On its surface, the 2004 Democratic National Convention was pretty, well, conventional.

There were the usual delegate breakfasts with self-congratulatory pols and party hacks. There were canned speeches, hotel-lobby schmoozing, celebrity spotting, elevator flirtations between interns and fierce competition for tickets to the hottest parties.

But I soon realized that the real action of the Democratic National Convention wasn’t to be found inside the Fleet Center or in the marble lobby of the Sheraton. It was found in a series of events around Boston—from Kucinich rallies to Campaign for America’s Future forums, to the Progressive Democrats of America Convention—in which progressives gathered to consecrate and build a political movement that will both elect John Kerry this fall and create the institutional underpinnings for a broad progressive mandate. And if that energy and grassroots innovation wasn’t at the center of the party itself, the writing on the wall is clear: It’s coming.

“This is the most exciting convention I’ve ever been to in my life,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) told the crowd at the Progressive Democrats of America conference. “Why? The progressive movement is now gaining a foothold. Dennis Kucinich is a leader in the Democratic Party!”

The desire to defeat Bush has been so strong that progressives, many of whom felt alienated from the party that for the last decade has used them mostly as a foil for triangulation, are now infiltrating its core in hopes of changing its course. “We both are the party,” Kucinich likes to tells his delegates “and are becoming the party.”

Thanks in no small part to Kucinich, who created a home for those with Nader’s politics beneath the Democrats’ tent, progressives have moved from protest pens outside the convention center to progressive forums in conference rooms and churches, and in some cases onto the convention floor itself.

Unified but not uniform

Consider Jessica Beckett, a 19-year-old with dreadlocks and a lip ring. She bears more than a passing resemblance to Ani DiFranco, and wearing a long skirt and sandals fits the protester stereotype. But she speaks with the turn of phrase and easy smile of a politician, “The Democratic party needs to be unified,” she says, “but not uniform.”

She came to Boston from her hometown of Poulsbo, Washington, as a Kucinich delegate because a friend’s mother persuaded her to do something totally weird: attend her local, precinct caucus in Washington state. “Honestly, I didn’t know how the system worked, I didn’t know you graduated up as delegates, the whole shebang. But I did debate in high school and I know Roberts’ Rules of Orders and all that crap so I can fake it pretty well.”

Beckett is something of a democracy nerd. She describes in minute detail the ins and outs of the party caucus process with evident glee, recounting how she persuaded delegates to listen to Kucinich’s message and got herself elected up from the precinct level to the state delegation. Next time she’ll be sure to not just bring herself to the caucus. “Anybody can do it,” she says, “anyone. If any of my friends had shown up at that caucus, it would have been even better. There would have been more representation here today. And it’s like ‘Wow. That is how it works.’ All you have to do is show up and say ‘I’ve got a goddamn opinion.’ ”

Beckett’s politics are thoroughly left—she decries the racist, classist drug war and death penalty, she wants the United States to pull out of the WTO, she passionately favors universal healthcare. But she’s also deeply pragmatic. “You don’t necessarily always agree with everyone, but you learn to work with people,” she says. “That’s the way politics are.”

She was just one of dozens of similar activists in Boston who channeled energies into the most fundamental forms of political organizing. Sarah, a 21-year-old self-identified progressive from Michigan, organized fellow students at Michigan State to knock on all 14,000 doors on campus three times to get people to vote for Dean in the primary. Now she’s a delegate, and back home she’s working on her congresswoman’s campaign. “John Kerry’s a good nominee and he’ll make a good president,” she says, “until we can put a real progressive in the White House.”

Paul Kroska and Deb Gibbons came from the small town of Ely, Minnesota, where they had campaigned for Kucinich at their county caucus. Gibbons says she’s “always been a Democrat,” while Kroska came into the party more recently. Both say the Kucinich campaign inspired them to get active in a way they never had been before. “We did a poll in which we contacted all the voters in Ely, Minnesota,” says Gibbons, “which isn’t a huge big deal, somewhere around 2,000 people. That’s called grassroots.” They showed up at their local, county and state caucus and managed to get an endorsement of a cabinet-level Department of Peace plank in the Minnesota state Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party platform. They weren’t the only ones—this year eight states, including Texas, have such planks.

An infrastructure emerges

Grassroots activism like this isn’t isolated to a few small cases or a handful of passionate people. It is a genuine phenomenon, giving birth to and receiving support from a cadre of emerging institutions, such as the Campaign for America’s Future, Progressive Majority, and Progressive Democrats of America.

“The exciting thing about this election is that we are building independent progressive institutions, independent progressive organizations, independent progressive leadership that is driving this debate against George Bush,” Campaign for America’s Future’s co-director Robert Borosage told a packed crowd at an event at the Radisson in Cambridge. The forum, called Take Back America, was so crowded that hundreds of people were forced to wait outside for the speakers to come and give repeat performances on a hotel balcony.

