what Obama wants to do for the nation as a whole. But these words are a silly, weak, and dry summary that does no justice to his sly, triumphant performance. Watching him, you can see why the pragmatist wing of the party has managed to win the governorships of the formerly "Red" states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and even McCain's Arizona.

Other speakers reminded the party of its more radical traditions and urban roots, none better than Dennis Kucinich, a member of the House of Representatives from Cleveland. He has been demanding the impeachment of George W. Bush for lying to the nation about the reasons for going to war with Iraq. His six minute speech, "Wake Up America" was a wonderful example of a vitriolic, Populist attack on Washington, specifically the policies of George Bush. He also got much applause from the party faithful, though less than the more folksy Governor of Montana.

Then there were the personal stories told by ordinary citizens, something European politics might learn from. It is one thing to hear in the abstract that the Republican Congress has blocked legislation that would ensure women are given equal pay for equal work. It is another thing to hear a grandmother talk about working for a tire company for 19 years, discovering that during all that time she was given smaller raises than her male co-workers, winning a lawsuit at the local level, but losing it on appeal (Republican appointed judges on the Supreme Court), and how legislation to outlaw such discrimination was thwarted in the Senate (Republicans). There were many others with important personal stories to tell, and collectively they underscored the Democratic Party's platform.

If one follows all of the events, which can be done on-line, what emerges is a richer and more interesting tapestry of images and ideas than one gets from the newspapers. They have to tell one or at most two stories, and so focus on just a few aspects of the Convention. Yes, Hillary and Bill both gave excellent speeches, but there was far more content in many other presentations. As so often happens, reporters focus on those elements of the present that they know from the past. The Clintons are already history, as the saying goes. Their style of politics is on the way out, replaced by the pragmatism of a new generation. For one more example of that, have a look at the speech by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. I want to end by quoting extensively from his speech on Tuesday night:

"When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 50s and 60s, everything was broken. Playgrounds, schools, families and lives all broken. But we had a community. Those were days when every child was under the jurisdiction of every single adult on the block. So if you messed up in front of Ms. Jones' stoop, she would straighten you out as if you were hers and then call home, so you would get it twice. What those adults were trying to get across to us was that they had a stake in us. They wanted us to understand that membership in a community is seeing the stake that each of us has in our neighbor's dreams and struggles, as well as our own."

Patrick went on, "Barack Obama has challenged us to rebuild our national community. To focus not on the things that tear us apart, but on those that bring us together; not on the right or the left, but right and wrong; not on yesterday, but tomorrow. These are the possibilities Barack Obama asks us to reach for. This is the kind of leadership he offers to bring to the presidency, not because government can solve every problem in everybody's life; but because "government," as Barney Frank likes to say, is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together."

There is so much more to the Convention than you can find in the newspapers, especially the Danish newspapers, that for the rest of the campaign - less than 70 days left now - it would be best to get out on the Web and see the speeches, or read them, for yourself, rather than let a reporter tell you what was said. Just as important, you need to look for the things not covered at all in the newspapers.