When I was a toddler, something in the GOP convention must have left an impression. At every opportunity, I started saying "I like Ike," to the consternation of my Democratic family.
Growing up in Oklahoma, we were Southern Democrats-not just Democrats, but Southern Democrats, culturally conservative, anti-communist, but stubbornly loyal to Mr. Roosevelt for how he helped everyone out during the dust bowl. But we always watched both parties' conventions every four years, watching the demonstrations on our black-and-white TV, listening to the speeches, and staying up late for the great roll call of the states.
Just after LBJ got the nomination, a friend and I were so moved that we called the local party office and got a carload of Johnson/ Humphrey signs, stapling them on every telephone pole in town, then going out in the country to adorn the barbed-wire fences. There couldn't have been more than one Republican farmer in the county, but he called the sheriff to complain that we had put Democratic signs on his fence. We were busted, but the sheriff treated us benevolently. He was a political creature, too.
When I grew up, I actually participated in the political process. Jimmy Carter struck me as a Christian who would make a good president-this was before I became a born-again rightwinger-so I went to my neighborhood caucus meeting and ended up getting elected to the District Convention. It had some of the accoutrements of the big national conventions-hats, signs, spontaneous demonstrations, speeches, party business-but its main purpose was to elect some of our number to represent our state at the big show.
Here I learned a little about power politics and the dark side of the Democratic Party. The state teachers' union moved in and took over the convention like a school marm bringing a one-room schoolhouse to order. Since I was a college English instructor, they invited me to their caucus. Here we were organized to take over the party. One union official had signs to hold up, informing us on every resolution how we should vote. These pros seemed far more liberal than the rank-and-file Southern Democrats, whom they were manipulating and for whom they were calling the shots. In fact, the elected officials were more liberal than the rank and file, and I started picking up on how they spun their positions and condescended to the people they depended on for support. It wasn't long before lots of us became Reagan Democrats, and then Reagan Republicans.
Through it all, the political conventions were the hallmark of participatory democracy. To watch them gavel-to-gavel was to witness history unfolding, a sublime example of free people choosing their leaders and governing themselves.
Today, the rise of primary elections, in which the candidates are chosen before the parties even have their meetings, has stolen the thunder of the national conventions. There was a time when the delegates actually chose the candidate, in an atmosphere of deliberation, uncertainty, and suspense. Now the results, except for choosing the vice presidential candidate, are a foregone conclusion.
The television networks (except for C-Span) have stopped covering them gavel-to-gavel. Instead, they choose tidbits to televise and to spin. The media commentators become the filters, the intermediaries between the political process and the public. So what the public sees is largely determined by the media's agenda.
As a result, conventions have become less like deliberative bodies and more like infomercials. All of the delegates must be on good behavior and the events must be carefully scripted to attract positive TV coverage.
In the conventions of yore, eloquent speeches actually made a difference in swaying delegates and forming policy. This was the ancient discipline of rhetoric before that term became debased by television commercials and propaganda: the art of persuasion, the creative use of language to change people's minds and win them over. The lifeblood of the old political conventions was its memorable speeches: Barry Goldwater's stirring but inflammatory rhetoric as he tore the party away from the Rockefeller establishment; the young Ronald Reagan's speech at that same convention, which launched his political career.
Today, conventions still feature speeches that are revealing, if not eloquent-from Mario Cuomo's emotional rabble-rousing to Al Gore's tear-jerking recital of family tragedies-but their place is increasingly being taken by made-for-TV videos shown on giant screens. And important business is still conducted, but that part seldom makes the nightly news.
Overall, the old convention system, with its caucuses and smoke-filled rooms, enabled ordinary citizens to take more of an active part in the political process than today's primary elections. Now that I live in Wisconsin, we have an open primary: There is no need to declare which party you belong to, and you can vote for whichever slate of candidates you want. The political work is already done by someone else. All we have to do is vote. Just voting is like helping someone by just writing a check-critically important, but stopping short of full involvement.