Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Coronations and Conventional Wisdom
The New Yorker magazine ran the cartoon above in January 2012. They meant it at a joke, of course—why, the very idea that, four years in advance, the election was already decided! Ha ha, who’d believe that? Except that, in the tone of the media then prevalent, many people apparently did believe that. Following the Romney implosion, the GOP had no clear vision, and its leadership had taken a powder during a key campaign.
Fast forward three years. When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in the summer of 2015, only one day after formally joining the party, I admit I cheered. Hillary Clinton’s nomination, if not her election, had been a foregone conclusion so long, she’d visibly begun hibernating until the general election campaign. I liked Bernie simply because he forced a legitimate primary.
(Also I dislike the idea of political dynasties in democratic societies. Or do you think having Kennedy and Bush families hanging around for generations has helped the body politic?)
So when the Bernie Bros attempted to disrupt the Democratic National Convention this week, in manners ranging from coordinated shouting to simple street theatre, I wasn’t altogether disappointed. It means people cared enough about a cause, embodied in a personality, to put their names and party standing in jeopardy. It means people perceived the future of American democracy as something that mattered. Isn’t that good?
Not to hear some people tell it. The complaints from party loyalists and longtime Clinton supporters, have implied that taking a stand for Bernie is tantamount to voting for Mussolini. Especially after this week’s revelation that party leadership attempted to pre-pick the winner without consulting the base membership (and oh, look), the simple willingness to make some noise in defense of a principle has become, in Sarah Silverman’s words, “ridiculous.”
It’s easy to forget that political conventions weren’t always coronations for pre-selected candidates. A political convention hasn’t gone to a second ballot for its presidential nominee, or had its pre-written platform voted down, in three generations. Therefore, we’ve grown accustomed to lukewarm displays of balloon drops, smiling candidates with their spouses, and bland heartland rock from loudspeakers. It’s become a sleepwalk.
But what happens at political conventions used to matter. The famous “smoke-filled rooms,” secret log-rolling sessions, and under-the-table agreements that made national figures out of men like William Jennings Bryant and Alf Landon, happened because people believed conventions mattered. Debates happened; sometimes they descended into fistfights. And people fought because serious people believed serious causes.
In 1904, when the immensely popular Teddy Roosevelt’s re-nomination was such a foregone conclusion that the Republican National Convention risked running a day short, the party considered this an embarrassment. They needed that extra day, not to feed the 24-hour news cycle, but to create momentum for the actual election debates. Historian Michael Wolraich writes that party leaders manufactured a fake crisis, over the status of newly-conquered Hawaii, to keep the convention going.
Nowadays, when there’s a legitimate crisis at a convention, say over whether the Democrat really represents the party, or whether the Republican is a full-on narcissistic whackadoodle, we consider the protests unseemly. We want the scripted pablum, the room-temperature gruel of a coronation. We want the same pageantry in selecting our candidates that Britain put into Prince Charles’ first wedding, and for largely the same reason.
The booing during ritual nonsectarian prayer in Philadelphia this week is certainly unseemly. But it signals that true believers think this election matters. It tells Americans that consequences go beyond mindlessly pulling a lever. And while I’d prefer party loyalists honor the vote, I nevertheless cannot help thinking: thank God they care enough to make some noise.