Notes From a Convention

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If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; and may posterity forget that ye were once our countrymen.
~ Samuel Adams

It had been forty-four years since I last attended a political convention. I was part of my state’s delegation to the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, an experience that helped push me over the threshold in my abandonment of political action. But last week I found myself headed to Rochester to sit in — as an observer — on the Minnesota Republican State Convention. My Minnesota daughter and her husband have been very active Ron Paul supporters, with her husband serving as a delegate to this convention. Perhaps for the same reason that leads people to visit the site of a train-wreck, I decided to attend.

My initial impression of this convention was that the atmosphere was so unlike those in which I had participated decades before. It was not that the Ron Paul delegates were outvoted by the McCain supporters: that’s just part of the convention process as it was, in 1964, when we Goldwater supporters greatly outnumbered the competing Bill Scranton contingent. But there was a civility and respect for procedural regularities that governed earlier conventions, unlike what I witnessed in Rochester last week. The contrast could be stated, metaphorically, as the difference between eating in a French restaurant and a twenty-four hour truck stop.

The carnival began, rudely enough, when Ron Paul was denied access to a convention center room he had reserved for a speech. At about 7:30 Saturday morning, several hundred Paul supporters — many of them delegates — gathered in a park area next to the convention center to listen to their candidate. His impassioned and focused appeal to reason and principle was in sharp contrast to the plethora of vacuous and contradictory platitudes to be voiced at the convention by party leaders and their loyalists.

If there was one sentiment that dominated this convention, it was the stark fear, by the party faithful, that Ron Paul’s message might actually be heard by the delegates. It was not so much, I think, that the GOP establishment feared the kind of conversion that would lead the convention to select a slate of Paul delegates to attend the national convention in September. The concern, rather, was that Paul’s message might remind Republicans of the importance of policies driven by moral principles; that ideas do have consequences; and that the party and its officials now languish in a lifeless cesspool. While it was clear to all that John McCain would become the party’s nominee, it was also evident that the party regulars did not want to be reminded of just how morally and intellectually bankrupt they had become. In place of the principled behavior advocated by Ron Paul and his supporters, the GOP regulars offered the flimsy substitute of "common sense," an amorphous standard that can be used to rationalize anything a speaker favors.

Just how far the conventioneers would go to suppress any Paulist sentiment was demonstrated quite early. The party had enacted a rule requiring anyone who wished to be considered as a potential delegate to the national convention to go to Rochester, before the convention even began, to meet with a nominating committee. Many of the Paul delegates were not aware of this rule and, as a consequence, did not meet with this committee. They were thus not allowed to be considered as national delegates. Someone then noted that neither Governor Tim Pawlenty nor Senator Norm Coleman had met with this committee either, and thus could not be selected as delegates to the national convention. The GOP hierarchy was thus faced with a situation they dreaded, namely, the "fair and open process" that Ron Paul’s state coordinator had asked for prior to the convention. Not to worry, the convention delegates voted to suspend this rule for the purpose of allowing McCain supporters Pawlenty and Coleman, by name, to be treated as exceptions.

Thus, while the Democratic Party circumvents the "smoke-filled-room" image of politics by allowing establishment favorites to have the power of "Super-Delegates," the Minnesota GOP achieved a similar result through preferential "exceptionalism" for its top officials! The spectacle — in both parties — amounts to a playing out of the Orwellian principle that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." The Republican state chairman, Ron Carey, rationalized the double standard by noting that becoming a delegate to the national convention "is not an entry-level job. We looked at people who truly had quality, not just people who raised their hand at the last minute." (Translation: preferences should be given to those preferred by the establishment hierarchy. Ordinary people need not envision having a meaningful voice within the GOP (i.e., Gaggle of Ossified Plutocrats).)

In his speech to the convention, Gov. Pawlenty declared that "ideas and values matter" — but not, of course, if it is the ideas and values expressed by Ron Paul! — and that, once the convention was over "we need to be united." The latter comment could be translated as "once the convention is over, you Ron Paul people need to go out and work for John McCain." As he finished his talk, the governor apologized for having to leave, because he had "to go to a troop deployment." I wondered why he failed to mention going to the Red Cross to donate blood!

A GOP party spokesman went further to utter one of the most witless of all comments: "From our perspective, John McCain is the nominee and Ron Paul lost. It’s time to move on and unite as a party." If "McCain is the nominee," then what purpose was served by this convention, or primaries later to be held in other states? For that matter, why have a national convention at all, if the nomination of McCain is fait accompli? This is doubtless what motivated the befuddled John McCain to propose beginning the McCain-Obama debates now, making the national convention a meaningless ritual which could only lead to mischief (i.e., Ron Paul getting to address the convention with alternative ideas that could disrupt the establishment script).

"Ron Paul lost"? In what race was he allowed to compete — whether by the GOP hierarchy or the mainstream media — on the same basis as the candidates with the political establishment’s seal of approval? The Minnesota convention — a microcosm of the charades produced in other states — provided an example of Kurt Vonnegut’s "handicapper general." If Tiger Woods was required to wear ten-pound lead weights on each of his arms in a golf tournament, what meaning would attach to the statement "Tiger Woods lost" by a tourney winner?

