Richard Nixon pulled the American political convention into the television era. COVID-19 has pulled the convention into the social-media era.
Before 1968, political conventions were events. Things happened. Which meant that things could go wrong—very badly wrong, and wrong in front of a national television audience. Republicans suffered a disastrous convention in 1964: walkouts, booing, crazy speeches.
The Nixon campaign of 1968 accepted that conventions were now, above all, a show. Nothing must happen; everything must be planned. That idea shocked and offended political journalists at the time, and for a long time afterward. Through the ’70s and ’80s, old-timey pundits lamented the passing of the good old days when conventions were surprising and exciting—and more fun to report. Politicians understandably rejected these laments as the equivalent of hostile fans’ cheering for injuries.
The Nixon campaign’s 1968 vision of the convention as a TV show took a while to be perfectly realized. At the Democratic convention of 1972, party dissension delayed proceedings enough to push the nominee George McGovern’s acceptance speech until 3 o’clock in the morning, eastern time. At the Republican convention in 1976 and the Democratic convention in 1980, uncertainty lingered over whether defeated challengers (Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy) would endorse their party’s incumbents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter).
But with each passing convention, the program became more predictable, designed more with television in mind. Colors were softened from red, white, and blue to salmon, ivory, and robin’s egg. Scheduling became ever more precise and punctual. Speeches became shorter and more personal. The best seats were reassigned from delegates to donors. The delegates themselves became more tightly corralled and policed. Potentially disruptive moments—battles over credentials, over the platform—were moved out of prime time, then out of convention week altogether.
The result was the clickety-clack on-time performances of the conventions of the 1990s and early 2000s. As with so many art forms, the TV-era convention attained its finished format just as the society that produced it was disappearing. By the ’90s, TV itself was changing. Broadcast was yielding to cable. Mass audiences were fragmenting. TV yielded to computers, then to smartphones. Content migrated to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram.
Yet conventions in 2008, 2012, and 2016 remained more or less what they had been in 1988, 1992, and 1996: programs created above all for TV, and not just any TV, but network TV—the TV watched by the politically disconnected people whose votes (it was believed) might be up for grabs.
COVID-19 finished all that. The 2020 Democratic convention is not an event at all. It is not happening anywhere except on your screen. It was produced weeks in advance, using all the potentialities of modern camera technology: a roll-call vote that edited together video filmed in every state and territory, speeches delivered in carefully selected sets, many of them recorded and edited several days earlier.
The elements were designed to be severed and shared on Facebook and other social-media platforms. The fiction that this convention might decide policy, obsolete since 1968, has been eliminated altogether. Instead, every moment is about building personal connection with ever more minutely micro-targeted demographic groups. Are you a gay business owner of color in a reddish state? A Native American first-generation college student? A mom who voted for John McCain and admired Colin Powell? There, on your feed, is a 7-second bit just for you!
Disasters accelerate latent change. The Civil War introduced standard shoe sizes. The Great Depression hastened the transition from corner stores to supermarkets. The Cold War pushed the federal government to fund scientific research.
COVID-19 is changing us too. And next week, Americans will likely get a glimpse of what happens when change is resisted. Just as the Democrats lagged the Republicans into the TV era mid-century, the Republican convention planners of 2020 seem to lag behind their Democratic counterparts. President Donald Trump, until the last possible moment, clung to his hope of an in-person convention with cheering throngs and balloon drops. His shrunken and homogeneous party will have more trouble assembling the motley cast of characters the Democrats did, and his prolonged refusal to accept the reality of a virtual convention has abridged his team’s preparation time. But reality prevailed after all, and the Republicans will now have to match the Democratic accomplishment.
COVID-19 will likely be overcome by 2024. But the changes it has wrought to conventions and campaigns are likely to prove enduring because they better fit the way Americans now consume and share information.
The Democratic virtual convention was the first of the Facebook era. It will not be the last.