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More than Pre-Packaged Speeches: The importance of outside events to modern conventions

Protest of undocumented immigrants outside of the convention hall in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Protest of undocumented immigrants outside of the convention hall in Charlotte, North Carolina. September 4, 2012. Photo by Carah Ong.

CHARLOTTE, NC. --- Those who claim that the party conventions have become nothing more than pre-packaged speeches are missing an entire element of what modern conventions are about. Inside the convention halls, yes the parties put forward a line-up of loyal speakers to promote their candidate, party and platform. But outside the convention halls, interest groups (as well as lobbyists and businesses) are engaging in a whole range of activities that aren’t necessarily observed by the mainstream media or by political scientists. Yet, these activities make an important contribution to the role of conventions in modern elections.

One of the most active interest groups I observed on the first day of the convention was JStreet, an organization that describes itself as pro-Israel and advocates a two-state solution that will result in Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security. The JStreet activists assembled mid-morning at their hotel to go over their strategy for the day. Their efforts targeted state delegations and they had lists of hotels where state delegations are staying for the week. Armed with leaflets and matching shirts, the group divided up and set out to educate delegates about their policy positions to achieve Middle East peace. The lead organizer reminded the volunteers that while some of them may be “intense partisans,” the reason they were here today was to represent JStreet, which she reminded them is a non-partisan organization. She gave strict instructions that volunteers not wear any partisan buttons or gear.

What effect did their efforts have? That is less observable since I didn’t have the opportunity to follow the activists from hotel to hotel. Once they were finished with leafleting, the JStreet volunteers joined a meeting with other groups and members of the Jewish community. This was only one of the events advertised in a Democratic daily calendar to convention-goers. Indeed, this year, the Democratic Party has been serving as a communications hub of sorts to allow interest groups to share their activities, meetings, and events.  

Yet, while some groups are focused on being part of the mainstream by engaging in such activities as educating delegates, others are protesting. Today, for example, former war veterans, individuals affiliated with the Occupy movement and others staged a marching protest outside of the convention. Some of them support neither candidate nor party. Others called President Obama a “war criminal” for his target kill list and use of drone strikes in Pakistan. Some were concerned about limits to free speech. Others were out to call for Bradley Manning’s freedom. And anti-abortion protesters also staged demonstrations today.

Another event from the first day about which you are only likely to see minimal coverage was a protest of undocumented immigrants that occurred this afternoon. The group, which is traveling with Undocubus, advocates immigration reform. In English and in Spanish, they chanted “Undocumented and unafraid,” and “Obama, listen, we’re in this fight.” One of the organizers called it a “protest against ethnic cleansing” and said that immigration rights were human rights.  The police arrested ten of the undocumented workers.

At least in Charlotte, it’s not solely about the formal speeches or promoting the Democratic Party. The convention is also an event around which individuals and interest groups have the opportunity to organize, strategize and express public opinion. Such activities outside the formal convention are just as important to observe and monitor because they raise issues that you may not hear about in the official party agenda and they provide an opportunity for all individuals, not just the party loyal, to engage in political expression.

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