Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Conventional Wisdom

We are about to start the convention season. The Democratic convention will be held in Boston, starting July 26. The Republican convention will start August 30, in New York. But...Why?
The Constitution says nothing of parties, or conventions. The founders thought the U.S. House would decide most Presidential elections. The first truly contested election, in 1800, was decided in just this way. After 36 ballots, Thomas Jefferson was selected by a majority of State delegations. For decades, parties focused on governing, not elections.
The first Democratic Party convention was in Baltimore, in 1832. All but one of the 23 states sent delegates, nominating incumbent Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren. The poorly attended first "convention" for the Republican Party was held in 1856, in Philadelphia. By this time, the notion of party had changed, as research by Duke's John Aldrich and others has showed. With the Jackson-van Buren ticket, and forever after, parties existed not just to govern, but to win elections.
Conventions had three purposes: choose the party's standard-bearer for the Presidency, nail down the planks of the platform, and then mobilize partisans. Before conventions and modern parties, turnout rates had been low--in 1824, 30 percent. After 1832, conventions inspired and aroused activists all over the country. By 1840, turnout rates approached 80%.
Although nominees were sometimes selected on the first ballot, nomination battles were sometimes bitter. In 192o, Warren Harding was chosen as a compromise candidate, after 9 deadlocked ballots on other candidates. Harding was selected only after a tense interview with the opposing factions, in a room observers said was filled with smoke and acrimony.
Modern conventions have evolved from acrimony to anachrony, ignored by media and mocked by the public. The reason is that everybody knows who the nominee is, after the exhausting series of primaries. Gone is the smoke-filled room, the drama of multiple ballots--gone is the politics.
The third function of conventions (arouse the activists) has survived, intact but isolated from political purpose. People still come from all over the U.S. gather to wear ridiculous hats, drink too much, and put on ties or polyester pants suits in colors unknown to nature. But that's not enough. Conventions are dying.
It is hardly surprising that the media mostly give things a miss. Where is the news? Will so-and-so speak? How long will he get? At what time? It takes a Kremlinologist to decode the messages: "Smith stood beside Jones on the platform for 45 minutes, and he was either either angry or else his shoes are too tight. Later, Smith stood beside Johnson for only 9 minutes. Film at 11." Is there any hope?
You bet there is. We'll never bring back the days when conventions cull candidates; primaries are too deeply rooted for that. But the second function of conventions, platform selection, could easily ressurect a sense of connection and political spice for delegates and partisans at home watching TV. It has been a long time since platforms were up to the delegates. Instead, issue "positions" are chosen by the campaign staff or by focus groups.
Focus groups are chosen precisely for the their ignorance and lack of connections with politics, because they are the "swing" voters who will determine who wins in our closely divided polity. But the closed-door, focus group approach is the political equivalent of visiting the eye doctor. Focus groups peer at issue framing through the blurry lens of sound bytes: "Better now...or now? Twist left...or right? Read the next line...is that clearer? How does this one make you feel?"
Conventions could be a real debate about platforms, about what the party stands for. Not only would there be real conflicts, with motions and amendments, but there would some direct connection between the people who attend the convention and candidates who carry their message to the electorate. As it stands, conventions are vapid, five-day infomercials, scripted and choreographed. The delegates cheer, but they might as well be watching a pep rally in a high school gym, because the real game won't start until later. If delegates had more of a say in writing the platform, and if the platform meant something for the campaign, it would bring the politics back in.