Monday, August 17, 2020

Convention Follies

Today's the day the Democrats start their convention - or at least what seems to want to pass for a convention in pandemic mode. I look forward to hearing some great speeches from some outstanding political figures - future leaders of our country undoubtedly among them. 

And yet.

I am happily old enough to remember when conventions actually mattered, when conventions were "contested," as we now say. In other words, conventions did what conventions were created to do. Democrats and Republicans convened from all over the country to sort out their differences and agree on a nominee to lead the party in the coming election. My earliest TV convention memory is of President Eisenhower arriving in Chicago to accept his party's renomination to great acclaim in 1956. Four years later, however, I was much more aware and alert to what was going on, when John F. Kennedy and his rivals fought it out in Los Angeles in 1960. He won on the first ballot, but it was not for certain a sure thing until that famous scene of Ted Kennedy standing with the Wyoming delegation when that state cast its votes to put Kennedy over the top. I remember the violent Chicago convention in 1968, and George McGovern accepting the nomination at something like 2:00 in the morning in 1972. I recall the Ford-Reagan contest in 1976, symbolized by competing First Ladies and competing state songs. That was, I believe, the last convention when the outcome was still unsettled until the convention itself met. Since then, these once mighty theaters of political power have degenerated into pre-scripted performances stripped not only of meaningful votes but even of those wonderful old-fashioned "spontaneous demonstrations." Contemporary conventions may still serve some function for showcasing the party and its candidates and revving up enthusiasm among the party rank and file, but that can hardly make up for the politically pointless entertainment exercises such conventions have become. Conventions can also serve as boosters for the host city. I confess I had been looking forward to seeing scenes of Milwaukee, a wonderful city which I have not seen since I left it in 1981.

But now the pandemic has put an end even to most of that. So the obvious question becomes, why bother? Why continue with this vestige of a once great political institution? Why not let it go, and leave it where it belongs in the museum of American political memories? 

Compared to old-style conventions, the system of primary elections we now have may be a poor substitute. But it is what we now have, what we have allowed ourselves to be saddled with. 

One lesson which we might well still derive from the conventions is their timing. Unlike the present primary-centered system that starts more than a year before the election, conventions consistently occurred in the summer - just months before the election. Re-doing our primary calendar along such traditional lines would be a blessing for everyone (except, I suppose, for journalists who live for campaigns) and also a salutary reminder that governing is supposed to be going on between elections, not constant campaigning.

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