Conventions Destined For History’s Dustbin

After years of insisting that political conventions still play a useful role in American society, I am ready to flip-flop. The spectacles in Boston and New York this year have convinced me that those who dismiss these events as meaningless, vacuous infomercials do, in fact, have a point, and that I simply have been reluctant to face postmodern reality. It’s not 1956 any more. Adlai Stevenson isn’t trying to outmaneuver Estes Kefauver, and John Kennedy isn’t going to force a second ballot for the Vice Presidential nomination. Heck, it’s not even 1972 anymore, when there still was a chance that a good fight might break out over a party platform. With dissent banned and debate overruled, what on earth is the point of these security nightmares?

Yes, I confess, it’s all so much palaver now. That piece I wrote four years ago about the unseen importance of conventions-they serve a vital role as a meeting place for party delegates from across the country-now seems quaint and naïve. My insistence that television owes citizens better coverage seems deplorably earnest. After watching John Kerry’s stilted salute and George W. Bush’s macho posturing and Zell Miller’s public breakdown (well, at least there was some psychodrama there), after suffering through more bad lies than a 35-handicapper at Pebble Beach, I’m ready to retire from the convention-watching business, and I hope the deputy vice chairs for balloon-dropping and other convention organizers are ready to do the same.

Four years from now, let the candidates accept their nominations by e-mail, or in a television studio (which is basically what the modern convention hall is anyway). After all, candidate appearances at conventions are a newfangled thing, relatively speaking, dating back only to 1932, when that publicity hound Franklin Roosevelt flew to Chicago to accept his nomination in person. And if a few Congressmen, Senators and national party bosses insist on gathering for a four-day party where they can eat and drink at the expense of corporations in search of government contracts, well, why leave Washington, D.C.?

It’s not just the vapid and increasingly hate-filled speeches that have me zigging where once I zagged. It’s the non-debate over issues-party platforms are written out of public view and are passed, unread, as a mere housekeeping matter. It’s no wonder that nobody save true believers bothers to watch. Walter Cronkite once called convention coverage a national civics lesson, but that was back in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when platforms meant something and when, by the way, the media actually considered convention coverage a civic obligation. Now, of course, instead of Walter Cronkite we have Jon Stewart, who mocks the conventions of politics and politicians to the delight of a generation trained to believe that nothing really matters anyway. It’s an odd sentiment at a time when the Western world is threatened by 21st-century barbarians, but, like, what-ever .

That confrontation with terrorism, by the way, also argues against continuing the archaic practice of gathering thousands of politicians, journalists and hangers-on in close quarters every four years. Security was a nightmare in New York and promises to be the same, or even worse, for many years to come. Can other cities even begin to undertake the kind of security operation the New York Police Department, with its vast resources, experience and manpower, carried out last week? Indeed, why would some cities that held conventions in the recent past-Kansas City, San Diego, Atlanta, New Orleans, Philadelphia-want them back?

The great American political convention has served its purpose and now deserves an honorable place as part of the nation’s past. Instead of meeting every four years on a grand scale, the Republicans and Democrats ought to consider the British approach to collective deliberation. The Tories and Laborites gather every year for four days along the southern English coast for party conferences that actually manage to produce debate, generate news and even inspire some excitement. The scale is not quite as huge, although Conservative Party spokeswoman Natalie Kirby said that as many as 10,000 party members and elected officials may attend. That’s more than double the number of delegates who came to New York last week.

Because the conferences are about issues rather than nominations, they don’t attract 15,000 media members, which means the proceedings are not about production values and sound bites. Tony Blair’s Labor Party will meet in Brighton later this month, while the Conservatives will gather in October in Bournemouth. Time will be set aside for debates and question-and-answer sessions, with rank-and-file party members given the opportunity to ask questions and even voice opinions. A far cry, indeed, from what we saw in Boston and New York.

The correlation is not quite precise, but you get the idea. Conventions are history. The question is: What comes next?