Excerpt: Recalling the 2008 Democratic National Convention

05/13/2015 01:59 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

With the 2016 Democratic Convention approaching faster than we expect, seems this piece of narrative from the 2008 DNC may be worth reporting.

The Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) asks me to coordinate a conference in Denver at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC), which will nominate a candidate for president. Our event overlaps the opening day of the DNC at a Denver sports arena. We hope to nudge Democrats toward more enlightened social values.

The request comes from NSP cofounder Rabbi Michael Lerner. Months earlier, I'd helped him organize an interfaith evening at a Denver mosque. Before an overflow audience, Rabbi Lerner joined local Muslim, Christian and Jewish clergy to explore options for Middle East peace.

To produce the complex conference, I recruit a committee of local NSP members. At our first meeting, a volunteer says she's always amazed by what a small group of dedicated people can accomplish.

As one of my duties, I attend a July gathering of representatives from all the groups planning events at the DNC. Beyond information sharing, the meeting aims to heal a rift between two factions of protesters.

Organizers of the radical "Recreate '68" coalition (named for the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago that ended in a police riot) are citing "the right of self defense" and refusing to disavow violence. In contrast, the Alliance for Real Democracy requires that all member groups fully commit to nonviolence. The meeting does not bring the factions any closer.

Believing the mere threat of violent protests may attract violence, I write a piece for The Huffington Post on the split between the two coalitions. In reaction, the Recreate '68 organizers shun NSP.

To counter news reports predicting mayhem at the DNC, I organize a press conference with spokespersons from a dozen groups planning peaceful protests or cultural events at the DNC, such as Meditate '08. Each speaker pledges nonviolence. Local and national coverage of our media event seems to reduce public fears of blood in the streets.

At a Denver church the day before the DNC begins, the NSP conference presents religious leaders discussing morality and social issues, such as the gap between rich and poor. The pews fill with DNC delegates and activists from the protesters' encampment on the Platte River.

While driving in downtown Denver that night, I see on the sidewalks six-man phalanxes of black-clad police officers in riot gear. From their gun belts hang bundles of plastic handcuffs. In the hand of each officer swings a long black billy club. Parked on the side streets are oversized black SUVs. More police in riot gear stand upon running boards along each side of the vehicles. My quiet hometown feels like a police state.

The next morning, our conference moves to a downtown hotel ballroom. The space fills with DNC delegates. Rabbi Lerner and members of Congress, like Rep. Keith Ellison, talk about the Global Marshall Plan, proposed as a plank for the Democratic Party platform.

Promoted in Al Gore's book, Earth in the Balance, the Global Marshall Plan (as framed by NSP) calls on industrial nations to "use their resources to eliminate, once and for all, global and domestic poverty, homelessness, and hunger; provide quality education and health care for all; and repair the global environment." The DNC rejects the plank.

Senator Barack Obama wins the nomination and gives a triumphant public acceptance speech in a Denver stadium. Obama the moderate rides a wave of exuberance among independents and progressives who project onto him their need for a hero (alpha male authority addiction).

That fall comes the global financial meltdown, helping Democrats win the presidency and both houses of Congress. Their victory overwhelms the alleged minority voter suppression by Republicans. I celebrate the election of the first African-American president in history.

Obama retains from the Bush administration the same economic team that caused the financial crisis. He delays pulling out troops from Iraq. He expands the war in Afghanistan. He extends the Patriot Acts. He abandons his promise of universal health care. I am disenchanted.

Hoping to change the system from within, I volunteer for a local Democratic Party committee developing a national grassroots strategy for the 2010 election. At each meeting, we are told the Republicans have done a better job than the Democrats at marketplace branding. Frustrated, I finally name the real problem: Democrats have not advanced any visionary new ideas since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The stale rhetoric is boring.

To distinguish Democrats from Republicans, I propose, Democrats need to rebrand both parties. "Republicans want a republic governed by and for themselves," campaign ads could say, "but Democrats want true democracy governed by and for all the people." My proposal is flatly rejected. A party official says, "We stand for representative democracy, not direct democracy." So much for grassroots politics. I withdraw from the committee.

Excerpted from my forthcoming book, Making Global Sense