OP-ED: I used to love political conventions. Now, I hope they die

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Donald Trump smiles as he addresses delegates during the final day session of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

If you want to pretend that you’re in Milwaukee, throw some brats on the grill and grab a six-pack of Miller High Life — there are much worse ways to spend a Thursday night. But there will hopefully be a moment in this coming week’s glorified Zoom meeting that we’re pretending is the Democratic National Convention — probably when more Americans are watching Stanley Cup hockey than the comic stylings of ex-Ohio Gov. John Kasich — when it will dawn on America’s elite pols and pundits what should have been clear decades ago.

The American political convention is dead.

As a 61-year-old political journalist who’s covered a half-dozen of these things, I believe it’s time to pull the plug — despite the fact that conventions were once arguably America’s greatest (and definitely our zaniest) contribution to the global canon of democracy. But somewhere in a 1972 time capsule, my 13-year-old self — a wide-eyed middle-school idealist — is up in his room, crying beneath the Tom Seaver poster and the glossy Beatles pics over what we’ve lost.

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There was a long swath of American history, which started in the 1830s and only ended in my young lifetime, when political conventions mattered, a lot. Frankly, that would be very hard to explain to any readers under the age of 40, who’ve known nothing but the bland, prepackaged infomercials produced for the TV platforms, designed to deify this year’s model of their Dear Leader and to muffle any hint of dissent.

But what we’ve witnessed since the dawn of the 1980s is arguably the third phase of the American political convention, the dying phase. For most of their history, political conventions were a basic necessity in an analog world where parties couldn’t hold Zoom meetings, and where the basic instinct was to give party leaders — who knew the strengths and weaknesses of candidates in a way that regular voters in the pre-TV days did not — the final say-so on who should get their coveted nomination.

Two faces: This era — which arguably ended when the Democrats nominated the doomed Adlai Stevenson in 1952 at the last convention without a preordained winner when the delegates arrived in town — was marked both by the ugly compromises of a “smoke-filled room” of party bosses, but also the pageantry of silly hats, balloon drops and snake dances that reminded Americans that we were creating something new and wild here on our continent.

These political conventions showed two faces of democracy. Yes, everyday people were locked out of those smoky hotel rooms, but back on the convention floor there were often real, passionate fights, not just about the candidates but about the topics that mattered — racial injustice, or war and peace. Here in Philadelphia in 1948, racist Southern delegates walked out when Democrats adopted a civil rights plank.

That 1948 confab was also the very first convention widely seen on the newfangled contraption called the television. The hot air of TV made conventions blow up bigger and bigger — until they burst.

The convention spectacles of the 1960s and ’70s — that second era, that I was born into — were political Super Bowls. On the night of Aug. 28, 1968, my parents invited some of their friends over to our house to pour a tall one and watch the fractious Dems pick their candidate in Chicago, presumably Hubert Humphrey. I was 9 and — thanks, honestly, to baseball and the NFL — was just noticing the big world around me.

When Humphrey’s nomination was interrupted for the now iconic footage of Mayor Richard Daley’s blue-helmeted thugs pummeling anti-war protesters outside the Conrad Hilton, the grown-ups were shocked. I was mesmerized. “I don’t think little Willy should be watching this,” one of the adults muttered, which only made me want to keep watching it. The violence made even a 9-year-old want to pick a side (regular readers can guess which one), but that night also set off a spark, that I wanted to witness the pivot points of history. That set me on a path to journalism.

In 1972, when I was 13, on this weird-looking 9-inch black-and-white TV that my grandmother had given me for Christmas, I stayed up until all hours of the morning watching Democrats in Miami Beach fight about abortion or Vietnam and whether to nominate liberal Sen. George McGovern. It was messy, but it was must-see TV — and what real democracy looked like. But the Democrats’ debacles in the 1968 and 1972 general elections also convinced party bosses that democracy is tantamount to losing. Each convention after that was a little more scripted, more suppressed and less suspenseful than the one before it until the whole thing was already on life support by 1984.

The elite effect: But there’s a part of this story that’s less well understood, yet it’s central to the deep crisis that America faces in 2020. Those “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago” in 1968 also convinced leaders in both parties to give regular voters like you and me a much greater say in picking the parties’ nominees, elevating the primaries or participatory caucuses like Iowa. At the time, everyone — liberal or conservative or whatever — hailed this as progress.

But while so-called brokered conventions had fostered political corruption and sometimes led to mediocrities like Warren Harding, the process also allowed party elites to block out populist buffoons, overt racists and anti-Semites (like George Wallace or Henry Ford), and dangerous demagogues. A 1948-style political convention would never have nominated Donald Trump. But the old guard of the GOP was powerless to stop him in 2016 in Cleveland.

“In short, primaries limit party leaders’ ability to screen out extremists and demagogues,” Steven Levitsky, co-author of the essential book “How Democracies Die,” told me in a 2018 interview. The arrival of Trump makes it clear that America’s earliest political elites were onto something when they shunned direct democracy for contraptions such as the Electoral College or political conventions meant to weed out corrupt but popular dictators.

But what’s the solution? Even watching the Trumpian nightmare unfold, I don’t know any Americans who want the powers of rank-and-file primary voters to be handed back to political elites, especially when the ruling classes have made such a mess of things. There’s no desirable scenario where the smoke-filled room makes a comeback.

End the caucus: The answer, in my opinion, isn’t to ditch the primary system that took root after the mayhem of 1968, but to make that system much better and to encourage many more citizens to participate. That would mean ending the handful of remaining caucuses — like Iowa’s first-in-the-nation contest — in favor of all primaries, which also should be open primaries to encourage more independent and crossover voting. Rotate the order of the states so that Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina don’t have so much more influence than the rest of us. And then pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and undo all the crazy GOP restrictions, to further boost turnout. No party bosses would have picked Trump, but would a truly open-to-all election? Let’s find out.

But what about conventions? On a hot July afternoon in 2016, I maneuvered myself onto the floor of Cleveland’s cavernous basketball arena, minutes before Republican delegates went through the time-honored formality of voting to nominate Trump. As I wrote that night, “At 7:12 p.m., America changed forever.” Watching the roll call, I was fulfilling the dream of a 9-year-old boy to witness history — even if that history was circling around the toilet. But I knew the real reason that I was there was to say goodbye.

— Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.