Man in the middle

From Burning Man to Denver, there's a new politics emerging in America, maybe even a new American Dream -- and it's not all about Barack Obama
Photo by Mirissa Neff

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As the Democratic National Convention was drawing to an explosive close Aug. 28, Barack Obama finally took center stage. In an address to more than 70,000 people, he presented his credentials, his proposals, and his vision. Most in the partisan crowd thought he gave a great speech and left smiling and enthused; some bloggers quickly called it the greatest convention speech ever.

I liked it too — but there were moments when I cringed.

Obama played nicely to the middle, talking about "safe" nuclear energy, tapping natural gas reserves, and ending the war "responsibly." He stayed away from anything that might sound too progressive, while reaching out to Republicans, churchgoers, and conservatives.

He also made a statement that should (and must) shape American politics in the coming years: "All across America something is stirring. What the naysayers don't understand is this isn't about me — it's about you."

Well, if this is really about me and the people I spend time with — those of us in the streets protesting war and the two-party system, people at Burning Man creating art and community — then it appears that electing Obama is just the beginning of the work we need to do.

As Tom Hayden wrote recently in an essay in the Guardian, Obama needs to be pushed by people's movements to speed his proposed 16-month Iraq withdrawal timeline and pledge not to leave a small, provocative force of soldiers there indefinitely.

After a 5,000 mile, 10-day trip starting and ending at Black Rock City in the Nevada desert with Denver and the convention in between, I've decided that Obama is a Man in the Middle.

That creature is essential to both Burning Man and the Democratic National Convention, a figure of great significance — but also great insignificance. Because ultimately, both events are about the movements that surround and define the man.


Nominating Obama was a historic moment, but the experience of spending four days at the convention was more like a cross between attending a big party and watching an infomercial for the Democratic Party. It was days of speeches followed by drinking — both exclusive affairs requiring credentials and connections for the biggest moments.

This year's convention saw a new constituency come into full bloom. It was called the Big Tent — the literal name for the headquarters of bloggers and progressive activists at the Denver convention, but it also embodied the reality that the vast blogosphere has come of age and now commands the attention of the most powerful elected Democrats.

The tent was in the parking lot of the Alliance Building, where many Denver nonprofits have their offices. It consisted of a simple wood-frame structure two stories high, covered with a tent.

In the tent were free beer, food, massages, smoothies, and Internet access. But there was also the amplified voice of grassroots democracy, something finding an audience not just with millions of citizens on the Internet, but among leaders of the Democratic Party.

New media powerhouses, including Daily Kos, MoveOn, and Digg (a Guardian tenant in San Francisco that sponsors the main stage in the Big Tent) spent the last year working on the Big Tent project. It was a coming together of disparate, ground-level forces on the left into something like a real institution, something with the power to potentially influence the positions and political dialogue of the Democratic Party.

"When we started doing this in 2001, there just wasn't this kind of movement," MoveOn founder Eli Pariser told me as we rode down the Alliance Building elevator together.