Non-Conventional Conversations at the RNC

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by David C. Barnett

There’ve been some heated exchanges on the floor of the Republican National Convention, this past week, as well as angry words from protestors in the streets of Cleveland.  But, there are a number of other discussions going on that aren’t directly connected to the RNC.   

The GOP convention, and next week’s Democratic gathering in Philadelphia, offer the opportunity to see the political process in action, but David Cohen of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics suggests you can also get quite an education outside Quicken Loans Arena.

"You may not be able to get into the convention hall," he says, "but there’s all these events going on around town which would allow you to observe what’s happening, and better inform yourself on politics in general."

Across Cleveland, each day of the convention, numerous discussions are taking place.  One explored the breakdown of civility in public discourse.  Another examined how Northeast Ohio kept the peace when other parts of the country exploded into racial violence, in recent years.  News site, Politico, hosted a discussion on how social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat have reshaped the way campaigns reach voters.  Panelist Mindy Finn said, Donald Trump knows.

"He had a huge Twitter following that was very hard for any candidate to catch-up," she says.  "Coming into this election, he used Twitter as a place to plant the seed and the roots, and then watched the garden flourish as it drove the news cycle for 24-hours."

Microsoft sponsored this session, and used the opportunity to demonstrate some new data-mining software.  Political scientist David Cohen says such sessions are very popular.

"It’s not only on the RNC side, it’s on the DNC side.  There’s a whole subculture that supports the political environment.  These events cater to people who are really into the political game."

And that political game sometimes happens outside of government.  Sam Taussig came to town on behalf of his company, FinTech, a financial technology company.

"FinTech is really digitally-focused," she says, "so getting a lot of data-driven people in a room here, looking at demographics and how to parse that is particularly interesting to me and my industry."

A different sort of RNC-related meeting took place in a big, purple tent set-up in a parking lot, just east of downtown.  Inside, conservative activist Grover Norquist argued the benefits of government de-regulation with Forbes politics writer Rick Ungar.

"You used to have to get permission from the government to run a truck from one place to another," Norquist recalls. 

"But, deregulation can, in many ways, take away freedoms from people," Ungar replies.

The discussion is part of a series of so-called “Purple Tent” meetings, where the red and the blue blend together in the search for common ground.  This forum is Stuart Muszynski’s idea.

"Since the founding of our republic," he says, "we’ve been gathering in tents; that’s why parties refer to the “big tent” of their party."

Muszynski wanted to hold a series of discussions that would explore ways to promote political civility. He’s concerned civic discourse has been reduced to the trading of personal insults in debates, and bursts of invective in 140-character salvos on Twitter.  Audience member Barry Doggett says he likes the idea of a civil dialog.

"I don’t believe in hyper-partisanship.  And I believe it’s important for people to understand and hear about values, because values is what this election should be about.  And I’m scared that, unfortunately, our democracy is very fragile, right now."

University of Akron student Jacob Ashman is a bit more optimistic.  And he’s looking to get a better understanding of the political process.

"It’s interesting to go to these events, and kind of see how things are done," he says.  "You learn how everyone kind of meets, everyone kind of knows everyone.  We joke about that, but we don’t know exactly how that works."

And maybe the next generation can figure out how to make it work better.

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