Flashbacks August 2004

Notes on the Conventions

Four articles spanning nearly a hundred years consider the changing role of political conventions in America's electoral process

Since their inception in 1832, national political conventions have played an important but ever-evolving role in presidential elections. Over the years, changes in nominating procedures have lessened the political power of conventions, even as new broadcast technologies have increased their impact on voters. Four Atlantic articles spanning nearly one hundred years examine this changing role and lend perspective to the conventions taking place this election cycle.

Also see:
Convention Sketchbook (July 30, 2004)
Seen and heard at the Democratic National Convention. By Sage Stossel.

In "Presidential Nominations" (April 1884), Oliver T. Morton addressed what he perceived to be a serious problem in the American electoral process: the tendency for political conventions to produce candidates that are neither the most capable leaders nor the choice of the majority of voters. Morton was writing at a time when conventions played a much more central role in selecting candidates. Until state primaries were instituted early in the twentieth century, delegates at the conventions made nominations and debated among themselves until a candidate was chosen. While this may sound to us like democracy in action, in fact the delegates were typically handpicked by state party bosses to ensure ahead of time that certain people would receive votes. The common voter only got to weigh in after the candidates had been chosen by the convention insiders. "In truth," Morton wrote, "the people of this country have very little to do with the choice of the supreme magistrate, their option being restricted to two men, the creatures of two practically irresponsible conventions."

Not only were nominating conventions exclusive, Morton argued, they also typically produced mediocre candidates. He quoted John Stuart Mill, who had written of America's flawed candidate selection process,

In the United States...the strongest party never dares put forward any of its strongest men, because every one of these, from the mere fact that he has been long in the public eye, has made himself objectionable to some portion or other of the party, and is therefore not so sure a card for rallying all their votes as a person who has never been heard of by the public at all until he is produced as the candidate.

Morton thus felt that great Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant had come to power in spite of the conventions, rather than because of them. Their nominations, he believed, were due to "exceptional causes." He quoted a contemporary English economist, Walter Bagehot, who argued that Lincoln's nomination for the Presidency had been a matter of luck rather than an example of the nominating process functioning effectively.

It was government by an unknown quantity. Hardly any one in America had any living idea what Mr. Lincoln was like, or any definite notion what he would do...Mr. Lincoln, it is true, happened to be a man, if not of eminent ability, yet of eminent justness. But success in a lottery is no argument for lotteries.

In Morton's view, then, the exclusionary nature of the nominating conventions was an impediment to true democracy. Correcting the problem, he wrote, "necessitates a transfer of power from that body to the people." To that end, he outlined a series of measures designed to put power into the hands of the voters, many of which were similar to those that were eventually adopted in the state primary system.

Fifty-two years later, in "Notes on the Conventions" (September 1936), the French author Raoul de Roussy de Sales offered an outsider's perspective on America's national political conventions. His article highlighted an opinion common among critics of the day, that the conventions had degenerated from serious politics to mere entertainment. He agreed with the prevailing view that the emphasis at the conventions seemed to be more on merrymaking than debate. Indeed, as he described the over-the-top series of entertainments that took place inside the convention halls, he imagined French readers puzzling over his descriptions, with the "impression that I had somehow managed to attend simultaneously such varied types of gatherings as a music-hall show, a revival meeting, a six-day bicycle race, a picnic, and a world fair."

But he opined that America's lighthearted approach to its political process was understandable "for the simple reason that politics in America have not as yet become sufficiently vital to affect the life of the people in any immediate way." Many of his American friends apologized to him for what they perceived to be an embarrassingly frivolous atmosphere at the conventions, but de Sales believed those attending were so cheerful because, "they know by instinct that whatever is done or said does not matter very much. They do not consider politics a tragic business because they do not have to–not yet."

Noteworthy among de Sales' many observations were his comments on what was then a relatively new technology: radio. He reflected on the changes being wrought by this new medium on both speaking style and content:

The technique of addressing twenty thousand visible listeners and unseen millions through the microphone has not yet been perfected ... speakers clung clumsily to the oratorical methods of pre-broadcast days, but one could see that they were network-conscious and afraid to let themselves go.

He speculated with some concern that "the day may come when it will be difficult to assemble more than a few hundred people. The rest will stay at home and listen to their radios."

Presented by

Ian Breen is an intern for The Atlantic Monthly Online. He recently completed an M.A. in creative writing at Boston University.

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