The Democrats’ Big Tent

The Big Tent is a two-story temporary structure located in Denver’s sleek Lo-Do District about 10 blocks north — and a couple of degrees to the ideological left — of the Pepsi Center, where the Democratic National Convention opened on Monday evening. The crowd here is slightly younger and hipper than the delegates and volunteers and TV crews now swarming the klieg-lit arena.

This is where the party’s progressive blogospheric shock troops are billeted — the stars (Jane Hamsher here, The Washington Independent’s own Spencer Ackerman there) and the grunts alike. “We have tens of readers,” one blogger proudly tells me. They each come armed with their own laptop, media dog tags, and analysis of Joe Biden. “He brings older voters in Michigan into play,” the guy next to me tells a young woman wearing an “I ‘Heart’ Pro-Choice Boys.”

Above the throng flutter the banners of our high-tech benefactors: Google, Digg, Daily Kos and — can you believe it — The fact that T. Boone Pickens, a right-wing oil billionaire converted to the renewable energy crusade, is helping to fund this cockpit of liberal energy hints that maybe, just maybe, the tectonic forces of American history have realigned to deliver the long-delayed Progressive Moment.

Upstairs, an all-star panel of mythmakers is building the intellectual scaffolding for Barack Obama to take his place among the liberal pantheon. Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, is almost blind. But he stands and talks straight, cutting a figure of enormous historical dignity and continuity as he vouches that Obama’s intellect is equal to JFK’s. Eric Michael Dyson, professin’ professor from Georgetown, described Obama as Martin Luther King circa 1963. Jon Alter, Newsweek columnist and FDR biographer, defended his Obama’s FISA vote heresy with the observation that in 1932, the untested Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt was accurately known, in the vernacular of the day, as “a trimmer” (“flip-flopper”).

But then the mythmakers gave way to a panel featuring the progressive movement’s intellectual generals — those people who actually inspire the Democratic rank and file — and the fundamental political tensions that the next Democratic presidential nominee embodies and confronts began to surface.

Why don’t progressives purchase their political books and propel them to the top of the best-seller lists like the right did with Jerome Corsi’s scurrilous “The Obama Nation”? asked moderator Thom Hartmann, a talk radio host.

“Because we’re a movement that tells the truth,” said John Podesta, former chief of staff of the Clinton White House and mastermind of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.
Should the Democrats appeal to swing voters, a la JFK and FDR?

Arianna Huffington scorned the notion. “In 2004 43 percent of swing voters believed that John Kerry wounded himself to win a Bronze Star,” she scoffed into a balky microphone. “Why base a campaign on them? They’ll just believe some other lie.”

Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist, evoked the memory of that dismal Tuesday in early November 2004 when the last Progressive Moment went a glimmering. The pundits said the conservative majority had arrived — and the majority that soon jettisoned President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security proved the conventional wisdom wrong, Krugman said.

“There is a progressive majority in America,” Krugman declared. “People may not know they’re progressive, but they are.”

But if Americans don’t know they’re progressive, one wondered, what kind of progressives are they?

For columnist David Sirota, they’re populist.

“We have to fess up that the policies that make people angry today are the product of Democrats and Republicans.” He cited NAFTA and held up Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, an anti-free-trade populist, as the real progressive model. Podesta, veteran of the Clinton White House where NAFTA was nurtured, smiled wanly at a song he’d heard before. Huffington beamed with approval. Krugman, economist and judicious free trade defender, swallowed hard.

The crowd applauded and regrouped for yet another panel. In the Big Tent, memories and willpower insure that the imperative of unity prevails over the traditional Democratic impulse to bicker.

Downstairs, on the flat screen TV’s, John Legend was singing the national anthem in the Pepsi Center to open the convention. No one was paying attention. They were too busy blogging and chatting.

Jefferson Morley is the national editorial director for the Center for Independent Media.

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