In 1972, it was a bit of a scandal when a secret script for the upcoming Republican National Convention was discovered. In The Boys on the Bus, author Timothy Crouse reported on the details of the script—calling it a “stage-managed coronation of Richard Nixon.”
“Spontaneous cheers will interrupt the convention secretary in mid-sentence and at 10:33 the President will be nominated and there will be a ten minute spontaneous demonstration with balloons..”
The Republicans were planning their convention rather than just letting events unfold unpredictably, and this shocked the establishment! Back then conventions were a raucous affair, where it was often the case that delegates didn’t know who would win the nomination when they went into convention, and where serious and divisive debates about platform planks (should the Democrats stand for civil rights in the South, for example) would tear the party to pieces. The fact that the Republicans were working to remove any division or unpredictability from their convention was a surprising new development in 1972—but this strategy was quickly adopted by both political parties.
Today, the primary election process insures that the presidential and vice-presidential nominees are already chosen, debates over the platform have all been worked out , and all other sources of party division are almost always resolved before the convention ever begins. The line-up of speakers has been carefully vetted and planned to the last detail .
So what’s the point? Why do the parties even continue to hold a convention and why do so many voters watch?
Conventions continue to play several roles for political parties, including serving as a single place where thousands of delegates representing different factions of a party can gather to build solidarity and excitement for the hard work ahead in winning an election and serving as a star-studded occasion where lot of big-money donors gather for fund-raising dinners, invite-only parties and other special events to raise necessary millions of dollars for the party.
One of the key functions of a political convention is to serve as a carefully choreographed advertisement to share the values of the party and image of its presidential nominee with the voters.
“Contemporary conventions are staged primarily as mega-media events designed to electrify the party faithful and to woo undecided voters by dazzling them. Scholars have demonstrated that support for the party’s nominee is boosted immediately after the convention, and the prevailing nostrum seems to be: the better the convention, the bigger the boost. Elaborate effort—and resources—are now lavished on the conventions by party leaders to orchestrate, anticipate, plan, schedule, rehearse, time, and script every detail of every minute of the convention—especially those proceedings that will be aired during prime time.”
— Costas Panagopoulos, 2008 http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol5/iss4/art6/
For four days, the Democratic and Republican conventions will feature long lines of speeches, tributes and video presentations revealing what exactly the party stands for, what kinds of people associate with the party, and what the party intends to do once in power. It is a rare moment for voters to truly watch the party present itself—and this serves a vital purpose for American democracy.
We certainly can’t rely on the mainstream media to help voters learn about core values of a party. Studies show that the average amount of time that a candidate or official is allowed to actually speak, in their own words, on the television news is about 7 seconds. Seven second sound-bites are hardly enough time for parties to present their ideas or values in any kind of nuanced ways.
But at a convention, candidates can give lengthy speeches, and they aired in their entirely o various news stations. Video tributes to party achievements and great party leaders are aired for the voters to experience and learn from . Some people call it a useless advertisement, and there are even some in the mainstream media who suggest that none of the convention should even be covered (in favor of what? 8 second soundbites?)—but the convention experience is not so much a useless advertisement as it is a multi-media classroom that voters can enter to learn about the party and its nominee.
Voters are certainly interested in what goes on in that classroom. Although viewership has dropped in recent decades (although there have been few studies of alternative ways of following a convention such as on-line or through casual conversation with friends), at any given moment, 15% of all television viewers are watching the convention—no small number. And the number jumps during the big speech by the nominee. 15% of all voters also make up their actual election decision while watching the convention—a number matched only by the presidential debates.
Conventions are a way to convey the party and its values to the voters—but the choreography of a convention is always threatened by events in the street organized by demonstrators who are intent on challenging a party, confronting it with opposing ideas, and thrusting an alternative narrative of grass-roots priorities upon the national stage. In 1968, convention demonstrators in Chicago were so numerous and so unruly (as were violent police, intent on squashing grass-roots demonstrations in the city) that the Democratic party looked out of control to voters who saw it all unfold on television. They responded by voting in a Republican president.
To this day, demonstrators seek to recreate the energy and drama of the 1968 anti-Vietnam protests, and party officials try to minimize and silence such street demonstrations that distract from the party’s message.
This year in Denver, party leaders worked with the city of Denver to create a carefully planned parade route for demonstrations that would go nowhere near the convention itself, and passed a rule that all parades had to end before the convention events started for the evening. They designed a “freedom cage” (see previous post on the subject) where other protestors could go to speak out at the convention, also out of sight of delegates and hidden behind a large white tent.
But Denver organizers have threatened to tear it all down. Groups in Denver have named themselves such things as Recreate 68, Unconventional Denver , Disrupt DNC 08 , and Tent State University—and they have claimed that up to 50,000 protestors will be descending on Denver to march in the streets, ignore the rules relegating protestors to small cages, and push the Democratic party to take more strong stands against the Iraq War, against poverty, and against global warming (for example).
Will the demonstrators be able to steal the stage from the Democrats? Do convention demonstrations have a role to play, similar to the Convention choreography itself, in teaching the nation about the political lay of the land? In Denver and in St. Paul over the next few weeks, we will see who truly has the upper hand—the party in the halls of power or the movement in the street.