It’s like a supercharged dream: You find yourself sliding into the driver’s seat of a sleek, brand new car. Slap it into gear and you zoom ahead, through a spectacular wild-looking Western landscape.
You take the curves faster than seems possible, maybe around Utah’s eerie redrock spires, or between Rocky Mountain snowcaps, past waterfalls and through giant-trunk forests, or along Oregon’s coast where waves crash, or on Nevada’s desert flats where it’s all about maximum speed through nature.
You might end up parked fantastically, somehow atop a stone butte scarcely wider than the car, where your sunset view goes forever. It feels great. And it should, because it’s a carefully composed scene. You’re in a typical TV commercial or magazine ad trying to attract customers to buy that car.
The ad implies customers will get a big-horsepower connection with Western wildness, exciting forward motion, a youthful freedom on a surreal frontier.
And all that helps explain why the Democrats are staging their national convention in Denver.
No, my brain is not clouded by tailpipe fumes. I know the Dems have many reasons for picking Denver. They begin with the mundane, as in, Denver has a big airport, so everyone can fly in easily. Beyond that, the reasons are political—but not fully exposed.
Conventional wisdom says the West warrants the attention. And sure, the Dems have done well in the region since 2000, winning at least three Senate seats and four House seats from Republicans, while holding or capturing a total of seven governorships, in places that might seem unlikely, such as Montana, Colorado and Arizona. The Dems honor those Western winners by gathering in Denver. And they aim to energize Western voters even more, while providing a sense of stronger party backing to all their Western candidates for the November election.
But the pundits—those masters of blathering the obvious—haven’t noticed the party bosses’ underlying motive. The Dems aren’t just focusing on the West. They want to use the West’s image as a backdrop, to excite voters in other regions.
I’m not talking about scenes of Denver’s traffic jams and mediocre air and sprawling suburbs. I mean the jagged wall of mountains on Denver’s western horizon. And far more than that, I mean what Denver implies to people in other regions, subconsciously.
To most viewers who’ll tune in to the television and newspaper coverage of the convention, Denver will seem outside the box. Because it’s Western in ways that California’s megacities—the chief sites for past national conventions—are not.
Like the car salesmen, the Dems want to wrap themselves in the West’s 2008 identity. That includes not only the region’s political shifts, but also the remnants of wild landscapes and charismatic wildlife, actual cowboys riding the shreds of the range, hunters and anglers on epic quests, and people moving to modern frontiers. Some of that is still real, and some lingers as mythology and in the popular culture.
The West’s robust economies are also part of the image, with dramatic population growth, and leading entrepreneurs in the region’s Silicon Valleys, Microsoftonian campuses, and the Bozemans and Boulders and Los Alamoses. All that implies success and change—the hot theme this year.
Compared to other regions, the West is still the least stodgy, least predictable, least about which bloodline you come from. The West is where you’ll face fewer repercussions if you let it all hang out.
Chevy and Ford and other carmakers know the power of the West’s image. The Dems are crafting their sales pitch along similar lines. They want everyone to imagine sliding into the driver’s seat and flooring it, on the edgy open roads in the Western dream.
Years ago, one carmaker had another catchy image to attract buyers who were either young or looking for a youthful feeling: “Not your father’s Oldsmobile.” The Dems are saying, “We’re not your father’s Democrats.”
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the paper’s senior editor in Bozeman.