Debuting Activism at the Democratic Convention

09/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Laura Carlsen Director, Mexico City-based Americas Program of the Center for International Policy; columnist, Foreign Policy in Focus

The Big Tent, a blogging center set up by the Daily Kos and other groups, is full and buzzing already. It's an exciting tribute to a new kind of journalism, what Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, has called bypassing, crushing and influencing the gatekeepers. The people who work here are the critics, and not the sycophants of the mainstream media. So while the mainstream media attempts to impose its own news agenda on the convention process, many of these people look for the stories that aren't being covered and debunk some of the "news" being fed through the usual channels. They're wiring back to networks that crisscross regions, sectors, interests in thousands of ways and forms.

The mainstream media has decided that supposed internal bickering is more newsworthy than grassroots organizing and has turned its cameras on the disgruntled Hillary supporters for today. Conflict trumps unity as a headliner and much of the media feels a need to create tempests in teapots to feed the news cycle. But as usual, the story at eye level is more interesting and has more long-term implications than the politicking in the stratospheres of power.

There are many people here who have become grassroots organizers in this campaign -- and electoral campaigns in the U.S. are not known for bringing about that particular type of conversion. Among progressives, some simply switched causes, augmenting a wide range of NGO work with the Obama campaign. But others are looking at organizing for the first time and breaking down the mystique surrounding both elections (usually restricted to vote casting or at best canvassing) and organizing itself. Many of these come from sectors left on the margins of party politics -- for the first time, nearly a quarter of delegates are African-American and nearly half from one "minority" group or another. Many young people have joined the ranks of the grassroots organizers.

Sure, it's still in the context of representative democracy -- by its nature, not the most hands-on variety. And the activism of the Obama campaign that we're seeing here in Denver might be ephemeral, the heat of the electoral moment inspiring normally complacent citizens. But there's always that handful who will come out of it saying, if we did this, maybe we can improve our community, or make the democratic party more responsive, or reform foreign policy, or...

The campaign is encouraging, even promoting, this kind of conversion through organizing workshops and new technological tools for multiplying voter registration efforts like this one.
Some of these new activists will shipwreck early on the shoals of disappointment or frustration. The U.S. political system guards its shores with these obstacles. But others -- who knows where they'll sail off to.

Even the stodgy Democratic Party has adopted a fifty-state strategy that goes beyond the pollsters and pundits to, at least theoretically, validate everybody's role. In my state of Oregon that's actually a big change. As a blue state on the last-in west coast, we were typically downplayed in party politics. The strategy moves away from the exclusive focus on swing states to develop dynamic (and presumably funded) organizing in all states using local organizers rather than party hacks. Part of the idea is to create new structures that go beyond 2008.

The contemporary historical record on real change through the two-party system is not encouraging. But seeing more and more people, and especially citizens usually left out on the margins, taking part and feeling more invested in the process gives the impression that a new dynamic is at work.

For more Huffington Post coverage from the Democratic National Convention, visit our Politics @ the DNC page, our Democratic Convention Big News Page, and our HuffPost bloggers' Twitter feed, live from Denver.