By Frank Blechman
For at least a generation, political conventions have been “made for TV,” more infomercials than reality. Major events such as nomination speeches were keyed to “prime time,” speakers used teleprompters, and the network commentary teams were as much a part of the conventions as the participants. Yet, the 2020 conventions were more TV-events than ever before. Shorter overall, with shorter speeches (except for the headliners who had as much time as they wanted), more visuals, and music overlaid rather than used as interludes. Almost every segment included an appeal for support via phone, text, web-link or twitter.
Nominally, the pandemic, which prevented big gatherings, forced the move from crowded, chaotic arenas to very carefully staged settings. Intended to be more “watchable,” or perhaps more attractive to younger audiences (polling is not yet in to determine if this was successful), pundits and viewers alike have asked, “Will there ever again be an assembled in-person-convention?”
After all, the institutions are not sacred. Conventions are not in the Constitution. While factional leaders have always corresponded about the merits of various candidates, the first noteworthy national presidential nominating convention is generally considered to have been in 1860, when the Democrats split, and the Republicans (in a raucous, tumultuous Chicago affair) surprisingly nominated Abraham Lincoln. Candidates did not appear at conventions to campaign or accept nominations until FDR in 1932.
The future of conventions is tied to the future of political parties as we know them…. Candidates have been marginalizing party leaders and structures for a long time.
It seems to me that the future of conventions is tied to the future of political parties as we know them. Thanks to modern electronic communication, the mechanical business of conventions (resolutions, nominations, voting) can be done virtually more efficiently, faster, and less expensively than with old fashioned physical gatherings. Further, physical, geographically defined “communities” play a smaller role in defining individual identities or opinions among voters. In the 20th century, party organizations were part of the machinery (along with labor unions, churches, veterans’ associations, issue advocacy networks, the media, and professional guilds) connecting people to political systems. Primaries reduced the power of party leaders to determine nominees. In case it was not already clear, our current President has shown that it is possible to bypass all those channels and speak directly to established or potential supporters via social media.
Candidates have been marginalizing party leaders and structures for a long time. In fact, the one privilege that the two major parties still have under most state laws is that they have a reserved line on ballots. Independents and minor parties often have to go through more laborious hurdles to get listed.
Here in Virginia, the Democratic party has chosen primaries for almost every major nomination in the last decade. Primaries, after all, are more public, involve more people, and therefore are more (small d) democratic. Congressional district and state conventions have still been held, largely to conduct ceremonial and bureaucratic functions, such as passing resolutions and electing representatives to national party committees and conventions.
Republicans in Virginia have continued to use nominating conventions, avoiding broad involvement and keeping decisions among the insiders and activists. They seem likely to hang onto this mechanism for a while longer.
If candidates do not need parties to identify themselves, raise money, get on ballots, communicate with voters, or shape public opinion, then party nominations and conventions may be antiques, relegated to the back shelf of history…. [Yet] there is still something to be said for the attention-getting drama of multiple ballots with candidates rising and falling, the outcome unsure.
If candidates do not need parties to identify themselves, raise money, get on ballots, communicate with voters, or shape public opinion, then party nominations and conventions may be antiques, relegated to the back shelf of history.
Technology suggests that we are close to that point, but not quite there. So long as parties persist, and candidates seek their endorsements, there may be a role for in-person conventions. The most obvious case is the one in which the caucuses, primaries, or other delegate-selection processes do not produce a clear nominee. Somehow, the two, three, or four leading contenders will need to work out something and bring their supporters along. An in-person convention–even one with thousands of participants–creates the intimacy needed, the opportunity for horse trading, and the prospect of a meaningful outcome, rather than a schism. There is still something to be said for the attention-getting drama of multiple ballots with candidates rising and falling, the outcome unsure. That kind of national convention hasn’t happened in almost 70 years, making it even more exotic now.
It may be that parties are already done, and conventions with them. It may be that there is no going back. Future candidates, particularly self-financed ones, may build their own networks, run their own campaigns and be done with the folderol of party pomp and circumstance. Yet it takes a while for new customs and procedures to fully take root.
In some ways, that kind of politics will be more transparent, but I am not sure that it will be more democratic, more responsive to the needs of voters, or more accountable. The evidence all points the other way.
In case there was any question about whether I am a traditionalist in many ways, this column should prove it. I think some kind of party organization, independent of individual candidates, provides a valuable check on runaway ambition. At best (which is admittedly rare), parties can provide the historical memory and the communication channel between communities and elected officials to keep leaders accountable. At worst, parties and their ceremonies protect traditions and reward old sins.
My guess is that there will be some sort of national partisan gatherings in 2024 to mark the start of the general election campaign season. After that, I make no prediction.