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
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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."

Thirty-two years later, in "Carnival of Excess: TV at the Conventions" (July 1968) Charles McDowell, Jr. depicted political conventions during the golden age of yet another new technology. McDowell set the tone by quoting commentator David Brinkley's observation that "Nothing succeeds like excess." Brinkley had been referring to the 1964 Republican National Convention itself, but McDowell argued that he could just as aptly have been describing that convention's extravagant television coverage. He detailed the enormous amounts of money and manpower devoted to televising the conventions, and observed that much of the coverage seemed to be more about the competition among network commentators than about political ideas.

McDowell offered his impressions of some of the changes that had been wrought on the convention experience by the ascendancy of television.

Speeches are fewer and shorter. Sweaty orators, bellowing and waving their arms for an hour or more, have yielded almost completely to TelePrompter readers, younger and brisker fellows, some of them very slick and many of them no fun... Both parties are cracking down on sign-waving, chanting demonstrations, hoping to shorten them radically and eliminate hired enthusiasts. Both parties are indoctrinating the delegates in the importance of perfect attendance, looking interested, and not making unexpected motions or fools of themselves on the tube.

While there were many who felt that television had had a negative impact on conventions (General Dwight D. Eisenhower had said that a political convention on television "is a picture of confusion, of noise, of impossible deportment, of indifference"), there were also those who argued for its positive influence. McDowell quoted Howard K. Smith of the ABC network:

Many things are wrong with political conventions, but they were wronger long before television. Speeches and demonstrations that once lasted for hours now take only minutes. Thanks to television, the viewer is generally better, and sooner, informed than is the spectator in the convention hall. When there is confusion, it is frequently the television or radio newsman who first provides the needed clarification.

Twelve years later, in "Picking the President: Time to Change the Rules" (August 1980), Terry Sanford, a former Governor of North Carolina, expressed his own opinion on the evolution of the American political convention. He began his article by declaring, "Almost everyone will agree that we must improve the presidential nominating process." In his view, the pendulum had swung too far from one direction to the other. Initially, all power had rested in the hands of unrepresentative delegates who had nominated candidates based on back-room deals. Then, with the introduction of state primaries, which had opened up the selection of a candidate to more of the voting public, the conventions had become mere rubber-stamps on decisions that had, for the most part, already been made. The effect was that of quieting disparate voices in the name of "unity." He believed, however, that it should be possible to find some middle ground.

Sanford argued, as had Morton nearly a century before, that the nation's best presidents had probably been selected as candidates "in spite of the process, instead of because of it." More worrisome to him was the idea that some individuals who might have been great presidents had ended up being weeded out by the system, or had perhaps opted not to run at all, in order to avoid the unpleasantness of the process. As Sanford saw it, a major problem with the procedure was that too many potential candidates ended up eliminated before the convention even began:

"This candidate," we in the press observe, "cannot make it past New Hampshire." Or, "He will be gone by Illinois." This is all right as a system for deciding the NCAA basketball championship, but it hardly serves the American republic well... When looking time (the convention) arrives, almost all of our possible candidates have gone home.

Although Sanford acknowledged that there might be dangers in attempting to turn conventions back into deliberative bodies, he believed that it was necessary, and that it would ultimately benefit the nominating process. He outlined three changes that he felt could bring about those benefits. First: send uninstructed delegates to the conventions, who would be free to think for themselves, even as they would be guided by the "generalized and communicated desires of those who elected them." Second: elect the delegates far enough ahead of time for them to meet with the candidates, and "in time for the candidates to electioneer with the delegates." (This would avoid having delegates arrive at the conventions with their preferences already established, and would put pressure on candidates to better articulate their positions.) Third: "Separate the primary election from the delegate selection process." (This would result in primaries that "instruct but do not bind.")

Sanford conceded that such suggestions would involve substantial changes and would therefore require significant work. But he pointed out that the effect of those changes would be to "provide new public assurances that we are carefully choosing the leader of our democratic society in the best republican tradition of our representative democracy." It would be difficult, in his view, to ask for more than that from a convention.

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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