Do Conventions Matter In The Digital Age?
Doug Bernard | Tampa FL
The two delegates from Arkansas looked tired. Tired and wet.
“I was hoping for a coffee maker in my room,” one told the hotel clerk. “I wouldn’t think that was such a big deal.”
The Clarion Hotel clerk apologized and promised a coffee maker would be delivered immediately. “I hope so,” said the other delegate as they walked off, soggy luggage and all.
Even under ordinary circumstances, it’s a complicated business running a convention. Tens of thousands of attendees have to arrange their travel, lodging, figure out their schedules and, importantly, snag an invite to all the right parties. It’s the organizers job to make sure it all goes off like clockwork and everyone is kept happy.
Now add to that all that comes with a national political convention. Tens of thousands of journalists prowling for anything that smells like a juicy story. Secret service check points and barricades that block off entire sections of a city. Protestors of every stripe converging to complain about nearly everything. Throw in a splash of tropical weather, and you have some sense of what it is to organize the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Tropical storm Isaac not only cancelled the first of four days of the Republican’s quadrennial convention. It’s forced to the surface a question that some have been asking for years: in this digital era, what’s the purpose of a convention?
Smoke Filled Room, Fist Fights and Pandemonium
“National conventions were often occasions of great drama, marked by titanic struggles among rival factions and fevered excitement around the selection of a presidential nominee and the construction of a national platform,” writes political historian Geoffrey Kabaservice. Since the mid-1800’s, conventions were working affairs, where power-brokers cajoled and maneuvered to win support for their candidate or platform plank. Writes Kabaservice:
“Political conventions once were raucous tribal gatherings. The 1860 GOP convention in Chicago was so noisy, according to one observer, that ‘A thousand steam whistles, ten acres of hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches, headed by a choice vanguard from pandemonium, might have mingled unnoticed.'”
In the days before electronic communications, political conventions were real working affairs. Power brokers maneuvered and cajoled in “smokey back rooms” to win favor for their candidate or platform plank. Delegates in hot convention halls horse-traded votes while young up-and-comers built friendships and alliances for future campaigns.
Two dynamics worked to change much of that. First, radio, then television, and now the Internet have made communication easy, cheap and instantaneous. And second, starting around the 1970’s, national political organizations adopted state-wide primaries as the predominate way nominees won delegates. Taken together, these two trends largely relegated conventions to heady memories of the past.
Where once there was real news and genuine unpredictability, national conventions now are as tightly scripted and staged as a Broadway show. Writing in the New York Times, Jeremy Peters detailed just some of the Republican stagecraft on display in Tampa:
“They have built one of the most intricate set pieces ever designed for a convention — a $2.5 million Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired theatrical stage. From its dark-wood finish to the brightly glowing high-resolution screens in the rafters that look like skylights, every aspect of the stage has been designed to convey warmth, approachability and openness.”
Take it from me – even without a single delegate in the hall, this GOP convention floor is an impressive sight. The question now: is anybody watching?
There’s Nothing Like Real
“Party conventions now seek to create hoopla around their nominees and stir up the party faithful,” writes Kabaservice, “while avoiding anything that could damage their electoral chances in the fall.”
Of course, they don’t always succeed. The Democratic convention of 1968 presented the public with images of riots, tear gas and violence between police and protestors. The GOP Houston convention of 1992 put Pat Buchanan’s “culture wars” front and center in a prime time speech, leaving many with a bitter taste.
Still, since the 1980’s TV networks and many other news organizations have steadily cut back on how much of these events they cover, leaving the Internet to take up the slack. GOP organizers are calling this year’s event “a convention without walls” and promise that the Internet will make Tampa 2012 the most “transparent” of any in history. But all this begs the question of whether conventions should adapt to the times, perhaps even moving entirely online.
Party officials, unsurprisingly, defend their events. Republican National Convention chair Reince Priebus calls the convention“important for the nation” and says despite Isaac, it’s all systems go for “a great week.”
Not everyone’s convinced. Kabaservice calls the modern convention “hollow and unconvining.” But longtime political writer Michael Oreskes disagrees. “The acceptance speeches are the only time in the entire fall campaign when each candidate speaks directly to the country for an extended time, unfiltered by news coverage or back and forth with an opponent,” he opines.
There’s no doubt conventions will continue to change and evolve in the Internet era. Perhaps the day will come when instead of gathering in a convention hall, delegates meet up in a virtual hall to nominate their standard bearers.
But for the moment, the national parties, presidential candidates and political junkies will continue to put up with the security lines, crowded hotels and unpredictable weather in a real-time celebration of the quirks and charms of American democracy.