Conventional Thinking

I realise foreign policy events are the subject of the day, but you’ll have to excuse me because I’m running about a half a week behind. Last week I attended the Democratic National Convention, but unfortunately fell ill during the event (something about wandering around in pouring rain and then walking into frigid air conditioning, perhaps). Which is why I’m running behind this week.

But an important question arose during the convention season, which I do feel is worth exploring. It was phrased many ways but can be boiled down to: have national nominating conventions outlived their usefulness? Like all philosophical questions, the answer depends on your definition of terms, but it’s one at least worth asking. Put another way, the chatter among the pundit class kept coming back to the question of whether future conventions might be condensed into a single-day event, rather than multi-day extravaganzas.

Part of this thinking (“conventional thinking” one might call it, if one were looking for a cheap laugh) most likely stems from the fact that professional pundits (those on expense accounts, in other words) were visibly worn out in Charlotte. The Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention appeared on each others’ heels this year, with absolutely no break between the two. This wasn’t a problem for the partisans on either side, but it was indeed exhausting for the professional journalists covering both events. I spoke to very conservative and very liberal “A-list” media folks who all said almost exactly the same thing: “The last two weeks have been such a blur, it’s hard to keep it all straight in my mind.” Which leads to wondering if the media won’t eventually pull back on their own coverage — further than they already have, that is.

Media sleep deprivation aside, though, many have already commented how the national nominating conventions have morphed over time to become nothing more than protracted infomercials for each party. ‘Twasn’t always thus, however. The first public national party conventions took place in Andrew Jackson’s time, and up until roughly the last half of the twentieth century, the conventions actually had a purpose — fighting over who would win the party’s nomination for president and vice president. It wasn’t until the 1970s that party primaries and state caucuses would completely overtake the older method of making the decision at the convention itself.

In the early days, the conventions were raucous events. The intrepid H.L. Mencken wrote about the 1932 Democratic National Convention which first nominated F.D.R. as if reporting on a city under siege:

The all-night session was a horrible affair and by the time the light of dawn began to dim the spotlights, a great many delegates had gone back to their hotels or escaped to the neighbouring speakeasies. When the balloting began shortly after 5 a.m. scores of them were missing and the fact explained some of the worst delays in the voting….

The way the tide of battle was going was revealed dramatically by the attitude of the leaders on the two sides. All during the infernal night session the Roosevelt men had been trying to wear out and beat down the opposition, and to push on to a showdown. They opposed every motion to adjourn, and refused every other sort of truce. They wanted to get through with the speeches as soon as possible, but they were confident enough to be still willing to match speech with speech, and they did so until daylight.

The pageantry back then wasn’t quite as scripted as today. It was equally zealous, though, if not more so. This was because each candidate had to stage their own shows of strength, rather than presenting a unified face of the “party as a whole” to the public:

[A]ll of the nine candidates had to be put in nomination, and when they had been put in nomination all of them had to be seconded, not once, but two, four, six or a dozen times. Worse, their customers had to parade obscenely every time one of them was launched and some of the parades ran to nearly an hour.

Here, one gang helped another. The Texans, who had a band, lent it to every other outfit that had a candidate, and it brayed and boomed for Ritchie, Byrd, Reed and Al Smith quite as cruelly as it performed for Garner. This politeness, of course, had to be repaid by its beneficiaries, and with interest. The Byrd band, clad in uniforms fit for Arctic exploration, did not let up for hours on end. And while it played one tune, the band of the Texans played another, and the official band in the gallery a third, and the elephantine pipe-organ a fourth. At one stage in the uproar a male chorus also appeared, but what it sang I can’t tell you, nor which candidate it whooped and gargled for.

There is one constant from the 1930s to today’s conventions: sheer exhaustion. Although our partisan forebears seem to have had a lot more stamina than what we see today, it must be admitted. Mencken reported on the next day’s events:

The actual nomination of Roosevelt after the turmoils of the all-night session went off very quietly. The delegates appeared in the hall all washed up, with clean collars, pressed suits and palpable auras of witch hazel and bay rum. The scavengers of the stadium had swept up the place, the weather had turned cool and there was the general letting down that always follows a hard battle. No one had had quite enough sleep, but everyone had had at least some.

