It's obvious why this year's national party conventions are drawing their lowest television audiences in decades. It's not because Americans are turned off by politics, nor that they're getting their coverage from the Internet. It's that the conventions make terrible TV.
The Monday kickoff of the Democratic convention was like a cross between a bad variety show and an awards special where you know in advance who's going to win all the prizes. The good news is that this may turn out to be the post-Seattle protest movement's ace in the hole: It's a lot more fun to watch.
In a time when more of our economy than ever is based on entertainment, when cultural products have become our leading export, and when entertainment increasingly defines what we think of as news -- think of how many movie stars you've seen recently on the covers of Time or Newsweek -- anyone trying to make a political statement has got to make it fun to watch.
The convention itself feels less like a political event than a big Star Trek fan gathering. There's a similar kind of energy: thousands of lifelong obsessives wearing all kinds of goofy thematic hats, buttons, and T-shirts, utterly enraptured by a set of characters most people couldn't care less about. President Clinton is one thing; but how many people get excited about an appearance by Lottie Shackleford, the DNC's vice-chair? These people do.
All afternoon, each speaker, from the exemplary ex-welfare moms to the nearing-his-expiration-date president, was introduced with a painfully cheesy pseudo-documentary video about his or her life in which the word "America" was somehow worked into every other sentence (American dreams, American hero, America's promise, all of which make America great). With the exception of Clinton -- who does, at least, give a good speech -- the rhetoric, the tone, even the body language of the dozens of lesser luminaries who took their turns at the podium all afternoon seemed as indistinguishably processed as a packet of Kraft Singles. It's hard to get much blander than the convention's official slogan: "America 2000." Not much to argue with there.
By contrast, the opening night of the Shadow Convention, a kind of intellectual, Hollywood-informed outgrowth of the post-Seattle street protest movement, was a great show. Convener Arianna Huffington, the reformed Republican turned progressive columnist and agitator, strutted onto the stage in front of a packed house at Los Angeles' Patriotic Hall to the tune of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power."
"The other convention is about focus-group fantasy," she proclaimed. "This one will be about reality." The subjects were serious and weighty: the growing gap between rich and poor, the disastrous consequences of the war on drugs, and the corrupting influence of money in politics. But the speakers were by and large impassioned, gripping, funny -- Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold waxing wroth over the corrupting influence of corporate money in his own party, African-American activist and intellectual Cornell West inveighing against "the commodification of everything and everybody," "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher ripping the Clinton administration's drug policies -- and at evening's end, free Ben & Jerry's ice cream handed out by Ben Cohen himself, and a concert by Chuck D. That's how you sell politics in the entertainment state.
The main trouble was that hardly anyone in Huffington's target audience -- attendees at the Democratic Convention -- seemed even to know about the Shadow Convention. Of a random sample of floor delegates, only a few had even heard mention of it; for that matter, most were only dimly aware that thousands of activists had been chanting and marching in the streets outside for the last two days.
That's partly due to careful planning by DNC organizers. "We've been pretty much shielded from the protests," explained an unperturbed Ruth C. Rudy, a delegate from Centre Hall, Penn. "I came out of my hotel, got put on a bus, and they brought us here." Delegates were brought in to the Staples Center from the south, out of sight and hearing of the protesters who are confined to a fenced-in corral on the arena's north side.
But the delegates' obliviousness also partly reflects the fact that, despite the massive disgorgement of convention-related stories in every media outlet in the country over the last few days, the street protests have received barely a mention in the mainstream media. It's not that they lack spirit or energy or creative giant puppets, nor that their manifold causes aren't righteous; it's because, in part, that they have become a bit predictable.
For the most part, whether a particular march's theme is the death penalty or corporate greed, it's by and large the same ragtag crowds of earnest students, weathered longhairs, dreadlocked drummers, and feisty anarchists chanting the same chants and harping on the same issues they raised in Seattle, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. And as a result, the media have come to pay increasingly less attention.
The protesters, however, countered the media ennui with a great entertainment-age gambit on Monday night: a free concert, right in front of the suit-stuffed Staples Center, by far-left rap-rockers Rage Against the Machine. That brought in the crowds, and the cameras, in a big way. It also wound up bringing in the first serious violence of the convention.
After Rage had left the stage, a few of their more exuberant fans evidently started lobbing bottles and chunks of concrete at the police massed on the other side of the fence, penning the protesters in on three sides. The cops, in turn, scattered the crowd with a horse-mounted charge. When some of the protesters-cum-concert-goers regrouped at a nearby intersection, the cops blasted them with rubber bullets, leaving several with bloody, silver-dollar sized welts on their arms and back. The cops I spoke to said dozens were arrested, although the Los Angeles Times reported just 10 arrests in its Tuesday morning edition.
But all in all, perhaps these are encouraging developments. Third parties and outside political movements have stalled in this country for years because they haven't been able to attract enough interest; that is, big enough audiences. But a coalition that includes mainstream politicians, street activists, eccentric millionaires, TV celebrities, and multi-platinum rock bands might just be a winning combination for the '00s.