Framing the Dem Fest
Amid the pleasant squawking of tubas and rattle of drums on the Huston-Tillotson campus on Juneteenth weekend, a strange herd of folk arrived in cars slapped silly with bumper-stickers ("Where are we going and what the hell am I doing in this handbasket?"), sporting T-shirts with slogans ("Who ever heard of a great piece of elephant?"), and covered in buttons ("Howard Dean Speaks for Me!"). They were gathered for "Democracy Fest 2005" three days of panel discussions and training sessions designed to capitalize on the grassroots fervor that defines the Dean Democrat i.e., in the words of one visiting Floridian, "someone who was re-energized, or energized for the first time, by Howard Dean, to get involved" in the political process.
Hosted by My Vote Is My Voice and Democracy for Texas, the Fest attracted 900 people from all over the country, with the promise of strengthening ties within the progressive community. "More than anything," said a young Nigerian guy who works for the state of Texas, "what has been most useful to me is seeing how many people there are who feel the same way I do. Sometimes, it's extremely alienating to be a progressive in Texas."
Solidarity was definitely a high priority, bolstered by light-hearted panels like the "Veterans of Political Wars" lunch, which found columnist Molly Ivins, former state Rep. Glen Maxey, former Ag Commissioner and agitator Jim Hightower, and political consultant Glenn Smith regaling a howlingly appreciative crowd with the trials and tribulations of the Texas liberal, such as Maxey's intimate moment with the current president. "I really like you as a person," then-Gov. Bush whispered one day, on the floor of the House, into the first openly gay state rep's ear. "What I say publicly about gay people doesn't apply to you."
Later, Maxey spoke sadly of former U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle's death that morning, but the somber moment was enlivened by Glenn Smith's recollection of Carole Keeton Strayhorn's announcement to run against Pickle back in 1986 a proclamation that was immediately overshadowed by the simultaneous bombing of Lebanon. "I do believe she's planning on announcing her gubernatorial run today," Smith laughed. "Looks like old Jake trumped her again!"
There was also serious work to be done, including panels on a wide range of topics: the role of religion in the progressive agenda; military recruitment; No Child Left Behind; organizing tactics and methods; electoral reform, and so on. The NCLB forum proposed that section 9528 requiring public high schools to submit private student information to military recruiters or lose their funding as the Achilles' heel of that thinly veiled federal privatization scheme. Under the general heading of electoral reform, Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett quickly joined the "amen corner" to fellow Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who had floored the audience with the powerful delivery of a profoundly simple plan to make human rights the Democrats' true agenda.
There was other enthusiastic if less enlightening detail. The "Democracy Fest Challenge" urged participants to mark a large piece of paper every time they made a connection with someone they would contact after they left, setting a pyramid scheme-y goal of 1,000 marks by Sunday. There was also a lot of Lakoffian "framing," in deference to Dem consultant George Lakoff's prescription to "frame" all political discourse in progressive terms. The method has predictably mixed results Stephanie, a Lyndon LaRouche-ite infiltrator from Houston, interrupted the Generation DFA presentation at the Student Caucus to demand that people "Stop playing by the rules!" Complimented on her input, she quickly handed her new friend a shiny pamphlet extolling LaRouche's authoritarian virtues. Shaking his head in dismay, he responded good-naturedly, "Nice framing."
Sunday split everyone into groups for training sessions: Root Camp Core Training 101 for the beginners and Campaign Management Training 201 for the pros. "What's been really great about this weekend is that [Saturday] was a theory day, and [Sunday was] definitely more of a hands-on day," said Erin Smith, a 25-year-old Austinite. "There's a lot of really great thoughts going on here, and channeling that into practical aspects, I think, is the challenge." Indeed, everyone to whom I spoke was pleased with the weekend's results: Alliances had been formed, applicable tactics had been offered, and people were just jonesing to go out and get to it.
As the crowd thinned on Sunday evening, I did manage to find one smiling complaint about the weekend: "It wasn't long enough!" If the eventual organizing results can approach this winsome enthusiasm, who knows? Maybe a real "festival of democracy" is still lurking around the corner.