Today national conventions are a thing of the past because mid-20th-century reformers accused them of being undemocratic. Actually, they were as democratic as today's caucuses and primaries. Moreover, they reduced the need for the vast fundraising operations that are our contemporary reformers' nightmare. Most of the delegates at national conventions were chosen democratically at their state conventions, where party platforms were pounded out and presidential nominees chosen. The enormous expense of media advertising and get-out-the-vote drives was unnecessary, as most of the participants were volunteers, loyal party members or public-spirited citizens prevailed upon by neighbors to get involved as Democrats or Republicans.
What is more, seasoned politicians were influential every step of the way, right up to the convention. In the time of competitive national political conventions, presidential candidates still had to campaign throughout the nation but at far less expense. Then once the national convention was convened, they had to present themselves to each state delegation. Reformers inveighed against the spectacle of floor demonstrations, with delegates wearing silly hats and parading up the aisles, but such high jinks were harmless, far less expensive than today's vast media buys, and turned up presidential nominees far more impressive than today's poseurs.
Reading Arthur Schlesinger's "Journals," I came across the now-deceased historian's observations of JFK at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Kennedy was in a pretty good position to win the nomination, but he had to present himself to state delegations nonetheless. He particularly disrelished visiting the segregationist Southerners, but he did so. He already had a sense of what they were like but now had an opportunity to review his estimates of them. They, in turn, got a sense of him. This was not a costly blitz through a primary state, accompanied by expensive and misleading media barrages and transient opportunities to embarrass his rivals. It was a serious meeting among Democrats who were deeply involved in governing their states. It was adult politics.
If our reformers really want to end the nightmare of $100-million primary campaigns and the trashiness of this primary season, they will bring us back to the good old days of national political conventions that really matter. I long to see candidates in silly hats rather than in silly situations.
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