Unconventional Political Gathering Inspires Hope for Rebirth of Civil Nation
PHILADELPHIA — There were no candidates’ speeches at the aptly named “Un-Convention” held here on Friday. No balloons dropped from the ceiling. No tables were piled high with swag.
Instead what one encountered inside the National Constitution Center were more than 750 disaffected but energized voters (another 1,000 joined virtually) who, despite their disappointment with the state of “the system,” still believe they can positively change American politics and society.
At the center of it all was principle organizer and SiriusXM radio host Michael Smerconish — the broadcast heir to the likes of Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and John Chancellor — who in the eyes of his many fans, some of whom traveled from as far away as Spokane, Washington, to attend the event, ranks at the absolute top of pragmatic thinkers today.
So who were these people and why did they choose to stay inside on an absolutely beautiful fall day just yards from the birthplace of American independence?
Aside from being listeners of Smerconish’s POTUS channel program and viewers of his work on CNN, it was a decidedly diverse group composed almost equally of men and women, people who look like they’d labored all their lives and fresh-faced high school students.
There were longtime married couples and gays and lesbians who only got the legal right to marry a few years ago.
And almost all would say three things about themselves politically: They’re fiscal conservatives, to the left or slightly left of center on social issues, and they’re all disgusted with the level of political discourse in Washington.
“I’ve been a fan of his since he was on AM radio in Philadelphia,” Skip from Maryland said of Smerconish when asked why he was in attendance.
“He’s without a doubt the most balanced person in media right now, and I can almost say I agree with him 100% of the time,” he added. “I just love his open-mindedness and balance.”
A middle-aged man with a friendly voice whose hair has gone to gray, Skip went on to describe himself as “a 42-year Republican” who is now a registered Democrat.
Asked if he considered himself a centrist, he said that probably a more apt description was “slightly left of center,” though he described getting there as a journey.
“I was right of center before I changed my view on a number of things,” he said without getting into details, though he did note his departure from the Republican Party came in 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected.
“I don’t blame Trump for everything that’s gone wrong with the government and the divisiveness. What I do think is that he was a symptom of it,” Skip said.
Moments earlier, during a live broadcast from the National Constitution Center, Smerconish had posited that the current dysfunctional political era began in 1986, when AM talk show host Rush Limbaugh went into syndication nationally.
“That’s what kind of started driving people to the extremes,” Skip said in agreement. “Before that, everything seemed to be well balanced.
“Today I think we’re letting the 6% at the fringes have a greater voice than they should and I think some things that we’ve allowed to happen, like closed primaries, has made the situation worse.
“I really do think open primaries would help. I think if we held elections that way, we’d get fewer fringe politicians on both sides,” he said.
Skip went on to say that he’s upset and concerned that so many centrists in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, chose to forgo reelection this year.
“Yeah, very much so,” he said with a sigh. “I just don’t think they can win primaries. … But that’s the problem. That’s why the people who appeal to the fringes are the ones that are being nominated by their parties to run in the primaries. And as a result, you just don’t get the best candidates on either side.”
Asked if he thought the Un-Convention had the potential to revive the center’s fortunes, Skip said it all depends on how far Smerconish’s voice can travel.
“He must already be one of the hardest working people in media, but I think he’s also one of the few people who is really espousing this more centrist and pragmatic philosophy right now … so I think to the extent that his voice can get out there more and more, that’s the extent to which we’ll start having a centrist revival.”
A short distance away, a mother and daughter were engaged in an animated conversation as they waited for the next in a series of panel discussions at the convention to begin.
They turned out to be Rachel (the mom) and Sara (the daughter) of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania.
“We’re from the town that Dr. Oz claims to live in, despite the fact he spelled its name wrong on his declaration of candidacy,” Rachel said with a laugh.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Pennsylvania GOP Senate nominee, found himself the object of ridicule early last summer when it was revealed he wrote “Huntington Valley” as his place of residence on the candidacy form.
To the Trump-endorsed, former New Jersey resident, the misspelling was an embarrassment. There is no such place as “Huntington Valley” in Pennsylvania.
“It just goes to show you how unfit he is to be our senator,” said Sara, who is 17 and was technically “cutting” school to attend the Un-Convention with her mom.
“Being a senior, the only excused absence she gets is for college visits,” her mother explained. “But I just thought this was too important an event for her to pass up.
“It’s odd how something with such a civic import would be considered an unexcused absence,” she mused.
Sara, who described herself as certainly to the left of her center-left mother politically, is two months away from being able to register to vote.
Asked if she felt more akin to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and the so-called Squad in the U.S. House of Representatives, Sara admitted she initially was enamored of AOC “in a fan-girl kind of way” when the New Yorker first burst on the national scene, but that she’s since cooled a bit on the congresswoman.
“I think she’s got important things to say, but I think it’s equally if not more important that you be able to get things done, and I think being a progressive, she hasn’t been able to do that.”
Rachel said both were thrilled to be at the Un-Convention and excited about the ideas being discussed. Among the panels that had already taken place by that point were sessions entitled: “Why Don’t Our Representatives Represent Us?” “Protecting Elections From the Anti-Democracy Movement,” and “How Did America Become so Polarized (And Where Do We Go From Here?).”
In addition, “lightning” breakout sessions focused on such topics as health care, support for working families and clean energy.
Sara said as much or equal to the import of what was being said from the stage was the organizer’s emphasis on having attendees discuss issues with one another.