One after another did convention speakers come to the platform perch to mouth the empty, contradictory, and falsely-premised bromides the majority of the delegates had come to hear. Despite the well-established fact that individual liberty is diminished by wars, a former army colonel recited the establishment party-line that our freedom was protected by soldiers who fought and died in wars. Perhaps sensing the gullibility of his audience, he increased the ante by declaring "your military is winning in Iraq." Boobus swooned.

The outpouring of platitudes continued. We must "remain true to our principles," one party official chanted, while another opined: "I’m not interested in asking how we got to where we are." (As to the last comment, I wonder how well that defense might go over if uttered by a drunk-driver who had just precipitated a fatal multi-car pileup?) While on the subject of drunkenness, I was rather amused by speaker references to a GOP women’s group known as the "Pink Elephants."

The Republican national committeeman urged his fellows to "get over the pessimism" (i.e., get beyond reality). Various congressional candidates stated that the GOP was the party that supports life in all its forms (except, of course, for the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who haven’t the good sense to get out of the way of American bombs and soldiers fighting for our "freedom"). One congressional hopeful told his cheering audience that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, "action should be taken" (a comment that elicited strong boos from, presumably, the Ron Paul supporters).

The state chairman rose to confirm to one-and-all just how far the GOP had plummeted. After telling the delegates that his highest priority in life was being a servant to Jesus, he went on to inform them that high oil prices were related to Middle Eastern terrorists. (Whether the bogeyman "terrorists" were also responsible for increased food prices and airline fares, rising unemployment, home foreclosures, the collapse of the dollar, inflation, and other economic dislocations, the man did not say.) He did add that the government "must protect its citizens from future terrorism" — an apparent endorsement of the war crime known as "pre-emptive war" — to which, again, Boobus roared his approval.

While I felt a good deal of sympathy for the Ron Paul supporters — who presented the only solid base of decency I saw exhibited — I do think that if these people want to participate in politics, they need to become adept at playing the procedural and tactical games that go with it without, in the process, becoming a part of the problem. I noticed, for instance, that there were three floor microphones from which delegates could address the chair. Around each of these microphones were some ten to twelve apparent McCain supporters not waiting to ask any questions, but to block access by any of the Paulists. As I watched this, I was reminded of visits I had made to China where I observed how effectively the Chinese were able to get through crowds with a pair of sharp elbows, a tactic the Paul supporters might have adopted.

One of the most dehumanizing sights at this convention — one I trust libertarians would never emulate — occurred when a vote was to be taken. McCain supporters — with their identifiable red hats — went up and down the aisles holding up signs that read either "yes" or "no" depending upon their desired outcome. To treat one’s own supporters like Pavlovian subjects was disgusting, although I did not see any yummy-snacks handed out to the delegates to reinforce their conditioned reflexes.

The GOP paranoia over the Ron Paul contingent got the best of the convention chairman who, even prior to the agenda item "other business" being taken up, moved to adjourn the convention! The fear that the Paulists might use this period to further terrify the delegates with the specter of moral and philosophical integrity, was not enough to overcome the concern for practitioners of parliamentary procedure, and the motion to adjourn was withdrawn.

Perhaps my greatest sympathy, however, went out to a man who wasn’t even in attendance: Jesus. I am not a religious person, but I do believe a man like this deserved far better treatment than he got from this crowd. Speaker after speaker expressed his or her love and devotion to Jesus, at the same time cheering on any and every expression of pro-war sentiment. When one delegate — presumably of Ron Paul’s persuasion — made a motion to allow those who opposed the Iraq War to be heard, he was greeted with a thunderous chorus of boos. I imagined what might have transpired had Jesus been a delegate and asked to address the convention on the essence of his message: love and peace. After the boos had subsided, I suspect the sergeant-at-arms would have been instructed to go to a hardware store for a box of nails!

It was telling that I did not once hear the word "peace" expressed at this convention.

In the course of my numerous trips around the sun, I don’t know when I have previously witnessed such a collective insistence upon dishonesty, contradiction, and unprincipled direction, all held together by empty rhetoric. A group of people lusting for nothing greater than a pro-rata share of the power they envisioned trickling down to them was pathetic. That the convention ended on an address by Karl Rove — one of the principal architects of the catastrophe with which the GOP and the Democrats have infected America — is testimony to a party in a terminal state.

Various speakers told the delegates "we must get the Republican message out!" Here is a party that professes love for Jesus and respect for life even as it insists upon present and future wars that have thus far killed more than a million innocents; that babbles its bromides about "liberty" even as it expands police powers, surveillance, imprisonment without trial, and the use of torture; that speaks of the dangers of runaway government spending while pouring billions of dollars into war machinery and the pockets of corporations supplying it; and which, at one of its own state conventions, insists upon a disparate application of rules applicable to others in order to give preferential treatment to established officials. This is the "Republican message" — as well as the Democratic one — and the young adults who throng to Ron Paul in search of a different message are evidence that, among a growing number, it is being received and rejected.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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