Let’s face it: The time for political conventions has pretty much come to an end.
For generations they were a cross between a barroom brawl and a three-ring circus. These days the party conventions have become two things. Publicly, they are bloated, multi-day halftime shows trolling misleading visions of America. Privately, they consist of extravagant and secretive parties held by the purveyors of the two key commodities of politics: money and power.
Although the elected party loyalists who attend the conventions have a great time, the organizers have to scramble to find something for television that will fire up supporters for the home stretch to the election ‒ while simultaneously attracting the tiny number of undecided voters. The results are usually so boring that the major TV news networks have almost completely stopped covering them.
Occasionally something extraordinary happens. At the 2004 Boston convention that nominated Sen. John Kerry, I, like everyone, marveled at a little-known senator from Illinois. Barack Obama hit the trifecta of oration with his story, his passion and his common sense. In a little over 2,000 words, he momentarily restored people’s faith in politics and laid the groundwork for his presidential victory in 2008.
As captivating as he was, it was more like a performance on “American Idol” that rocketed the surprised contestant to the top of the heap. Conventions no longer pick candidates and no longer debate issues. True, they try to communicate differences between parties with confusing claims and counterclaims. Both conventions this year will say that they will restore the economy and block the destruction of Medicare. Both will feverishly pluck at what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory” to see whose tune will be more stirring.
But such blandness has costs. During the 2000 election, disgust prompted enough people to support Ralph Nader in Florida to obliterate what would have been a decisive electoral and popular victory for Al Gore. That was a disaster for the United States.
In the smoothing out of the hurly-burly that used to be conventions, we are losing the chance for necessary truths to be voiced. Tens of millions of Americans want to create a new economy, to redirect our nation toward justice and sustainability. Millions more worry that something is coming loose in America’s heart. Our failure to create a venue to voice these concerns is doing incalculable damage. It’s not just America’s identity at stake. We are breaking our promises to our seniors and to our children, we seem to have given up on the idea of equality, our Congress is corrupt, and we have sunk into a disgraceful plutocratic period more unstable and unfair than the Gilded Age. Finally, we have abrogated all global leadership on climate change – the issue that is likely to bury the hopes and dreams of upcoming generations. And we are doing all these things through a conspiracy of silence as chilling as any in our history.
Almost 10 years ago, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia took to the Senate floor to rail at the cowardice of his colleagues for refusing to debate the Iraq war: “This Chamber is, for the most part, silent ‒ ominously, dreadfully silent,” He said.
“There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons … There is nothing. We stand passively mute, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.”
With all the noise, balloons, alcohol and pontification that lie ahead, the same remains true for the coming conventions. Despite the urgency of our national problems, our parties are hitting the mute button ‒ which is one reason most Americans will respond in kind.