“For instance, in our day-to-day lives, you and I would probably not talk to one another, for no other reason than our respective ages,” she said to the reporter. “But here we are, talking about important issues and sharing ideas.”
Helping the Country
Steve Scully, senior vice president of communications for the Bipartisan Policy Center and host of his own SiriusXM program, said he saw the Un-Convention as a way “to help democracy and help the country.”
“I mean, we want that partisan division and debate. … For a democracy to thrive, you want to have that fierce collision of ideas, but at some point, you need to figure out a way to come together,” he said.
“The problem we have today is that we don’t have races, certainly for Congress, that are competitive races anymore, and I think we need to figure a way out of that,” Scully continued.
“Maybe you change the way elections are held — so that the primaries are more open. Maybe then you’d get candidates who are going to appeal to the better angels of our politics,” he said.
As the conversation continued, it turned to how at the moment 2022 doesn’t seem like a very good year for centrists, with many of those retiring sure to be replaced by much more partisan and potentially extreme politicians.
How have centrists come to such a fate?
“Well, how much time do you have? There’s a lot to look at,” Scully said.
“First of all, the media is far too partisan. Social media has become hyperactive. People go to their own clubhouse and they don’t really engage with the other side — and we’re not talking to each other, we’re talking at each other,” he said.
“We’re going to FOX because we support the MAGA Republicans. We’re going to MSNBC because we support the progressives. We have got to figure out a way to try to bring them together … recognizing that the media is not going to change. We don’t have three networks anymore, we have 333 networks or more.
“So I think, in big and small ways, we’ve got to look for ways to better engage the public,” Scully said. “Now, having said all this, this has been a pretty good year for bipartisanship in Congress because they did get some stuff done. … And look, we’d all love to have a ‘Kumbaya’ moment … but we also realize that’s not practical in our politics.
“That said, we have got to figure out how to get more people involved that have an incentive to really engage with the other side. Because that’s part of the big problem. When you talk about toss-up races and when you’re more worried about a primary than a general election, what incentive is there to say, ‘Yes, I am a Republican and I’ll support a tax increase,’ or ‘Yes, I am a Democrat, but I think it is important we cut some social programs’?
“But how do you get to that point when you have a $31 trillion debt? I mean, there are just so many issues in play,” he said.
Later, Scully returned to the subject of the media, even admitting he enjoyed listening to Limbaugh on occasion.
“I didn’t agree with a lot of what he had to say, mind you. But what I’m trying to do is bridge the middle, and towards that end, I think if you are a Democrat, you should try to understand what a conservative Republican is saying, and if you’re a conservative Republican, you should try to understand what the Democrats are saying … and then try to find that common ground that Ronald Reagan used to talk about. Back then it was, give me 60% or 65% of the loaf now, and I’ll come back and battle for the rest later.
“But there are so many different layers to the things we’re talking about here, and we’re not going to solve them all in one day here,” Scully said.
Michael Steele, a conservative Republican and former lieutenant governor of the state of Maryland, is sure “centrist” or “centrism” is the right nomenclature for the moment.
“The reality is, there are a lot of conservatives like myself who are willing and ready to work with progressives and liberals on policy issues,” he said. “That’s not the center per se … but it is people who have different policy perspectives, ideological perspectives, saying it’s time for us to try to move on this initiative.
“I think if we kind of worry less about this idea of the center, or the left or the right, and look at the individual members who are trying to operationalize ideas and policy, then we may get much further and out of this place where we are today.
“See, I don’t think what we are looking for is a cavalcade of folks standing in the middle of the room. What we want are all the people with different perspectives to say, ‘Yes, we can work together,’ and I believe once we take left and right and middle out of it, you’ll find that there are far more of these people than you would have believed.”
Steele, who is also a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center board, said one thing he was gratified about on Friday was meeting Republicans, Democrats, independents and everything in between as he went from one location on the Un-Convention floor to another.
“This is a central space of gathering to talk about this country and to talk about where we go next,” he said. “It’s about how we get together as opposed to being in this centrist space. That for me is the animating side of this … that we can create a central space where people of all political persuasions can work together in a cross-partisan way.”
Another Way to ‘Do American’
Steve from Falls Church, Virginia, said he loved what he was hearing as he listened to session after session at the Un-Convention.
“It has been great content … and this kind of conversation is definitely something that’s needed. We have to figure out how to get beyond this two party stalemate that we’re in and solve some of the issues that are plaguing America.
“The country is really divided and it’s important for everybody to get past the division and find common ground,” he continued. “We can have separate interests and issues and sidebar things, but we’re all in this together, and if this country is going to continue to function, we need to recognize that reality.”
Steve said the midterms are “probably” a lost cause for the centrists at this point, but two or four years from now, things could be much different.
“I think eventually everybody has to realize that nothing is being done,” he said. “Things aren’t being accomplished that should be accomplished. I mean, I’ve lived in the Washington area for 20 years, and I can tell you the basic function of government isn’t happening. I mean, pass a budget. Stop doing these continuing resolutions. Just do your jobs.”
Steve and others said the very fact the Un-Convention brought them together should be taken as a sign that there’s another way to “do American” and “a lot of people [are] interested in doing it.”
“I think that’s how you begin to turn some corners,” Steve said.
As for Smerconish himself, he told The Well News in the last hour or so of the event that he’d had the chance to speak to many of the attendees personally, and “they’ve been effusive in their praise of the experience they’ve had.”
“Many also said they want to do it again. So we’ll see where all this goes,” he said.