PHILADELPHIA — It's tough to be alternative these days. In a world where marketing is king, grass-roots movements don't stay rooted very long. Ideas that are found to be popular are quickly taken, repackaged, and sold to the public at large.
In the space of the last 10 years, alternative music went mainstream with the arrival of Nirvana and the Seattle sound, while independent film became a mini-industry with the Sundance Film Festival. But those changes were nothing compared with what's going on here across town from most of the cameras.
A short subway ride away from the GOP's Kumbaya 2000, over at the University of Pennsylvania, we may be witnessing the mainstreaming of alternative politics. There, in a room roughly the size of a high school auditorium, the first of two planned "shadow conventions" has been unfolding. It is something to behold.
The convention, filled with a racially mixed group made up of mostly of T-shirt-clad 20-somethings, has been holding meetings here since Monday. And each day they've been focusing on different topics - campaign-finance reform, the failings of the war on drugs, poverty - that both the Democratic and Republican conventions are likely to avoid.
The event is a peculiar mix of Comedy Central and C-SPAN, ironic humor and stupefying earnestness. In place of the signs that usually denote where each state is sitting on the convention floor, the shadow convention auditorium is filled with randomly placed signs that say things like "Disregarded" or "Not a CEO." Tuesday morning the group promised it would soon launch a Web site that would let people experience what it's like to run for president, or as they put it, "experience the rapture of selling out."
Tuesday night a group of comedians and journalists watched a live feed from the GOP convention and cracked one-liners.
Add in the fact that the shadow conventions are being led by Arianna Huffington, the former GOP operative and Zsa Zsa sound-alike whose hair is only slightly smaller than her ego, and the meeting would seem to be well on its way to irrelevance.
Arianna, discredited in serious politics, doesn't score well as a stand-up comic either. That accent just doesn't do much for your standard Dennis Hastert joke.
But along with the humor, the group has serious day-long discussions on issues with some prominent speakers, including New Mexico's Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, Jesse Jackson, political pundit-professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and John McCain. Also speaking: writers from such mainstream publications as Time, USA Today, Newsweek, and the Internet magazine Slate.
It's a mix you'd think is doomed to fail, but somehow it succeeds despite itself perhaps simply out of novelty. I defy anyone to find another convention that would feature Gary Johnson, Jesse Jackson, and comedian Al Franken (in the character of alter-ego Stuart Smalley) as speakers - all in the same morning.
But there is something else going on here. After sitting in on a few meetings, it becomes clear that for the shadow speakers, "post partisan" means politicians will agree on some issues they feel strongly about, regardless of party - a la Johnson and Jackson on the drug war.
This stands in marked contrast to Philadelphia's main event, where "post partisan" means cloaking your ideas in such vagaries that viewers can't tell if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Even the GOP's convention theme - Renewing America's Purpose. Together - seems like a collection of focus-grouped words and punctuation intended to confuse the viewer.
Watching the shadow convention, you can't help but wonder: Has the misguided, camera-chasing Arianna inadvertently stumbled across something of value? With the voters' distaste for partisan rancor, could this be the future of American politics?
More important, do we want it to be? When alternative movements go mainstream, something is almost invariably lost. Things are toned down, controlled.
Time will answer those questions, but in the meantime there is one thing for certain: The shadow convention has two big advantages over the GOP's party here. It is at least interesting - and fun.
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