Cancel political party conventions permanently

The gatherings have passed their expiration date

POLITICAL PARTY CONVENTIONS have finally adopted the advice parents have been giving children for ages — just be yourself.

Since the 1970s, conventions have been pretending to be something they aren’t: newsworthy events where delegates from around the country gather to discuss, debate, and compromise on party nominees and the platform. Newsworthy they are not; all the decisions, the debate, and the drama has taken place in caucuses and primaries long before the party enters the hall – or this year, the Zoom.

Party conventions were developed in the 1830s during the administration of Andrew Jackson. They were a reform, promoted by Jackson’s second vice president, Martin Van Buren, who recognized the benefits of a more democratic party system where leaders from around the nation gathered in a convention for the purpose of choosing nominees and drafting platforms. At their best, conventions were designed to attach the ambition of prospective leader to something intermediary. Parties linked presidents to the people by acting as filters and mediators of public opinion.

Conventions proved popular among party members and the public. So much so that the Whig Party leadership — which had critiqued them as base — eventually succumbed to them, organizing a popular convention in 1839 and developing the first witty campaign slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.”

Conventions became the sole means of securing presidential nominations. Conventions were also the only manifestation of national parties. Once every four years state and local leaders convened to choose a ticket and draft a statement of principles, the party platform. Conventions determined what a party and its candidates believed. Party organizations made increasing use of new technologies such as steamboats, canals, and, eventually, railroads, to hold conventions, rallies, and parades for parties. The conventions held power: the delegates in the assembly hall made the important decisions on site and in person.

During the Progressive Era and again in the late 1960s, new generations of reformers came to believe the party organizations created by Van Buren were themselves anti-democratic. To reform the process, primary elections and caucuses were introduced. By 1972, nominating conventions merely ratified the choices made in various state elections. Party platforms, already a tenuous document in our system of federalism and separation of powers, became less important to the fall campaign.

Conventions became expensive shells of their former selves. They have long since stopped serving as a check on would-be nominees.  Pre-pandemic they were at least opportunities for political and economic elites to publicly display their adoration and fealty. Nominees and incumbent presidents control the event as much as they control the party organizations that once served as a check on their power. And media by the thousands came to attend, pouring scarce resources into non-events.

This summer you would never have glimpsed anything like the 1964 Republican convention when a chorus of boos and animus rained down on New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who addressed his party’s delegates by proclaiming, “These extremists feed on fear, hate, and terror.” Or the 1948 Democratic Convention, split over civil rights, where delegates from southern states stormed out of the convention hall and established their own political party. Republicans had a similar fissure in 1912: former president Theodore Roosevelt, outfoxed, proclaimed himself madder than a bull moose and created his own party to run for another term as president.

All that genuine drama is long gone.

Carefully choreographed, conventions now seek to hide any notion of discord or criticism of the nominee. Even the choice of a vice presidential running mate is now made well before the convention. Entertainment and tributes have replaced the political disagreements and drama of old. Paeans have replaced the sound of democracy.

Meet the Author

Peter Ubertaccio

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science , Stonehill College
It’s a show and there is nothing wrong with that. The conventions this August are better for at least being honest about their role in American politics – they are all virtual, all meant to be absorbed on the screen.

The pandemic has abruptly halted so many of our traditions this year. Many will come back. Old style party conventions should not be one of them.

Peter Ubertaccio is dean of the Thomas and Donna May School of Arts & Sciences at Stonehill College in Easton and an associate professor of political science.