Saturday, September 7, 2013

Day 118 - Attending a Political Convention (Democratic)

I have never been to a political convention. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I hold some strong convictions in regard to political philosophy, but I have never subscribed to the idea of people being a “card carrying” member of any political party. In my opinion, ascribing political beliefs to a part of one’s identity throws critical thinking out the window and only serves to subject people massive instances of groupthink. As a result, I have avoided such influences, thought carefully about issues we encounter in the course of our nation’s progression, weighed both sides of any argument, and developed my own conclusions based on my assessment of the facts. I didn’t need a politically driven persuasion and I certainly didn’t need someone claiming membership to a political party telling me what to say or do. In turn, I abstained from political gatherings all together and had no intention of attending one any time in the future.

Fighting Bob Fest - The Program
Of course, this perspective has been challenged by my “I have never...” idea. As a part of my journey I resolved to periodically try new experiences that I had no desire to experience before. Like my previous encounters with getting my chest waxed, eating from a food cart, and trying Durian fruit, attending a political convention for either political party was something I didn’t want to experience, but I knew the only way I could judge such events was to experience them firsthand. As a result, I committed to attending a political convention for both major political parties in the United States during my “I have never...” year. When I learned such an event, Fighting Bob Fest, was occurring in Madison this weekend, I made the last minute decision to alter my plans and attend my first Democratic political convention. In turn, I made the short trip to the Alliant Energy Center in Madison this morning with a heavy degree of reluctance and a pointed effort to keep an open mind about the experience. Although it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing on a Saturday, I knew the experience would be insightful and revealing.

The crowd
When I arrived at the Alliant Energy Center this morning, I was surprised to find the parking lot of the center’s arena nearly full of cars. While I expected the largest “progressive” Democratic gathering in the United States to have a big draw, the quantity of vehicles caught me a bit off guard at first. Upon entering the center I found a moderately sized crowd of people milling about booths lining the arena’s main entrance hall. Political paraphernalia was scattered across the crowd on shirts worn by passing attendees, on displays strategic placed throughout the building, and on stacks of flyers and merchandise covering tables at each booth. After taking some time to look over some of the booths lining the entrance hall, I worked my way toward an entrance to the arena and walked out into the second tier of stands in the complex. To my right a woman spoke on stage placed at ground level in the arena as a crowd speckling the floor level and second tier seating listened on. To my surprise, the crowd in the area was much smaller than I expected based on the number of cars in the parking lot and the amount of activity in the entrance hall. Although it caught me off guard at first, I was happy to see the crowd wasn’t overwhelming in size given the relative ease with which I found a seat near the stage after descending to ground level. In turn, I settled in and prepared to spend a few hours listening to what the various speakers had to say.

Will Durst
For the next hour I sat and listened to several speakers discuss the issues of the day and offer perspective on how to address many of the problems facing Wisconsin and the nation. While some unique solutions were offered in the presentations, the bulk of the speeches were focused on rhetorical points meant to keep the crowd engaged in the discussions. After listening to several speakers, some themes began to emerge in their remarks, including opposition to a strike on Syria, support for public education funding, decreasing income inequality, campaign finance reform, and finding solutions to unemployment and student loan debt. While I found myself agreeing with a substantial portion of the perspectives presented, it was hard to ignore almost mechanical nature with which the topics were being presented and discussed. By the time I listened to several speakers address the audience it began to feel as though a formula was being used in each speech. Eventually, this cycle was broken up by a hilarious political comedian, Will Durst, who addressed a lot of the dysfunction in the United States political system with basic metaphor and no-nonsense perspective on the failings of those in office (with specific attention paid to members of the Republican party). The set served as a good relief from the themes of the earlier sessions. Once Will finished with his set, I decided it was a good time to grab some lunch, so I exited back out the entrance hall to grab a brat from one of the on-site concession stands.

Breakout Sessions!
With my meal complete, I decided to wander around the rest of the arena before the next set of speakers was slated to take the stage. Eventually, my path took me to a variety of “breakout sessions” that were occurring throughout the building. In each session a moderately sized group of people gathered in meeting areas and conference spaces to discuss specific topics in detail, which included everything from voting rights, to healthcare, to the Citizen’s United Supreme Court ruling and its effects on free speech. Although I didn’t stay for the full length of any specific session, the time spent at each was insightful and rewarding. Each group was composed of a few experts that facilitated discussion driven by members of the audience. In turn, ideas and solutions for each issue were discussed openly by members of the crowd, with each group seeking a common goal of taking a step toward finding a resolution to each issue at hand. The degree of involvement and passion of the group members was obvious, which gave me a positive feeling when compared against the rhetoric and formulaic approach I had heard in the earlier speeches. While is wasn’t nearly enough to shift my perspective on the downfalls of taking up the banner of a single political party, the sessions made me take comfort in the fact that there were so many people truly and actively concerned about addressing many of the issue facing our nation. They weren’t displaying signs of groupthink or mindless agreement. They were actively debating topics and thinking critically about solutions, and that was good to see.

The Solidarity Signers providing some entertainment
After spending some time visiting the breakout sessions, I worked my way back to the arena to see the headline speaker, Senator Bernie Sanders. As the most independent mind in Congress, Senator Sanders is one of the people I respect most in modern politics. As a result, the idea of seeing him speak was a very exciting prospect that I knew would make the experience at the convention worth the trip. That stated, I knew a few speakers stood between me and seeing Bernie speak, so I waited patiently as a political writer, Jon Nichols, and a potential gubernatorial candidate, state representative Kathleen Vinehout, gave rousing speeches about the state of our state and the role of citizens in forthcoming elections. 

Once finished, Jon and Kathleen cleared the stage for Bernie Sanders, who took to the microphone and immediately laid out a concise and unfiltered perspective on Washington D.C. In his speech, Senator Sanders discussed the dysfunction and failings of our political system before turning his attention to the prospects of an attack on Syria. From this, the focus of his speech evolved into a comparison of the time, resources, and risk of fighting a war in a foreign nation against fighting the wars on poverty, income inequality, education costs, unemployment, and civil rights within the United States’ borders. On each topic Senator Sanders presented a series of staggering facts on the United States’ lagging global standing in each area before making cogent points on the necessity of solving each issue. He presented ideas to solve each, and was direct in stating his belief the United States, of all nations, was capable of solving the issues facing our nation. To say the speech was riveting is an understatement. I have never seen someone speak with such passion, such well formulated arguments, and such purpose in my life. He spoke from his heart and developed arguments based on facts and well-formulated opinions. It was clear he wasn’t the typical politician... but that may be why he defines himself as an Independent when someone asks about his political affiliations.

Senator Sanders addressing the crowd
After nearly 30 minutes, Senator Sanders concluded his speech, which left me thinking about his purpose and the work that needs be done to fix the problems facing the United States. I thought about the points Bernie made as I worked my way back through the crowd and found my way to the doors of the arena. Although there were still plenty of events scheduled for the remaining portion of the afternoon, I knew nothing would compare to the speech by Bernie Sanders. As a result, I decided to wrap up my first experience at a political convention and head back home. While my first experience attending a political convention reinforced many of my beliefs about the relatively hollow nature of events focused on one political party, there were aspects of the event that provided deeper insight into the sources of political affiliation in the United States. Plus, I was able to see Bernie Sanders speak for the first time, which is something I will never forget. All things considered, those two experiences made today’s “I have never...” event more than worth it... Now I just need to attend a Republican convention to gain the experience from the opposite political perspective.

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