Just What, Exactly, Is the DNC?

Covering a convention is something of a challenge when you know that 14,999 other journalists are running around more or less doing the same thing you are. Even if you limit yourself to just the other progressive journalists here, including other magazines like The Progressive, Mother Jones and the Prospect, and blogs and websites like FireDogLake, TPM and the Washington Independent, there's probably at the very least 100 other progressive journalists here, blogging, writing, looking for stories.

All of which is to say: novelty can be hard to come by. Which is why members of the media have a strange love/hate relationship to the conventions. They love going (lots of free booze!) but resent the dearth of actual "news" being produced.

But part of the problem is that the DNC isn't one unified event. In fact, it contains a series of nested events, all happening within each other and simultaneously in the same city. Conversing with a colleague last night, I was forced to answer the surprisingly difficult question of "what is the Democratic National Convention?" Here's a partial list:

-- An extended party for political élites: Like New Hampshire, all the nation's top political players, from elected officials to TV talking heads to consultants are in the same place at the same time.

-- A reunion and massive networking opportunity for the political-industrial complex: This is the angle my colleague Ari Berman has been looking at, that is, the hundreds (thousands?) of lobbyists who swarm to the conventions to sponsor parties, provide schwag and generally market themselves and their own influence to those with power and those close to those with power

-- An extended campaign commercial for the party nominee.

-- A media boondoggle: Obvs.

-- A big fundraiser: A friend of mine who works at think tank told me his agenda for the next four days was to talk to as many rich people as possible and raise as much money as possible.

-- A gathering of the people who constitute the institution called the Democratic Party: This is the chief and core function of the event, but also the most overlooked. From every state, thousands of people, many of them just ordinary folks, come to the conventions as local delegates. In the conventions I've attended, talking to the delegates is always the most edifying activity. Many of the delegates are big shots -- people like Donna Brazile, but most of them aren't. On the shuttle from the airport yesterday I sat next to a county legislator from Long Island. She's been an elected official for six years and this was her first convention. Last time around, she said she was so overwhelmed by her job she couldn't make out. This time around she was palpably thrilled. She called her husband from the shuttle to remind him about the lasagna she'd made and left frozen for him in the fridge.

So the most heartening aspect of the convention is seeing up close just who the Democratic party is, and it must be said that it really is one of the most diverse institutions in American life. The problem is that the people who make up the Democratic party, the local county legislators from Long Island and postal workers from Detroit, and union members from California It's deeply, deeply flawed of course. It's much whiter at the top than at the bottom. But spend time at the parties thrown by lobbyists, and it's easy to get depressed about the Democrats in particular and American politics in general. Spend time around the delegates and its hard not to feel optimistic.

I'll be spending much of the next four days trying to tell myself that optimism isn't misplaced.

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