But, back then, they had actual battles to fight. There are no such battles today, or at least there haven’t been for quite some time. The press always tries to gin up a good floor fight (pushing the story that Hillary Clinton or Ron Paul will surely cause an enormous fracas), but these never seem to materialise, or fizzle at best. Surprising moments still happen at modern conventions (say, an old man talking to an empty chair…), but there are no surprises left when it comes to the actual nominations.

So are conventions even necessary any more? Wouldn’t a single night serve the same basic purpose? Perhaps that’s where we’re heading. Modern conventions have built the tradition of a four-day event. This year, however, both conventions essentially lasted three days. The Republicans had planned on four days, but in the end were forced (for the second straight time in a row) to cancel the first day of their convention schedule due to a hurricane. The Democrats only planned on three days from the beginning, explaining that since they had an unopposed incumbent, there wasn’t a whole lot of reason to stretch it out to the full four days.

The news networks have cut back drastically on their coverage of the national conventions, and may in fact be encouraging the parties behind the scenes to tighten things up to make for better television. The broadcast television networks used to cover every minute of both national conventions — “gavel to gavel” — but have left this sort of obsessive coverage to cable television for years now. Instead, the networks now broadcast a single hour per night. It’d be pretty easy to imagine the network executives sitting down with the Republican and Democratic convention planners and say “we’re cutting you down to three nights’ coverage”… or two… or even one (the West Wing television show had an episode which predicted this years ago, I should mention).

After all, what is really left to cover as “news” at the conventions? Floor fights over a platform document nobody will read and no politician will take seriously? Mitt Romney may have set a record this year by disavowing portions of his party’s platform almost before it came out. Did anyone care, or even notice? Democrats had a minor fracas over their platform, but again, the public largely yawned over the hype in the media.

The nominees are already chosen by the time the conventions roll around. The platforms are all but ignored. What this leaves is hour upon hour of speeches by partisans — an extended campaign commercial, and nothing more. The news media is already getting tired of this (both figuratively and literally), especially when it happens back-to-back.

Now, personally, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. This was my first political convention, and the first time I’ve been given official press access to such important political events. Both were more than a little overwhelming, I must admit. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest party I’ve ever attended in my life, and (full disclosure, as it were) it was a wildly enjoyable experience. The only other conventions I’ve ever previously attended were three years of Netroots Nation (the yearly blogger shindig formerly known as “Yearly Kos”). But 3,000 bloggers, politicians, lobbyists, and other assorted schmoozers isn’t quite the same thing as tens of thousands of Democrats and media descending upon a city for a week. There were reportedly 15,000 members of the media inside the convention centre — a stunning number, you have to admit. For every delegate, there were three or four media to interview them. Mind-boggling.

The parties were legendary, most of them held privately out of the view of the public. Drinking went on until the wee hours every single night. Money flowed into the economy of Charlotte. A good time was (mostly) had by all. Contacts were made, networking happened, friendships and alliances were struck or renewed all around. This, it seems, is the true purpose of the convention — a gathering of the partisan tribe, to plan strategies which will reach into the next four years. And it’s hard to see all of this sort of activity crammed into a single night, just because of the sheer volume of backslapping and gladhandling.

But I could easily see that while the weeklong party seems self-sustaining, at some point the national news media may declare that they’ve had enough. A red line may be drawn in future where only three days will get nationwide network television coverage… and then two… and then perhaps one. It is conceivable that the public will begin to see less and less of the conventions, unless they actively seek such coverage out in the more obscure media outlets.

Even if this does come to pass, however, I’d be willing to bet that the conventioneers themselves aren’t going to accept such a foreshortened schedule. No matter how long the official convention is scheduled for, my guess is that the politicos, the partisan precinct-walkers, the powerbrokers, and the peddlers of influence will still drink till dawn for days on end. Even if the pundits in the press cut back their coverage, the party will still roll on for a full week’s time.

After all, Rome wasn’t bought in a day. So to speak.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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