Congressional leaders, activists and religious leaders invoked biblical notions of justice to spotlight the need to bring about campaign reform, reduce poverty and end the "failed war on drugs." Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) warned the packed Shadow Convention 2000 audience in downtown Los Angeles that the Democratic and Republican con-ventions are "the worst display of money and corruption in American history."
The Shadow Convention 2000, sponsored by Common Cause, Public Citizen, political columnist Arianna Huffington and Call to Renewal, brought together journalists, policy experts and lots of T-shirt-clad 20-something activists for four days of intense discussion. Each day focused on different topics - campaign-finance reform, the failure of the war on drugs, poverty - that both the Democratic and Republican conventions prefer to avoid. Patriotic Hall, just five blocks south of the Staples Center, has also become a mecca for liberals dissatisfied with Clinton Administration policies. Jewish speakers and themes of social justice prevailed throughout.
Feingold, the principal sponsor of major campaign finance reform with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), argued that "we have devolved from a representative democracy to a corporate democracy in this country." Feingold called on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to stop soft money fundraising at the convention.
"This is not a system of one person, one vote; or one delegate, one vote; but a system of $1 million dollars, 1 million votes," the popular Jewish senator asserted. "It is a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion."
"Let us at least have the Democratic Party turn away from this distortion of our democracy." The Shadow Convention atmosphere was a peculiar mix of C-SPAN, ironic humor and earnestness. The convention auditorium itself was lined with randomly placed signs that read "Disillusioned," "Ignored," "Disregarded" and "Not a CEO."
Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), introduced by Rev. Jim Wallis as "speaking with the voice of an Old Testament prophet," grounded his calls for clean elections with the civics he learned as the son of Jewish immigrants believing in the American dream. "It hurts my heart when people tell me that both parties are bought and paid for," he said.
Wellstone praised the Shadow Convention and con-trasted it with the Democratic Convention. "Some of my friends weren't happy with my being here," Wellstone said. "But this convention combines the focus on reform, with getting big money out of politics, with economic justice."
"How is it, with this record economy, that so many Demo-crats say we can't change our social arrangements, that we allow our children to be the most poverty-stricken people in America?" asked Wellstone. "Both parties are controlled by the same set of heavy hitters."
Praising the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Harvard Prof. Cornel West said, "A blow against bigotry is a step forward for humanity." Yet, West continued, "I'd be a lot more excited about a Jewish brother like Sen. Wellstone ."
Juxtaposing the wealth of the world's richest residents with the poorest nations, West, author of "Race Matters," claimed that "the three richest people have the same wealth as the bottom 48 countries." West proceeded to quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: "We can have a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, or we can have democracy, but we can't have both."
The overflow of people at the Shadow Convention led to a sit-in atmosphere where people found space on the lobby floor to watch speakers on huge TV screens. Volunteers wearing T-shirts with the slogan "We vote every four years; money votes every day" ushered celebrities and speakers into rooms. Free newspapers, large banners and leaflets filled the tables. Ben Cohen, founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, distributed free ice-cream bars to activists. Humorists like Harry Shearer and Al Franken mocked the DNC convention as a corporate-sponsored collection of focus-grouped words and slogans.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish political journal Tikkun, argued Monday for "an emancipatory spirituality" that would reconnect people, challenge the status quo and in-spire hope. Noting that leftist politics often focus on "those left out," Lerner preferred the hopeful message "There is enough," referring to material needs for most people.
"America is a spiritual wasteland whose temples of material prosperity are built to the idols of money and power that do not satisfy the soul," Lerner said, warning that progressive poli-tics must include a spiritual dimension and criticism of consumerism.
"People are finally starting to wake up to the fact that the drug war makes no sense," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, a sponsor of the Shadow Convention proceedings on the drug war.
According to Nadelmann, taxpayers will spend more than $40 billion this year alone to enforce the drug laws - a dramatic increase since 1980, when federal spending was roughly $1 billion and spending by the states just a few times that.
"Yet illicit drugs are cheaper and purer than they were two decades ago and continue to be readily available," Nadelmann said. He praised the Shadow Convention as a "having a higher percentage of mensches than any other political movement."