Cult of democracy

Live from the California State Democratic Convention, it’s the sound of one hoof clapping

Illustration by Chad Crowe

Harmon Leon is the author of The Harmon Chronicles (ECW Press)

The cult of politics is not unlike, say, the cult of Scientology. As I note at this year’s California State Democratic Convention, they both involve rabid supporters trying to be persuasive, talking way too close with intense eye contact and insisting you become a follower of their leader.

Walking toward the San Jose Convention Center (ironically in San Jose), I pass several grown adults covered with dozens of buttons endorsing candidates. It should be interesting to see how all the political cheerleading and positive rhetoric comes off, this being, as you might have read, kind of a building year for Democrats.

I make my way toward the entrance, passing a small contingent outside supporting conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche for president. Candidate LaRouche seems to be very popular among 18-year-olds who have access to bullhorns.

“Stop acting like Republicans! Get a spine!” a supporter screams into a bullhorn. This is followed by something about Adolf Hitler and Dick Cheney (and the comparisons thereof).

I’ve never been to a large political convention. Once inside, the first thing I notice is that it’s not unlike, say, a comic-book convention filled with fanboys, fliers and just plain political nerds.

“Hey Dad! Dad! C-SPAN is here,” exclaims a geeky, delighted 13-year-old kid to his similar-looking father as I make my way toward the concourse filled with numerous booths trumpeting each of this year’s Democratic candidates. Others, like rabid NSync fans, frantically wave signs about their favorite (Kerry is the cutest!).

“Can I give you a sticker for John Edwards?” asks a woman with stickers for John Edwards, slapping one on my clothing.

“Yes!” I reply in deadpan. “Your sticker has completely swayed my opinion on who I should support for president.”

The afternoon general sessions have commenced already in the main hall, filled with a large majority of old people wearing mostly blue and gray. The seating is split into regions, each displayed on signs atop large poles, while the projected word “Democrats” blazes behind the large stage where a man conducting the proceedings repeats, “They broke the mold. They broke the mold,” referring to the speaker who just departed (apparently stressing that somehow a mold was broken to create the person).

“We have some wonderful speakers,” continues the man onstage to the crowd. “But first, someone lost a black pearl bracelet.”

How do you fire up the losing side? With each speaker—including the mayor of Los Angeles and various Congress members—it’s a sea of empty rhetoric, clichés and cheerleading for the Democrat troops in order to evoke vigorous applause. Yes, it’s like a football pep rally for the team that has had several consecutive losing seasons, especially in the wake of the whole Arrrrrnold coup d’état.

As a political speaker, one combats this by pimping for applause with crowd-pleasing sound bites.

“This is the best time to be a Democrat!”

(Clap clap clap.)

“These may be difficult times for our party right now. But during difficult times, we need to hold true to our values.”

(Clap clap clap.)

“We need to be in this together to make California a state we can be proud of!”

(Clap clap clap.)

“As Democrats, we’re going to fight! We’re ready for the fight. Let’s get to work!”

(Clap clap clap.)

Things come to a head with the introduction of the biggest Democratic loser in recent history: a man who was pulled out of office by the Republicans during his term and replaced by a movie star with an affinity for portraying cyborgs. Yes, ousted Governor Gray Davis. Along with his wife, Sharon, he comes onto the stage with all the charisma of Al Gore, receiving a Democratic standing ovation. Davis starts out by going for laughs.

“Last year, as you know, I had a few ups and downs. How was your year?”

Huge laughs. Ah, political humor. He follows this up with more things that make people clap, topping off his speech with the insightful, “I’m confident the Democratic Party will have better days!”

Huge applause! Another goddamned standing ovation! There’s nothing more inspiring than a rousing speech to a downtrodden party by its governor-elect who was kicked out of office.

I feel really bad for the next political speaker, Board of Equalization Chairwoman Carole Migden. She has to follow Davis. As soon as he leaves the stage, many people start filing out. She starts by attempting a joke to win over the departing crowd.

“Me and Sharon Davis were just comparing hairdos,” Migden says. “Hers is better.”

Dead silence. She’s eating it.

Following the majority of the crowd’s lead, I go back out into the concourse. Immediately I’m accosted by one of the annoying LaRouche minions. He hands me some campaign propaganda. Out of all the presidential candidates’ campaign materials, LaRouche’s is the only one that has a man wielding an ax on the front.

“He’s the only candidate with a spine!” states the intense LaRouche supporter. To emphasize this point, he explains that several LaRouche supporters have taped a paper spine to the back of their clothing (roughly around the spine area). He tells me that LaRouche is the only candidate trying to impeach Cheney. I mention that if, say, Dean wins, there would be no reason to impeach either George Bush or Cheney. We grow silent. When the silence ends, I’m told boastfully that LaRouche is the only candidate here with a sea of supporters, as evidenced by those outside with bullhorns. I conclude by suggesting that, next time, it might be more politically effective to get a booth actually inside the convention. We grow silent once again.

