Who watches party conventions these days? Political junkies, shut-ins, people who look at whatever’s on, plus a few folks who tune in out of a vague sense of civic responsibility, like Britons watching the Queen’s speech on Christmas afternoon. As viewership dwindles, the parties appear clueless about attracting the nationwide attention their conventions once monopolized.
But do they actually want people to watch? Should they? Nowadays conventions are more likely to bore a jaded electorate than inspire it. The only certainty is that viewers will resent having their favorite shows preempted.
With ever more networks chasing ever less news and overanalyzing ever tinier gaffes, only failure gets noticed. If a convention orator delivers a thoughtful analysis of global security, it will be ignored, but if anyone says something stupid, the whole world will know about it in 15 minutes. Even when someone (Sarah Palin) delivers an undeniably rousing speech, it usually makes no difference. As one spirited if modestly qualified political analyst wrote a couple of years ago, when you look back at memorable convention speeches, almost every one took place at the losing party’s convention.
So what’s the use? Perhaps it’s time for party leaders to stop chasing viewers and earn their eternal gratitude by setting them free instead. One of these years, an innovative consultant will find a way to cut out the media entirely — such as the . . .
Cyberconvention — In this day and age, getting everyone together in one place is a wasteful extravagance. Instead, why not hold the convention online, with delegates voting remotely from their family rooms during commercial breaks on ESPN? The Democrats could keep a running tally of how many tons of carbon they aren’t emitting, while Republicans could total up the tax dollars they’ve saved (yes, party conventions get some public funding). Delegates would live-blog the proceedings, post pictures of themselves in their pajamas, and talk about what they’re doing in between the votes (giving the dog a bath, reading Moby-Dick, etc.).
The benefits: No protesters in the streets, no groveling before TV executives for an extra half-hour of air time, no need to ensure an ethnic mix among the delegates. The best part is that with no central site to descend on, no expense account to pad, and no minibar to raid, few reporters would bother attending, so voters would have to rely on the accounts of the participants themselves. This way the Democrats would know that everyone covering their convention was a supporter, instead of just 95 percent.
So, the zero option is tempting — simple, clean, modern, and cheap. But asking a candidate’s handlers to give up free media is like asking legislators to give up earmarks. Think of it: Three days of non-stop propaganda! And with all the major broadcast and cable networks covering the convention, people would be sure to watch — if it weren’t three days of non-stop propaganda. To move convention coverage forward from the 1950s to the 1990s (which is cutting-edge by political standards), it’s time to try a . . .
Reality convention — Squeeze the voting and speeches into a single day, since modern conventions are about as contentious as the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea. The day before, hold a big festival-type concert/rap-off/comedy fest/poetry slam. A camera could follow the nominee as he wanders through the grounds being genial, dancing comically for a few seconds, buying an ice cream and tipping the girl five dollars, and so forth. The day after the convention would be spent on the usual endless rehash, with talk-show hosts, movie stars, cute kids, Fred Thompson’s wife, Dennis Kucinich’s wife, and a few carefully selected “average Americans” commenting on each others’ comments.
Interspersed throughout would be a variety of running story lines, some loosely scripted (Hillary’s and Obama’s campaign managers have an angry shouting match, come to blows and have to be separated, then kiss and make up in the last hour) and some reality-style (conventioneers try to track down their lost luggage; a rural delegate encounters the big city for the first time). Fans of losing candidates could stay in the conference hall after adjournment and hold a mock session, as the House Republicans recently did.
Also interspersed would be an elimination-style vice-presidential reality show, starting a week ahead of time. The presidential nominee would announce nine finalists, with a tenth chosen by party members in an online poll. Every day the candidate would eliminate one person as the contestants undergo the usual crazy tasks: guessing the price of common grocery items, or reconciling their past positions with those of the presidential nominee. Maybe even a spelling test — imagine how that could have changed history!
The trouble with that idea is that it’s tough to produce a reality show in real time, since with no chance to edit, about 98 percent of what you shoot will be boring. That’s why they’re called reality shows. Moreover, with everyone on the same side politically, there’s no conflict to spice things up. To really make a convention worth watching, what it needs is a nasty feud. Today’s party leaders should take a page from pro wrestling and join together in a . . .
Steel-cage death match! Instead of having two separate conventions, hold them together — same place, same time. Each party gets the hall for two days, while members of the other party stand around outside giving snide interviews. Put one Democrat and one Republican in each hotel room. You could have a sports competition between the two (Democrats would win basketball, Republicans would win golf), a chili cook-off, a barbecue contest, haiku festival, etc. — maybe even an actual debate between the candidates. Hold the convention in Honolulu and they can debate in Hawaiian shirts on the beach. With luck, you’ll get fights breaking out everywhere, like at a Yankees-Red Sox game.
Politics has always been entertainment; for most of American history, Election Day was one long, drunken party. Voters will tamely submit to being conned, lied to, misled, treated like fools, and talked town to, but they won’t let themselves be bored. Consultants used to be accused of selling candidates like detergent, but that won’t work in the 21st century. The governing model for political conventions is still Ivory Snow, when what it really should be is Paris Hilton.
– Fred Schwarz is an NR deputy managing editor.