All of the commentators who are dismissing this years party conventions as unimportant are ignorant of the of the party convention. Over 175 years the meaning of the conventions has changed, but it is normal for an institution to flux over the course of decades. Today the conventions are just as pertinent as they were 175 years ago.
The history of the party conventions is the history of the competing American tenets of Democracy and elitism writ small. In 1824 Universal Male Suffrage ended the political reign of land-owning disinterested (meaning, in today’s parlance, not belonging or beholden to an interest group} gentlemen, who previously comprised the government. In the place of disinterested gentleman were democrats who responded to a “call from the people” to take higher office, rather than an obtuse “calling” to reluctantly leave their property and lead for the good of the country.
By 1840 the elites came upon the convention system as a means to have greater control on the presidential selection process. Rather than putting their party support behind a candidate who had demonstrated his popularity with the public at large, the parties would hold a convention where they would select a candidate and then present him to the people with the full backing of the party’s organizational apparatus. To garner the backing of a party a candidate would have to develop relationships with key party leaders in each state rather than with the general citizenry.
After the progressive era reforms of the early twentieth century citizens had an increasing influence on the convention by having primaries where they could make their desires known. These primaries were not, however, absolutely binding. So the romanticized “smoky room” still largely determined who the candidates would be. Another important aspect of conventions was the determining of the party platform. This was done openly and it allowed an avenue for little know figures to influence the national party. The most compelling example of this occurred in the 1948 Democratic Convention when Hubert H. Humphrey, who was then the mayor of Minneapolis, made an impassioned speech for a strong civil rights plank. Mr. Humphrey’s speech succeeded in placing a civil right’s plank in the Democratic platform, launched his national career, and ultimately began the process of making Democrats the party of Civil Rights and Republicans the party of drugstore truck drivin’ men. Today, with the emphasis on “unity” in the conventions, it is unlikely that a lesser-known figure like Lincoln Chafee could make a speech at the Republican Convention that would lead to a reversal of their extraction-oriented environmental policy.
The birth of the modern Convention came in 1972 and 1976 when delegates began to be firmly appropriated according to the results of the primaries and caucuses. Now, the only way a convention could truly decide the presidentail and vice-presidential nominees is if the assigned delegates were split amongst several candidates and no one had a majority.
In their history conventions have transformed from a way to take the choice of presidential candidates out of the hands of “the people,” to being a place where party factions would argue out their differences, to being a rehearsed coronation of the people’s choice of their candidate. This does not mean that the conventions are not important. In 1992 the exuberant Democratic Convention and an excellent acceptance speech catapulted Bill Clinton past President Bush the First into a lead that he never relinquished. In 2000, Al Gore’s acceptance speech injected some mojo into his foundering campaign and helped him to a win that was stolen by the GOP putsch in Florida.
Critics kvetch about how the “packaged” quality of the convention, but they do not give enough credit to an American populace that has taken in countless commercials. Americans know that how a performance is packaged can be revealing. In 1992 the Republican Convention’s emphasis on “culture war” terrified many Americans, so in years since their conventions have turned into soft-focus minstrely shows. This year, the Republican’s ability to “package” their convention’s pomp with the patriotism of the third anniversary of 9/11 in manner that is not too obviously cynical and nauseating will have an important influence on the election.
The most important feature of the modern convention is that they are an event. Because they are an event, people watch them. That means that in this disengaged, short attention span era, they are the only chance that most Americans will get to hear ideas from their candidates that are more complicated than a five-second sound byte and more intelligent than the amorphous praise and venomous fnords of commercials. For the GOP this means that the conventions are just one more hollering voice in their media echo-chamber, but for Democrats the conventions are a once-every-four-years opportunity to get their message across essentially unmolested by the Conservatron Hate Machine. For that reason, Senator Kerry’s acceptance speech tonight, in midst of the most important election sicne 1860, will be the most pivotal moment of the party convention’s modern history.