THE GREAT CONVENTION EXPERIMENT
Last night was the second evening of the Democrat Party’s new digital convention. The whole two hours seemed designed to highlight the wholesome family life of Joe Biden. There was nothing said about his two previous unsuccessful runs for the presidency. There was almost nothing about policy positions or programs.
Biden’s previous two runs of the presidency (in 1988 and in 2008) did not deal much with policy positions either. What potential voters did hear about was the good guy from Scranton who cared about and understood them (he left Scranton when he was ten). Biden on the campaign trail has always presented himself as a kind of universal empath who cares. With a revolution in conventions upon us, empathy may well be the coin of the realm.
We are in the midst of a minor political revolution. National party political conventions as we have known them may be nearing their end. They do have a long history. The first presidential party political convention was held by the Anti-Masonic Party in Baltimore in 1831. The rather paranoid Anti-Masons went into quick decline (most would join the Whigs who later melded into the emerging Republican Party).
The publicity the Anti-Masons gained from their convention made it clear that presidential nominating conventions were the wave of the future. The Democrats quickly followed with a presidential convention, also in Baltimore, a year later. They nominated the aging angry Andrew Jackson for a second term.
National presidential nominating conventions were such an obvious reform that they quickly replaced the previous presidential nominating caucuses by members of Congress. The Democrats did renominate Jackson, the fading National Republicans nominated Henry Clay. Large party conventions would be choosing right up to the choice of
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016.
With the advent of television, the public was able to watch the conventions full time (in the fifties and sixties regular programming was suspended during the conventions). The parties, conscious of the publicity value of the conventions gradually allowed them to be transformed into elaborate extravaganzas. The networks quickly went back to normal programming. The elaborate, expensive conventions were confined to a few evening hours.
So, the virus has forced a change that may have been on its way anyway. The huge conventions were certainly exciting for the participants and they did help make the very large numbers of delegates feel like they were part of the process. The conventions were also expensive and anti-climatic (conscious of the fickleness of television programming, there had to be winners quickly, on the first ballot).
It was time for a change. One advantage of the new format is that it can be much more intimate. Michelle Obama speaking directly to the camera on Monday evening or Jill Biden standing close-up in her empty classroom last night, allow a kind of intimacy that would have been impossible in earlier conventions. In those, the crowds and the action in a huge auditorium would have made such connectedness seem out of place. It also may be that the voters really prefer a leader more remote.
We can be sure that the Republicans promoting Donald Trump are watching the Democratic Party’s experiment in unconventional conventioning very carefully. There will be much they can learn. The Democrats have been planning to do the nominating process remotely from the beginning. They have had more time to think things through.
Donald Trump has held several hundred of his rallies. The content of his stream-of- consciousness rants has never been personal. With his marital history the kind of family centered programming that the Democrats are doing would be extremely difficult to do. His direct attacks on Biden and on his son will certainly be blunted for people who will have watched both “conventions”.
The use of media to create the official selection of party nominees is going to be a learning experience for the actives in both parties. These two candidates are really pioneers. The remote conventions are going to have some unanticipated effects. It may well change the kinds of candidates who end up being selected. The intimate approach being used by the Biden campaign may make the bombastic Trump style seem dated, old fashioned. Both candidates are experimenting with a new format.
We are all watching history in the making!