Borosage was followed by Howard Dean, who in sharp contrast to his lackluster convention speech was in top form. “The way Republicans beat us,” he told the crowd, “is 30 years ago they started to make sure that somebody ran for the school board and somebody ran for the county commissioner and somebody ran for every office you could think of right on up to president of the United States, and we didn’t do that.”

Dean is part of an effort, along with Campaign for America’s Future and Progressive Majority, to recruit candidates for local office. Already they are supporting hundreds of candidates nationwide with training, information and technical consulting. Progressive Majority is focused on House and Senate races, but the group’s founder, Gloria Totten, said they intend to recruit and support a “farm team” of local candidates who will grow into the next generation of party leaders. “We’re taking progressives and trying to teach them how to be good candidates,” she said, “rather than taking career politicians and trying to turn them into good progressives.”

Dean echoed that sentiment. “Voting is the bare minimum for sustaining democracy; I want you to run for office. … We have 800 local candidates running around the country. One guy’s running for library trustee. … The way you win the presidential elections is to make sure you take care of the local elections.”

Proud to be progressive

Unlike the now-taboo “liberal,” “progressive” seems to be a label that even politicians are proud to embrace. It seemed, in fact, as if at the convention “Progressive” was emerging as more than a label, but as a real political identity, the way “Movement Conservative” has for the Right.

For all the talk about representation, however, these progressive events were shockingly, disconcertingly white. “The convention looks more diverse than this room,” Boston community organizer Marianna White-Hammond told the crowd at the Progressive Democrats of America convention. “How are we going to tell the Democrats they need to be like us when they are more diverse than we are?”

Just what this “progressive” label means isn’t always clear. To be sure, all the folks at the events around the convention, from Take Back America forums, to Kucinich rallies, to the Progressive Democrats of America conference, don’t agree on every issue.

Nevertheless, there is a consistency to the rhetoric and fundamental principles of these new progressives that is striking. “What’s happening is that there’s a lot a little branches of different people,” says Paul Kroska, “but we all want the same thing. You know there’s Deaniacs, there’s Kucitizens, there’s Kerry people, but it’s all the progressive movement and it’s growing rapidly.”

Messages coalesce

It’s long been a cliché that the Left has no message discipline: An antiwar protest becomes a platform to talk about everything from endangered seals to Leonard Peltier. But that kind of scattershot approach was almost nowhere in evidence in Boston. Kucinich supporters wore T-shirts with single sentence platform planks: Repeal the Patriot Act, End the War in Iraq, Establish a Department of Peace, Institute Single-Payer Universal Healthcare. The Campaign for America’s Future gave out a brochure with a succinct platform highlighting the progressive choices of “Corporate License vs. Worker Empowerment,” “Board Room vs. Kitchen Table Economics” and “Imperial Isolation vs. Collective Security.”

Progressives have formulated a worldview and begun to build an actual message, refining their talking points and even developing their own slogan, which I first heard from Jessica Beckett when I asked her to describe her politics. She said didn’t like the old distinctions of Left and Right and preferred a “Politics of hope vs. a politics of fear.” It was the same phrase I’d see later that day on the cover of Campaign for America’s Future’s platform brochure and hear dozens of times from different progressives throughout the week.

Dean often says that progressives have to take their case to states like Oklahoma and Utah and Alabama. And talking to many of the activists, organizers and delegates at the event, I heard time and again the view that progressive values aren’t a badge of distinction separating the enlightened few from the clueless many. Rather, they are fundamentally commonsense and popular if properly communicated. “How many people really want war? Probably none,” says Gibson. “That’s a progressive thought today. Everybody needs healthcare, that’s another one.”

This common-sense progressive message already is bubbling up from the grassroots to party leaders. In his address John Edwards spoke of “kitchen table” economics, the “politics of hope” and vowed, “We’re going to say no forever to any American working full-time and living in poverty.”

Beyond Red and Blue

Perhaps the greatest potential messenger of this progressive message is the politician everyone in Boston was talking about: Senate candidate Barack Obama from Illinois. Commentators hailed Obama’s stirring Tuesday night speech as a Clintonian reach toward the middle, but that is untrue. Though Obama resists labels, he has been a true progressive as state senator, receiving the endorsement of nearly every progressive organization in the state and support from Progressive Majority. He’s worked for expanding children’s healthcare and criminal justice reform, and as a little-known Senate candidate he spoke against the impending Iraq war at a peace rally in downtown Chicago.

Obama’s stump speech, part of which made its way into Tuesday night’s speech, is an eloquent and compelling articulation of progressive values.

If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work.

The roar of the crowd in the Fleet center drowned out Obama’s final words, the message that we are bound by a set of moral obligations. This is the bedrock of progressivism, and it’s a message that any candidate, from a guy running for library supervisor to someone running for president of the United States, can take to any state, Blue or Red.