Thursday, July 22, 2004

Unconventional Wisdom

To be fair, it's hard to say if this piece is unconventional, or just not wisdom.

But, from the BBC: “Jordan Levin, entertainment president of Warner Brothers, said the mood at the network was "approaching a level of giddiness" after excellent ratings [for several new 'reality' shows]"

Consider the following partial list of unbelievably successful reality shows on TV:
Amazing Race
American Idol
Fear Factor
Last Comic Standing
Simple Life

From the perspective of the networks, these programs are excellent. They cost almost nothing to produce, because common folk line up for the chance to be humiliated, mocked, or horribly patronized.

Why do we watch them? Consider the wisdom of Skye Lutz-Carrillo, son of the Texas farm family where part of Simple Life II was filmed. After meeting Paris Hilton and Nicole Richey, he captured the whole nuthouse in a nutshell: "They're a little ditzy maybe, but I wouldn't be opposed to making out with them."

All of these shows are a little ditzy. But there we are, making out with our TV screen, leaving the blessed "off" switch on the remote untouched. People feel involved. It is precisely because Everyman, and Everywoman, is up there on the screen that we watch. The shows that actually allow audience participation are among the most successful.

Political conventions are boring. They are also dying. The networks will give each party only three hours, total, of programming time for each convention. Now, you could watch the things on C-SPAN. You could also give up donuts and swim a mile every day. What could the parties do?

You have to realize that the parties are absolute ho's for free media, in nearly every other setting. The reason incumbents are so difficult to unseat is that they have so many free media opportunities, events where they get coverage simply by virtue of doing some part of their jobs. And of course you can make stuff up. If the local Representative appears at the ribbon-cutting for the new school, there will be a picture in the paper. This is true even if the Represenative voted against the bill authorizing the money for the building.

One could imagine, in fact, that an incumbent President could land on a carrier deck, wearing a flight suit, and address a huge number of sailors in front a "We Won!" sign. The media would cover this like a reality show, and everyone would win: Prez gets great coverage, media gets interesting and entertaining footage, and the voters get to think, "He's kind of ditzy, but I wouldn't be opposed to making out with him." Now, of course, this could never actually HAPPEN, I'm just making up an unlikely scenario.

Why do parties have this blind spot when it comes to conventions, then? The greatest free media opportunity you could imagine, and all the parties do is try to see who can be the most boring, and the most "inclusive". All they mean by inclusive, of course, is "Ethnicity / Gender/Job Bingo": "Oh, a black lesbian metalworker! All I need now is a male Native American architect and I win!"

In an earlier entry, I claimed that the conventions have traditionally had three functions:
1. Choose the nominee
2. Choose the platform
3. Get all the activists pumped, and give them a chance to display the worst color / fabric combinations the world has ever seen.

The problem is that conventions today are ONLY about #3. Nominees are chosen by primaries, and platforms (such as they are) are selected by focus groups and consultants.


The most obvious would be "Queer Eye for the Politicii", to fix those fashion gaffes. That would actually work, now that I think of it: have some REALLY bitchy guys just critique the outfits on the floor of the convention. I'd watch, for sure.

But a more substantive suggestion would be to bring back #2: platform selection. Let the convention delegates, and the folks at home, vote on platform planks. You could have debates, and decide which issues win. You could have a feature called "THE DOOR": as soon as more than 50% of the people calling in said they hated the speech, the speaker would fall through a trap door into a padded room full of cockroaches and grub worms. You could have a camera down there, so that you could watch on a split screen: blabbermouth gets the cockroaches, great speaker gets more time.

An idea whose time has come: a reality show called "THE CONVENTION"

In a recent article, James O'Toole of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette uncovered this nugget of a quote, where economist John Kenneth Galbraith composed a requiem for political conventions:
"These vast ceremonials are now a bloated corpse. ... A semblance of life is breathed into the corpse by delegates who, having been elected or selected and having traveled to the great event, wish to believe they are doing something. In this wish they are abetted by the press, which is enjoying an expense-paid reunion and a carnival untaxing to the mind. ..."

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 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.