August 18, 2000


The Evolution of American Political Conventions - From Political Reform to Global Non-Event

By Walter Truett Anderson

American political conventions are becoming irrelevant to the purpose for which they were created, and turning into something else entirely — part coronation, part happy hunting-ground for all manner of causes and movements, and part a sort of global crystal ball which the rest of the world peers into for some clues as to what the superpower is likely to do next.

What the Democratic and Republican conventions don't do is perform the political chore they were invented to perform.

They have floated away from the business of nomination like a great gas-filled balloon cut loose from its moorings, and are now much more what historian Daniel Boorstin called non-events. They exist primarily for the purpose of being reported about.

This year, the tirelessly infighting Reform Party convention is the only one in which delegates actually had some decisions to make.

The basic justification for conventions is straightforward. If there is going to be an election, you need some way to decide who your party's candidates will be.

Back in the early years of the American republic, this was done in the congressional caucuses. Legislators of each party would get together in a closed meeting and choose their party's nominees.

But such a secretive and elitist procedure — "King Caucus," the critics called it — violated the ideal of fair and open democracy. It also violated the principle of separation of powers, since the legislators were in effect picking the next chief executive.

The solution was the presidential nominating convention. Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party was the first to try this, in 1832, and it soon became the norm.

Every four years convention delegates, chosen by party members in their home districts, would travel to some major American city to carouse, listen to speeches, march up and down the aisles, and vote on the nominees and the party platform.

But a lot of people didn't much like the conventions — they were usually under the control of the most powerful officeholders, the party bosses, and political machines. Delegates were often bribed, and the interests of grassroots party members were often ignored.

Then around the beginning of the last century, reformers came up with another idea, the presidential primary.

In the states with primaries — Florida, Wisconsin and Oregon were among the first — voters elected delegates to the nominating conventions. Soon more states were adopting presidential primaries, and many made the primaries "binding" — voters in effect not only elected the delegates but gave them instructions on which nominee to vote for.

This drift in the direction of direct nomination of candidates continued, and in 1913 President Woodrow Wilson proposed going all the way and setting up a uniform national system of presidential primaries.

That never really got off the ground, and through most of the twentieth century we had the what most people think of as the typical American presidential nominating convention — big, rowdy, sometimes dramatic gatherings, with some delegates chosen by state caucuses and others in various kinds of primaries.

Many things happened at these conventions — political careers were sometimes launched by successful speeches, deals were struck in smoke-filled rooms — but the historical fact is that the delegates rarely actually did much. With very few exceptions, the outcome of these conventions has never been much in doubt when the opening gavel sounded.

Indeed, the great majority have chosen a nominee on the first ballot.

And now we learn that, increasingly, the main decisions are made long before the conventions begin, as front-runners pile up huge delegate leads and would-be contenders run out of money and optimism.

Yet this wheezing institution, which has never been quite what it was supposed or intended to be, continues to exert a certain fascination — as evidenced by the hordes of reporters (over 20,000) who cover the activities at Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

Now the conventions are not only ritualized celebrations of democracy for Americans, but global events, followed with interest by people around the world. There are, after all, few countries unaffected by what the American government does, and the foreign media dutifully report on the convention activities and their likely implications for the folks at home.

The convention cities also serve as gathering places for activists striving to bring their causes to the public attention.

So, although the conventions aren't exactly central to the nuts-and-bolts business of American electoral politics, they are somehow important arenas of symbolic democracy, star players in the global theater that is trying to become a global civilization.

Walter Truett Anderson. Anderson is the author of "The Future of the Self" (Tarcher Putnam, 1997).

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