The New Republic is doing a colloquoy this week on its blog site The Plank about how to improve party conventions.
TDS Co-Editor Bill Galston was the first up with some typically lucid thoughts focused on how to make conventions not only more interesting but more substantive.
I was asked to contribute as well, and below is a cross-post from The Plank of my own submission:
This year’s Republican and (especially) Democratic conventions are likely to have some novel touches, particularly in the deployment of new technologies to make it easier for citizens to follow and gain a sense of participation in the proceedings. Indeed, between streaming video and social media like YouTube, the number of people who watch, live or nearly-live, significant portions of the Democratic convention is likely to increase substantially for the first time in years, despite very limited network television coverage. And it’s worth noting that Barack Obama’s acceptance speech will likely be one of the most widely watched, read and generally observed political speeches in history.
But looking forward to future conventions, it’s now obvious that significant changes will require a long-overdue and fundamental rethinking of the form and function of the national party convention.
With the virtual extinction of the original deliberative function of conventions (this year’s controversy over unpledged Democratic “superdelegates” will probably produce “reforms” reducing the probability of an “open convention” to near zero), these events really have just two major functions: strengthening party unity and enthusiasm, and framing the message (including the candidate’s personal “story”) for the presidential campaign. These remain important responsibilities, despite the quadrennial grousing among journalists and many activists that conventions no longer make news or offer “excitement” or “spontaneity.”
But if you were going to develop from the ground up an event to achieve these two objectives, would anyone conclude that the best available vehicle was four days mainly characterized by hundreds of politicians making speeches from a podium? Okay, a few “real people” or non-political celebrities now get stage-time, and the occasional politician gets to do a podium-free “stroll,” and there are even videos shown now and then. But the basic model for conventions remains the annual state party fundraising dinner, those Jefferson-Jackson and Lincoln Day marathons featuring a couple of big speeches and many short remarks by a lot of politicians, to burnish the Cause’s unity and diversity while paying some bills.
There’s nothing wrong with speechifying, though the message discipline associated with today’s conventions wrings a lot of the color and all of the unpredictability out of hearing from a wide array of candidates and elected officials from Maine to Alaska. But if speeches were the best or only way to convey a political message, campaign ads would consist of nothing else; candidates would never do another town hall meeting or photo op; and debates would end with the opening statements.
It’s worth noting that successful political and non-political conferences typically include panel discussions, sessions on specialized topics, and workshops that provide opportunities for more customized presentations. Sacrificing a hundred or so set speeches on the same general party and campaign message to provide for diverse voices on diverse topics would be a small price to pay.
Moreover, even if conventions could be staged to provide the perfect message delivery system, American politics is—thank God—rapidly becoming more interactive, just like the technologies that are changing media coverage, advertising, fundraising, and organizing. If the Obama campaign’s many innovations are truly the wave of the future, there’s no reason future conventions should follow the pattern of giving citizens constant opportunities to become participants in, not simply consumers of, these party-defining and candidate-defining events. A small straw in the wind is the plan to enlist many of the 75,000 people standing in line for Obama’s acceptance speech next week to make cellphone calls to unregistered or undecided voters. Integrating grassroots party-building and voter persuasion efforts—long an ancillary activity at conventions—into the convention itself could be far more fruitful than redundant message delivery via speeches. And once the mould is broken, there’s almost no limit to the interactivity that could be introduced to convention proceedings through online forums, Q&A sessions, state and local “virtual” mini-conventions, and other techniques. It’s all about rethinking the basic form and function of these events.
As I write these words, I am preparing to work in the speech/script operation for my sixth consecutive Democratic Convention. After each of the last five, convention professionals invariably said to each other: “Well, that’s the last time we’ll do this kind of convention!” But this time, I think that may finally be true.