Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the effect of Gustav on the Republican convention. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
This is an unusual moment in American politics, when the winds and arrows of outrageous fortune has caused a suspension of political time. As the Republican National Committee has temporarily cast aboard the meticulously scripted and scheduled line-up of speeches for their convention, perhaps it is time also for Americans to take stock of the questionable value of nomination conventions as little more than parties for the parties that add little value to our democracy.
After all, nomination conventions no longer serve the functions that they used to serve just a half century ago. Back then, every convention was a “brokered” convention, when all delegates were what Democrats now call “superdelegates” and these party members jostled, bargained, and cast their votes on the floor to determine the party’s nominee. All this ended in the 1960s when the primary selection system took hold and primary electorate voters determined ahead of time, how their representatives – party delegates – will cast their vote for them come convention time. Even the final vestige of the convention’s traditional purpose – the selection and announcement of a vice-presidential candidate – has been discarded this year, as Senators Obama and McCain announced their VP picks before the start of their convention.
Because conventions no longer serve their principal original function, they are, at best, ceremonial vestiges of an era long past, and at worst unabashed celebrations of partisanship. Yet we have become so comfortable with them that we scarcely remember that in no place in the Constitution are parties mentioned or sanctioned. Indeed, the Founders railed against faction, and George Washington warned of the “baneful effects of the spirit of party” in his Farewell Address.
The McCain campaign’s decision to temporarily scale back the political elements of the Republican Nomination Convention was, to some extent, a confession that nomination conventions are partisan affairs, and an admission that there is no time for partisanship and politics when there are real and pressing problems facing the country. Soon enough we shall revert back to politics and partisanship as routine, but it might be worthwhile, at least for one day, to contemplate a world without parties. If we really hate partisanship, why do we celebrate parties, and very expensive parties for parties? Gustav gave us a window into a different kind of politics that the Founders dreamt of but could never themselves deliver.