Two-Party Conventions and Social Change

Future Hope column, August 24, 2008

By Ted Glick

The first Democratic or Republican Convention I went to as an outside protester was the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami, Florida. This was where Richard Nixon was nominated for what turned out to be a much-shortened time in office due to his resignation in 1974 in the face of certain impeachment.

Participating in the street actions in Miami in 1972 was an empowering experience, and that’s been true of the protests at all the other conventions I’ve gone to since.

The one I had the most involvement with was the People’s Convention in 1980. This event was held in the devastated Charlotte Street area in the South Bronx, N.Y. Several thousand people attended, making a collective statement in support of a progressive stance on a wide range of issues just before the Democratic Convention at Madison Square Garden where Jimmy Carter was nominated. The People’s Convention got extensive coverage and, together with a march of 15,000 people up to the front door of the Garden, helped to keep alive a spirit of independent protest and resistance in the country.

That’s been a primary function of two-party convention protests for as long as I can remember. Another function is to provide a venue for activists from around the country to meet and network at meetings, panels, concerts and other events. And at times, particularly at Democratic Conventions, the presence and activities of outside groups can serve as a form of “lobbying” of the inside delegates in support of their taking the right positions on key issues.

All of these functions are important. I hope the events at the Democratic Convention next week in Denver, and at the Republican Convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul the week after, are well-attended and positive. I look forward to being in the Twin Cities as part of the progressive movement’s week of activism against Bush, Cheney, McCain, Lieberman, the neo-con gang and all the rest.

But I have to say that the fact that I’ve been doing this kind of thing every four years for 36 years brings to mind a number of thoughts:

-The scripted and spectacle nature of Democrat and Republican conventions only feeds into the repressive idea of politics as a spectator sport and something you do only at the ballot box. Whenever there’s any debate at one of these events, which is increasingly rare, party officials are quick to suppress it, if possible, or if not, to minimize its impact on the rest of the staged events. This is not exactly a way to motivate the citizenry to see citizenship as meaning active and outspoken involvement in support of those things you believe in or that you and your neighbors or co-workers need. That’s where our “this is what democracy looks like” actions in the streets come in to help counter that undemocratic model.

-Along the same lines, it is reflective of the nature of our “democracy” that over the years, both parties have stepped up attempts to restrict protest and dissent to certain “protest zones” far removed from the view or hearing of convention delegates. It sends a message that they don’t want to hear about issues that large numbers of people feel strongly about. Out of sight, out of mind.

-When I began my convention activism in Miami in 1972, there was no significant progressive alternative in the national electoral arena. The Green Party didn’t exist. Today, 36 years later, it is a good thing that there is a Green Party that has survived for over two decades and that has a strong Presidential candidate in the person of Cynthia McKinney, but the two-party, winner-take-all, corporate-dominated electoral system is still very strong. Large numbers of progressive-minded people continue to accept the “lesser of two evils” logic that seriously affects our ability to build a strong movement.

We’d be having a much bigger impact if we had a consistently progressive political alternative that was able to organize its own convention of thousands of delegates every four years. Such a convention, such a progressive alternative, could nominate a Presidential candidate we could truly believe in. We would then be able to garner many millions of votes because we were well-organized at local and state levels throughout the country. Think about how this would strengthen all of our on-going grassroots organizing and issue work!

For the next two weeks, for two consecutive weeks, the American people are going to be subjected to something very different than what we’re been watching in Beijing for the last two weeks. With all its commercialism, the Olympics continues to have at its core the inspiration of the coming together of the world’s nations for fair athletic competition. What passes for politics in the USA, the corporate-dominated, two-party political process, is neither fair nor, for large numbers of people, inspiring.

Such an undemocratic system must be protested and resisted.

Ted Glick is active in the climate movement and the Green Party. Past Future Hope columns and contact information for him can be found at