Moving on, I decide to go around to each presidential candidate’s booth in order to have them “sell me” on the idea of voting for their man. I clarify to each that they have a two-minute time limit in which to do so, as I’m thrown empty shells of sound-bite rhetoric.

“Why John Kerry? Sell me on him!” I say to a man in khaki pants standing by a poster showing how “cool” Kerry is, with Kerry windsurfing, playing guitar, riding a motorcycle and, of course, standing next to John Lennon. “Sell me on him. Go!”

“Kerry’s the total package. He’s very JFK-esque. He took a bullet in Vietnam. He has a self-effacing sense of humor,” the man says.

“Can you share a quip of his?” I ask with interest about his humor.

The khaki-pants man thinks. He has trouble coming up with a quip but mentions he thinks Kerry did something funny at a debate.

“Do you think Kerry has a chance of winning the presidency?” I ask.


“Great. Then I’m going to vote for him, too.”

I move on.

“OK, sell me on Kucinich!” I state to an old woman, after pointing out the booth’s “funny” Got Kucinich? T-shirts.

“Where do I begin?” she asks.

“I don’t know, but make it quick because you only have two minutes.”

“Dennis is so honest. For everything he’s proposed, he has a plan.”

The old woman starts babbling on and on, eventually segueing into a song about Dennis Kucinich.

“Time!” I yell when she exceeds the two-minute mark. “Do you think Kucinich has a chance of winning the presidency?”

“Yes, I really do!” she says. (Come on! Kucinich?!)

“Great. Then I’m going to vote for him, too.”

I move on. So many presidential candidates, so little time. I try at all costs to avoid the pesky Children of the Corn LaRouche supporters whose persuasive campaign tactics involve simply annoying people with the eye-opening conclusion that Cheney is bad.

I hit up the booths of the other candidates (Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, John Edwards) and pose the exact same “sell me” proposition to each, getting almost interchangeable sales pitches (“It’s his humor and honesty,” “He has a vision,” “He has a lot of integrity—more than all the other candidates”).

These people looooove to talk about their candidate as if he were L. Ron Hubbard. They also loooooove to invade your personal space by talking way too close. I tell each that they have somehow convinced me to vote for their candidate.

“So, off the record, who are you voting for?” asks a man at the Edwards booth. I provide an answer, in order to make his facial expression change.

“Off the record? Why, George W. Bush, or course!” The facial expression changes. I move on.

The loneliest presidential-candidate booth is that of Joe Lieberman. It’s a bit sad. A lone chubby man wearing a yellow hat sits by himself, waiting for somebody to talk to. I feel bad for him.

“OK, sell me on Lieberman. Go!”

“He’s likable, he’s personable,” explains the lone man, speaking out of the side of his mouth. “He’s the best-qualified for president.”

“Do you think Lieberman has a chance of winning the presidency?”

“Well, absolutely! I think he has the best chance of defeating Bush!” (Come on! Lieberman??!!)

At my Lieberman conversation’s conclusion, another LaRouche supporter once again accosts me and tries to give me another brochure with a guy holding an ax on the cover. This time, I’m astutely made aware that Arnold Schwarzenegger also is bad.

Before coming to the convention, I was told with great assurance that the Democrats “like to party hard.” This is good news. I want to run into a scenario that would make Bill Clinton blush. At 10 p.m., I venture back to the hospitality suites for State Treasurer Phil Angelides’ “Big Fat Greek Party!” (Note: The name of his party is “funny” because it’s similar to that popular movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the TV spinoff, My Big Fat Greek Life.) According to Phil’s campaign poster, he’s “Standing Up For Democratic Values.”

Outside the hospitality-suite doors, it’s a sea of blue- and gray-colored clothing, making the Democrats look as conservative as, well, Republicans. A volunteer works the crowd, putting Phil stickers on everyone. He sticks one on my clothing. Surely Phil will throw a good party. Earlier, hearing him speak, he threw his hat into the 2006 governor’s race in order to take down Arrrrrrrrnold, noting the devastating state budget cuts that will directly affect the poor.

After much anticipation and a half-hour wait, the packed crowd filters in through the door. It’s mandatory to wear a Phil sticker to enter. Phil’s Big Fat Greek Party turns out to be Phil’s Big Fat Pay-for-Your-Own-Drinks Party. Phil has a cash bar. I thought Phil promised he’d lend a helping hand to the poor. For I, like the state of California, am broke. Perhaps if Democrats had a winning season, it would be an open bar. I put my Phil sticker on a piece of baklava and get the hell out of there.