Few Americans under 50 can remember when national party conventions were anything more than infomercials. The last one with any real excitement was the Democratic convention of 1968, in Chicago, which followed perhaps the most turbulent presidential primary race ever: The incumbent withdrew, the strongest challenger was assassinated, and an unpopular war split the party in two. The result: Protests, riots, and chaos — in other words, great television.
Since then, conventions have been tame affairs. Everyone knows months ahead of time who will get the nomination, and the only suspense is over minor stuff like whether Hillary’s name will be placed in nomination, or which speakers will get the best time slots. Decades ago, when conventions were full of intrigue and horse trading, they were broadcast gavel-to-gavel, and working one was the most prestigious job for a reporter. Today it’s like covering the opening ceremonies of the Nebraska high-school volleyball championship. What happened?
In brief, the answer is: Too much democracy. In the 19th century, primaries were unheard of, and for most of the 20th century only about a dozen states held them (and most of these were non-binding). The great majority of delegates were chosen and controlled by urban and state bosses, who would get together at the convention, hash things out, and tell their delegates how to vote. It often took a lot of hashing, because in the pre-Reagan era, political parties embraced much greater diversity of opinion–for example, southern segregationists and northern civil-rights activists among the Democrats, or northeastern patricians and heartland McCarthy/Goldwater supporters among the Republicans.
The Democrats’ 1968 experience changed all that. Hubert Humphrey, the incumbent vice-president, got the nomination without winning a single primary, and many among the rank and file protested vociferously. After that convention’s violence, the party changed its rules to encourage popular participation and sharply curtail the rule of bosses. The Republicans followed suit–sometimes because state laws revised by the Democrats forced them to do so–and by the next election cycle, the days of the smoke-filled room were gone forever (the Democrats’ “superdelegate” scheme, which was meant to bring back a little old-fashioned bossism, makes no difference, since this year’s race made clear that they’re expected to simply ratify the popular choice).
Let the voters decide for themselves, and in most cases they will flock to a single favorite, or at most two opposing ones. In the old days, this wasn’t true; bosses would publicly back a candidate with no chance as a holding tactic, while waiting to sell their real support to the highest bidder. But individual citizens, unlike bosses, control only one vote and get only one chance to cast it, so they’re reluctant to waste it on someone they know won’t win. If they can tolerate the front-runner, they’ll vote for him in hopes of wrapping the contest up early; if they can’t, and if they’re not particularly zealous about a single issue, they’ll vote for his strongest rival.
The expectation that every race will boil down to two candidates is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the resultant rapid winnowing-out means the battle will almost always be over long before the convention starts. That’s fine for empowering the masses and giving the people a voice and all that civics-class stuff, but from an entertainment standpoint, it robs conventions of all their drama.
The other things a convention decides have also lost their excitement. The choice of a vice-presidential candidate wasn’t always up to the presidential nominee; in the golden age of bosses, they made that decision too, often yoking together a pair of strangers. When William Wheeler was chosen as Rutherford Hayes’s running mate in 1876, Hayes wrote to a friend, “I am ashamed to ask: Who is Wheeler?”
Sometimes the decision was a lot more important. In 1944 party insiders knew (though the public did not) that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was very ill (he died the following April). With the president staying noncommittal about a running mate, southerners plumped for the segregationist James Byrnes of South Carolina, while Democrats on the left wanted to renominate the incumbent vice-president, communist-friendly Henry Wallace of Iowa. One shudders to think of where the nation would have gone after World War II if the bosses had not settled on Harry S. Truman as a compromise choice.
Conventions also used to spend inordinate amounts of time writing a platform. Nowadays only political nerds pay attention to platforms, since (a) the candidates completely ignore them as a matter of course and (b) most members of a party think pretty much alike, so it’s hard to get an argument going. But in the old big-tent days, before Democrat meant liberal and Republican meant conservative, floor fights were a constant. In 1924, the Democrats fought bitterly over a provision condemning the Ku Klux Klan; in the end, it failed by single vote. (That same year, the Democrats set a record by taking 103 ballots to settle on a presidential candidate; shortly afterwards, they repealed the rule requiring a two-thirds majority.) In 1948, the Democrats spent hours wrangling over a civil-rights plank. When Truman finally mounted the podium to give his acceptance speech, it was nearly two o’clock in the morning.
That’s all over now. The last thing convention organizers want is a serious show of disunity or anything even remotely off-message, so the whole thing is scripted, down to the length of the spontaneous demonstrations, and everything is positive and upbeat (except when speaking of the other party). The result, unsurprisingly, is about as interesting as being told how investing in a time-share condo can lower your tax bill.
It’s questionable whether ordinary party members have made better choices than the pros used to do, but at least when the rank-and-file pick a loser, it’s their loser. Still, it’s not just nostalgia to get wistful about the old days of credentials challenges, bolting delegations, dark horses, and backroom deals. Once upon a time, political conventions were the voters’ quadrennial opportunity to watch the sausage actually being made, instead of simply being presented with a plate of knockwurst. Politics is a business of negotiation and compromise, and something important was lost when everyone started to pretend that it’s all about hope, change, and ideology.
– Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.