What I Learned in Denver

by Randy Shaw on December 30, 2008

First published on September 02, 2008.

The last day of the Democratic Convention at Mile High Stadium was an extraordinary occasion that transcended politics and became almost spiritual. I have never been part of such a public event—political or not—and doubt whether an equivalent happening has ever occurred in the United States or will soon be repeated. The crowd at Mile High mirrored the nation: it was overwhelmingly working and middle-class, racially diverse, and appeared to comprise those viscerally impacted by the convention’s focus on restoring the American Dream. In the days prior to Mile High I forswore the talked-about parties and spent ten hours each day talking to hundreds of delegates, supporters and activists. I saw how artists were engaged with the Obama campaign, gained a deeper understanding of the Democratic Party’s New West revival, got a reality check on the alleged Clinton-Obama rift, and was told why Mitt Romney’s anticipated selection as running mate would really help McCain. Most of all, my experience strengthened my feeling that something very special is occurring in 2008 that will have significance far beyond November.

I had two goals upon arriving in Denver: to talk to as many people as possible about the November election and my soon to be available book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Barack Obama’s adoption of the UFW’s “Si Se Puede” (“Yes We Can”) rallying cry led me to hand out bookmarks picturing Chavez and the Democratic nominee, and gave me a hook for talking to hundreds of people about our current political situation.

The Big Picture

If those who came to Denver are representative, Barack Obama’s campaign is more deeply based in the working and middle-class than any progressive presidential campaign since Franklin Roosevelt. When you add Obama’s overwhelming support among African-Americans (95%), Latinos (70%), and young people (66%), and the fact that the Mile High crowd was at least 60% female, we are talking about the largest progressive base for a presidential candidate since Roosevelt’s last victory in 1944.

That was over sixty years ago. And it has been quite a long wait.

For many I spoke with, the crisis of declining future prospects was not simply campaign rhetoric. It was personal. Postal workers told me how they just hoped to survive another four months under Bush, and others described how they had barely gotten any raises over the past five years.

People were angry, and fed up. I got the sense that many were not career activists, but that things had finally got so bad that they felt they had to get involved.

The Mile High crowd was not the usual political suspects. While the Pepsi Center had a corporate, political insider flavor, more representative crowds attended Convention Center events, the evening big screen “watch parties” at that venue, and the final day’s extravaganza.

The democratic aspect of the Mile High event also applied to exiting the event—while delegates relying on buses were stuck for as long as two hours (which was the case for the California delegation), the bulk of the crowd leaving on foot had ready access to free light rail and were back Downtown in a little over an hour.

Artists Back the Movement

Barack Obama’s campaign is as close to a national progressive movement than anything since the New Deal. And just as grassroots artists lent their support to FDR, so have counter-cultural figures like Shepard Fairey (of Obey Giant fame) and artists in the Manifest Hope Gallery used their talents to highlight the themes of Obama’s campaign, which they identify as Hope, Change, Progress, Unity and Patriotism.

While attending the Manifest Hope Gallery show, I spoke to two young men from Los Angeles who filmed a party at the venue the previous night. Both were from CauseCast.Org and had never before been so excited by a presidential nominee. They were representative of many in the arts community whose willingness to work for a major candidate began with Barack Obama.

will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas is another of the unusual suspects from the creative world willing to put his faith in Barack Obama. If you have been moved by the YouTube video of his singing “Yes We Can,” imagine how it felt at Mile High when 84,000 others joined him.

Democratic Upsurge in New West

I have previously written about the major campaigns planned by environmental, labor and immigrant rights groups in Colorado, but I was surprised to learn in Denver that voters are passionate about alternative energy—specifically wind and solar power.

Whenever a speaker highlighted Obama’s commitment to invest in wind and solar power, the crowd immediately rose and cheered. Coloradoans and other New West voters see alternative energy as the key to the region’s economic growth, and indirectly to their own future living standards and those of their families.

John McCain and the Republican Party have repeatedly voted against funding alternative energy. Obama has already put New Mexico almost out of McCain’s reach, and the alternative energy issue should ensure a Democratic victory in Colorado as well.

Hillary Clinton Loyalists

Hillary loyalists were out in force on Tuesday morning, and delegates I spoke with from Texas, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania said that the situation in their states was rather dicey. But Hillary’s speech that night made such a difference that I was told that one of her biggest supporters in Texas passed out buttons Wednesday morning saying “Texas United.” This media narrative finally appears over.

Romney v. Palin

Delegates were convinced that Mitt Romney’s selection as running mate would make Arizona safely Republican, potentially shift Nevada to McCain, and make Michigan competitive (there are many Mormons in the first two states, and Romney’s father was governor of the latter). In contrast, Sarah Palin’s selection does nothing to help McCain in these three states but might ensure Alaska—with its three electoral votes—stays red.

As for Palin’s alleged influence with female Hillary delegates: I saw all these delegates as they lined up to meet with Clinton, and, based on their buttons, most certainly looked like feminists; if anything, Hillary’s backers might be the constituency least likely to be attracted by the right-wing, anti-abortion, anti-stem-cell, pro-Creationist Palin.


People do not want this push for change to end on Election Day. There is a hunger to enlist in a broader cause for social justice, and, for many, the Obama campaign has become the vehicle.

When a political campaign takes on the aura of a movement, the challenge is to sustain people’s engagement and harness it to implementing a progressive agenda. It is a goal that many campaigns aspire to, but few fulfill.

Will Obama be different? There is no way to tell, but early indications are certainly good.

The Obama campaign includes some of the nation’s most effective organizers, who themselves have been trained by such movement strategists as ex-UFW Organizing Director Marshall Ganz. The campaign’s approach has been to avoid the “marketing” approach to voters in favor of establishing deeper and more lasting commitments.

This organizing approach paid dividends in mobilizing voters to attend primaries and caucuses, and will prove critical to Obama winning in November. It also means that the Obama campaign is well positioned to transform its electoral base into a multi-million strong support group for progressive policies come 2009.

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