If you asked the same thing about a modern political convention, the answer would be pretty much the same: Absolutely nothing, or close to.
The modern political convention is one of the most pointless rituals in American political life. It is high time a cash strapped MSM press stopped dropping millions to cover these infomercials and turned its attention to actual stories that matter.
Conventions got their start in the nineteenth century with the rise of mass politics and strong party organizations. The railroad made it possible for political activists from all over the country to convene, and the need for party discipline and intra-party cooperation and compromise on national races in an era when most politicians were state-focused made them important. For the first 125 years of their 170 plus years of existence, conventions were decision making bodies. Power to choose nominees was vested in party bosses and state governors; they met at convention to horse-trade and favor-swap, emerging with a nominee that was broadly acceptable to the party.
This is, of course, nothing like the political conventions of today, at which nothing is decided and nothing done. They are the political equivalent of the appendix, a vestigial organ that no longer serves a significant function but which has somehow survived.
They persist primarily because of the mutual dependencies of politicians and the press. The pols need publicity; the press needs events it can hype. The political convention brings pols and hacks together from all over the country and creates an illusion of narrative so that everyone can pretend to be doing something even as absolutely nothing of substance gets done.
In the old days, conventions were often suspenseful events. After multiple ballots, a winner — often a surprise — would emerge. But the last hint of true suspense came at the Republican convention in 1976 when Ronald Reagan was challenging Jerry Ford. Since then, they have all been snoozers.
Hungry for story lines, any story lines, the press has occasionally tried to gin a little bit of drama out of fights over the party platform, but the honest truth is that no party platform means anything in American politics anymore. No president refers back to the platform in framing legislation, no congressional leader uses it to set the legislative agenda, no living soul ever reads or quotes it for any purpose whatever. No historian of American party politics goes back to study them, no journalist refers to them more than a week after the convention. They are dead letters, produced out of a sense of ritual and to the extent they have any purpose whatever, they are idle playgrounds aimed at keeping clueless party zealots busy counting coup and scoring imaginary points.Party counts for very little in America today, and their platforms count for even less. Presidential candidates don’t feel bound by them in the slightest, and they shouldn’t. Parties today exist primarily as brands like Coke and Pepsi rather than as political agencies with actual power over the flow of events.
Even the press finds it increasingly difficult from cycle to cycle to cover the platform “story;” the sheer pointlessness of the entire proceeding has become so overwhelming that the hacks themselves seem to be falling asleep even as their fingers tap endlessly at the keyboards.
The most significant event that takes place at either convention will be the acceptance speech of the presidential and vice presidential candidates. These still serve as the launching pad for the fall campaign, the venue in which the two camps lay out their respective cases and unveil the themes they hope will propel them to a win. Watching those, and seeing how voters respond to them is worth doing — but these speeches are television performances to the nation as a whole rather than speeches to the delegates on the floor. We don’t really care whether the delegates cheer the speeches of the nominees; of course they will. What we care about is how voters around the country respond to the themes being set forth and to the mannerisms and delivery style of the candidates.
This can be covered as well and perhaps better by journalists sitting thousands of miles away watching the whole episode on CSPAN as from the convention floor. There is, perhaps, a reason for the parties to gather their local organizers together to build team spirit and enthusiasm for the fall campaign, but a pep rally doesn’t need to be covered by wall to wall press.
America thankfully remains a rich country and we can afford all the quadrennial folderol we want. If political parties want to gin up the faithful with a national pep rally at the start of the election campaign, that is their business and more power to them. But nobody should confuse a pep rally with a serious political event. If you are interested in following serious news, intense convention coverage (like the coverage of G-20 summits or the UN General Assembly) is the kind of thing you have to screen out. If you want to become a serious analyst of events, ignoring the fluff is one of the first skills you must develop. This week in Tampa and next week in Charlotte there will be a lot of fluff to ignore.
Via Meadia advice to aspiring news analysts and anyone else who wants to understand national and world events: with the possible exceptions of the acceptance speeches, tune out the noise and read a good book. Reading All the King’s Men or Primary Colors will teach you more about American politics than wall to wall coverage of a thousand conventions.
Even Hurricane Isaac realized that bashing the GOP convention in Tampa was a waste of time. It is heading off to the Gulf Coast to make some real news. That was a wise career choice, though I can’t say I wish Isaac success in its future endeavors.
Conventions today are footnotes to the political process; a more thoughtful press would treat them as such.
[Update: This article mistakenly misidentified Edwin Starr as Edwin Carr. The mistake has been corrected.]