The Convention Has Finally Become What It Always Was

For decades, political conventions have adapted to every indignity that progress and technology could throw at them.

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Watching the first session of the world’s first live-streamed political convention last night, my mind kept returning to the late American historian Daniel Boorstin, and then to the equally late Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. (My mind has a broom closet where it keeps mid-20th-century public intellectuals.) Almost 60 years have passed since Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event, and nearly as long since McLuhan popped out with his own coinage, “The medium is the message.” Both phrases grew shopworn in the ensuing decades, but as the Democrats may show with their experiment in virtual conventioneering, some clichés endure because of their resiliency and usefulness.

Any modern political convention is a pseudo-event. Boorstin coined the word to describe an artificial happening—a press conference, an awards ceremony—manufactured expressly for the purpose of getting the press to cover it, as though it qualified as genuine news, arising naturally from the clash of circumstance rather than the grasping imagination of PR flacks. Historically, of course, political conventions made news by the bucketful. They served several functions—preeminently, the selection from a field of candidates of a presidential nominee to represent the party in the fall election. They also featured the picking of party officials, the ratification of a party platform, the choice of a vice-presidential candidate, and other decisions that were the stuff of authentic news.

Boorstin published his book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, two years after the 1960 Democratic convention, the last national gathering of Democrats to open with the identity of their presidential candidate in any doubt. Following a day or two of backstage politicking, the nomination went to John F. Kennedy. Thereafter, 30 national conventions, Democratic and Republican, have commenced with nearly all of the party’s business already accomplished, including the informal designation of its presidential nominee. (The only modern exception is the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, Missouri, where Ronald Reagan made one final lunge for the nomination before Gerald Ford pocketed it.) During most presidential-election years, usually a few weeks into primary season, journalists and politicos try to rescue themselves from boredom by contemplating the possibility that their fondest dream will at last come true: a “brokered convention” complete with dark horses, front-runners, and favorite sons and daughters, competing through multiple roll-call votes until a surprise victor emerges from the rubble.

Drama! Uncertainty! Real-world events to write about! It never happens. Pseudo-events don’t work that way.

The unhappy decline of the political convention, from meaningful event to pseudo-event, is closely tied to the advent of electronic media, particularly television. As McLuhan knew, and expressed in his famous formula, the means (the medium) by which information (the message) is disseminated can alter the nature of the information. This is especially true when there’s not a lot of information to begin with. Television first featured at the conventions in a big way in 1952. That summer, broadcast networks aired the first nationwide gavel-to-gavel convention coverage, 60 hours’ worth each week. According to a definitive monograph by the scholar Zachary Karabell, an astonishing 80 percent of U.S. TV-owning households spent an average of 10 to 13 hours a week watching the conventions that year.

Four years later, ratings dipped—and they dipped again four years after that. Network executives worried that the conventions were not, after all, good TV. Convention planners, panicked that this bounty of free advertising would vanish, responded as time went on by trimming the proceedings to fit the shrinking attention span of television viewers. Speeches were shortened and schedules tightened. More celebrities were recruited to strut upon the stage, and podium designs bristled with colors to delight those Americans lucky enough to own a color TV. There were occasional failures in the pursuit of made-for-TV conventions, some of them spectacular; in 1972, in a symptom of the general chaos afflicting his party, the Democratic nominee, George McGovern, didn’t deliver his televised acceptance speech until 3 a.m. EST.

Such mishaps only heightened the resolve of party professionals to tailor their proceedings to television’s demands. They succeeded too well. By the early 1990s, the network programmers who had complained of windy speeches and endless longueurs were cutting their already stripped-down broadcasts on the grounds that the conventions were—can you guess?—too scripted, insufficiently surprising and spontaneous. Evidently a pseudo-event fails if it looks too much like a pseudo-event.

It was at this point, 24 years ago, that the cable-news channels came to the rescue, providing an infinite supply of airtime and a bottomless appetite for gasbaggery. They relieved the major networks of whatever remained of their news divisions’ idealistic obligation to air party conventions as a public service. ABC, NBC, and CBS shrunk their coverage to next to nothing—usually an hour a night—while the cable channels treated the conventions less as a source of news and more as a grand quadrennial event in which journalists and politicians and activists combined into a giant, indistinguishable mass worthy of round-the-clock attention.

Indeed, in the past three or four presidential elections, it’s become a commonplace to note that the political convention has, amoebalike, split in two. The usual convention goes on as before, with roughly 4,000 delegates and party operatives pretending to do something functional. Meanwhile they are surrounded and observed by a much larger gathering of 15,000 or more journalists, using the convention as an excuse to have a convention of their own, in which work and pleasure shamelessly commingle. The second convention of journalists could never allow the first convention of pols to perish, lest it perish too, and all the fun (and work) be lost. The parasite takes care to keep the host alive, even as it consumes it, like those poor colonists hanging from the wall in Aliens.

But now even this reason for the continued existence of political conventions has been overcome. Those of us reporters who as recently as this spring thrilled to the prospect of an expense-account week in Milwaukee (with the Democrats) or Charlotte (with the Republicans) are reduced to sitting at home like everyone else. We face two hours a night of two-minute speeches and other forms of propaganda live-streaming from the nowhere of cyberspace, while our only hope of surprise lies in the prospect of a technological disaster: Max Headroom hiccups from Bill Clinton or pixilated dissolves of Gavin Newsom’s hair. For decades, political conventions adapted to every indignity that progress and technology could throw at them, surviving as a pseudo-event about a pseudo-event, a goofy and essentially unnecessary anachronism. It may take a pandemic to do them in once and for all.