Aug 27th 2008

The Democrats in Denver: The National Convention

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

American national conventions are very little other than signpost formalities in the game of electoral politics. They are not particularly exciting, with some spectacular exceptions (the meltdown of the Democratic Convention in 1968 was something else).

Sentimentality has a habit of corroding substance, and there is much of that at a National Convention. It often imbeds itself sickeningly in sweetened rhetoric, depriving pitched messages of tangible reality. Proceedings and speeches start looking more like the Academy Awards.

A look then, at the first day's proceedings at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. There is the music - Celebration is played, and the hall sways, and shimmies. There are numerous announcements, a tepid affair which rolls of like court procedure. The eyes glaze over, but there is enough to distract one - hats, costumes, the Stars and Stripes.

There are of course, the celebrities, minted for the occasion. No Convention is quite complete without them. There is Senator Edward Kennedy, the ailing warhorse of the Democrats, and something of a saboteur at previous conventions. But here, he is the hero who took a stance against the war on Iraq and reads for the disadvantaged, a figure who is now battling cancer. A video is shown: Kennedy sailing on water, that water being the 'metaphor of change'. He makes a promise to be on the Senate floor next January.

And there is Michelle Obama, the wife of the nominee, who gave what a contributor to the liberal magazine Nation called 'elegant remarks'. The purpose of the speech was distinctly less than elegant, a patch-up job for gaping holes caused by her comments made on patriotism earlier this year. (One is not entitled not to be proud of America, even at faltering moments.)

Obama's credentials as the poverty-fighter are emphasized. He embraced Martin Luther King Jr. (the religious element, the inclusive element). Challenges are mentioned - poverty-stricken parts of Chicago with seemingly everything but hope. And Obama was there, an agent of rescue.

The same themes are reiterated with rhythmic, hypnotic effect, much like a Tibetan chant. 'This is America. This is the place where dreams come true'. That's the message of another Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, seeing Obama as one who believed in dreams that never died. But let Michelle Obama take us from here: 'We know what fairness and justice and opportunity look like. And he urged us to believe in ourselves - to find strength within ourselves to strive for the world as it should be. And isn't that the great American story.'

All these comments are meant to bolster the authentic experience, the authentic voice long lost in Washington. This, of course, is the strength of this message, though by the time it reaches a national convention such as this, it's bound to be diluted.

Every convention needs its stellar projection with cinematic Dolby studio. It also needs a lumpen feel - the common folk are neatly slotted into performances with rigid choreography. One speaker talks about the loss of her mother. She is now keen to pursue public service. She read Obama's The Audacity of Hope. She is the 'every day' woman who is incapable of being everyday in any sense - she is, after all, speaking at a huge national convention. The moment one is propelled to the stage, there is little to say other than what is carefully filtered and scripted.

Maybe there is something genuine in all these antics. Kennedy left his bed to give a speech that may have killed him. With others, it's hard to know. There is no violent outburst of suspicion or dislike for the charming Senator from Illinois and his anointed running mate Joe Biden. Clinton supporters are silent, if indeed they are present.

Only the truly hostile conventions produce genuine politics and genuine discussion. Again, 1968 stands as the star, with the problems of Vietnam being providing the sizzling catalyst.

'Genuineness' is what Obama is marketing, but not even he can get away from the nature of this celebrity system. Obama talks about the 'fierce urgency of now'. But the authentic, the sense of reality, is somehow diminished by this coliseum atmosphere. This is the last place to look for the practice of politics.

Of course, a resounding theme at this convention is that of 'healing'. It's even in the script: Hillary Clinton, in a report from the New York Times, is set to 'embrace Obama.' It is unlikely that a mere hug will heal the rift between the putative candidate and old challenger. Any healing is bound to be as cosmetic as a Florida facelift. McCain may still get a bag of votes from the Hillary-camp, and his advertising minions are swooping in for the kill. That, perhaps, is the only political reality at the end of this first day and moving into the second: those states (Ohio, for instance), with Clinton voters who still feel bruised by Obama's glamour, by the rhetoric, may well defect to McCain or stay home.

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