The first two virtual national conventions in American history have been successful in many ways. But the change has also had at least one bad cons
The first two virtual national conventions in American history have been successful in many ways. But the change has also had at least one bad consequence, and that is the failure to bring together in one place people in each party with different points of view. That, in turn, reflects a larger problem that ails our national politics.
Political conventions once were much more than shows to present the party’s nominees and agenda to television audiences. They were raucous affairs in which the difficult work of selecting a nominee was done through hard-nosed political negotiations and balloting.
Even after that ended and nominees were chosen through primaries and caucuses ahead of any convention, the conventions brought together people who often had very different prescriptions for how to improve the country every four years.
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The parties themselves were different then – Southern conservatives counted themselves among the Democrats and Northern progressives made their home in the GOP. That meant that conversations on and off the convention floor, along the hallways, or over a drink at a hotel bar weren’t simply paeans to the nominee or gripes about the other party. They were substantive discussions about what the party should stand for, and how to solve the country’s problems.
For all the effort to manage the party’s outward-facing show for the public, a lot of real work was inward-facing, as party members worked through disagreements in an effort to present a united front.
Today, by contrast, substantive discussions designed to bridge disagreements are fewer, and nonexistent at virtual conventions. Disagreements remain, but nothing like the chasms separating, for example, Mayor Richard Daley from the young protesters at the 1968 DNC in Chicago, or the warring Ford and Reagan camps that battled at the 1976 RNC in Kansas City.
While those seeking message discipline may view the current situation as a blessing, it blocks substantive discussion between people who disagree, which is the hallmark of a healthy democracy.
What’s happened to political conventions is emblematic of a more pervasive trend within American politics. We’ve stopped engaging with other peoples’ ideas within our parties or between parties, choosing instead to castigate them as too far outside our norm.
It’s also happening on television news, where vitriol and sanctimony drive viewers. It’s happening in newspapers, where opinion forums shrink from printing challenging pieces. It’s happening online, where partisan views or conspiracy theories vilify others, rather than engaging their ideas.
And it’s happening in Congress where Democrats and Republicans reflexively lob charges at one another in lieu of meeting, talking, engaging and compromising.
We need to find new spaces for the left and right to work together.
American democracy needs a resurgence of the thoughtful engagement that once helped everyone understand problems from more than one perspective. Set aside the politics – bipartisanship is the only way the country will ever address its problems with solutions. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are sufficiently powerful to bulldoze the other and impose an agenda wholly rejected by the other side. To solve problems, they need to work together.
In Congress, that’s beginning to happen. The Problem Solvers Caucus, a bloc of 50 members of the House, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, is working behind the scenes to craft legislation members of both parties can embrace.
What they produce may not appeal to the far left or the far right – and it may not be celebrated as part of either party’s convention platform – but it’s usually the best way to make progress. They’ve produced proposals to address health care, immigration and border security, infrastructure and more. And now they’re building a bridge to eight members of the Senate, four Democrats and four Republicans, meeting regularly via Zoom, and crafting legislation across the aisle.
Political conventions may never again be what they once were. They may never again be more than choreographed productions to present a party’s nominee to the electorate. But we need to find new spaces for the left and right to work together.
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Elections may be about highlighting differences, but solving problems requires cultivating common ground. American voters will make crucial decisions this November. Once the winners are chosen, they will need to think proactively about how to engage their adversaries in building a better shared future for our country.
That will require more than a virtual performance. It can only happen through real political leadership.
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