At the end of a badly flawed nominating process, US political parties traditionally hold a largely pointless convention to formally crown their candidate for the November election. As both Democrats and Republicans struggle with how to hold an in-person convention during a brutal pandemic, this year presents a great opportunity for both parties to rethink conventions as part of broader reforms that the country so badly needs.
Historically, party delegates actually made important decisions at conventions — sometimes even in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms — picking their presidential and vice-presidential nominees and drafting a platform. Candidates gave rousing speeches, like FDR’s in 1932, which laid out the New Deal. But in recent decades, they’ve become just TV productions. Actual decisions are made by voters in primaries. The speeches, with few exceptions, are typically little more than vapid cheerleading, and the expense of holding conventions — typically funded by corporate donors — provides an avenue for influence-peddling.
“No business gets done at a national convention that couldn’t be done remotely,” Steve Grossman, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee told the Globe.
But these vestigial conventions are worse than a waste of time. The need to maintain the fiction of a convention, complete with delegates, aggravates many of the other problems in a nominating process that has given too much power to certain states and limits the clout of minority voters. Earlier this year, the Globe editorial board called for moving the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary out of their privileged position as the first states to begin the delegate-election process, but that’s just a start. If the parties eliminated the need to translate votes into delegates and organize them into state-by-state blocs, it would reduce the power of any particular state and make the nomination process more truly democratic.
A thoughtful approach, unfortunately, is the last thing that interests President Trump, who has chosen to turn the Republican National Convention into yet another reality game show — this time with actual lives on the line. Trump used a Memorial Day tweet to try to bully North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, into making a judgment call on whether he would allow “full attendance in the Arena” for the GOP convention set for Charlotte the last week in August. Heads, Trump wins and Cooper actually caves and allows the public health menace of some 50,000 delegates, supporters, and media to gather at full strength in Charlotte. Tails, Trump wins, Cooper makes the sensible call, requires a scaled back convention, and takes the heat for a president whose ego requires him never to just give in and do the sensible thing.
The Republican governors of Florida, Georgia, and Texas have all expressed an interest in picking up the GOP convention should North Carolina not allow a mass gathering. Cooper responded to Trump’s challenge Tuesday, saying, “I will say that it’s okay for political conventions to be political, but pandemic response cannot be.”
Meanwhile, responsible adults in both parties ought to recognize that, even by August, it makes no earthly sense from a public health perspective to infest either Charlotte or Milwaukee, site of the Democratic National Convention. Democrats seem a little further along in the process, having first postponed their convention from July to mid-August, and then initiated discussions among party officials about a scaled-back convention, which would include remote delegate voting and possibly smaller regional events.
For this year, it’s time both parties decided to go largely virtual, salvage whatever live action from their conventions will translate on television (How about a Zoom call of the delegates by state? Why not broadcast just a few visionary speeches from the best orators and thinkers in each party?)
The national political convention deserves a decent burial — and 2020 can be a kind of memorial service, a moment for the sentimental to remember the good times and move on. But they should also use this as an opportunity to revamp the way they nominate candidates.
Imagine picking a candidate just based on who got the most votes in the primaries, without the need to hold a delegate vote at all. Imagine crafting a party platform with local and regional input — a combination of a traveling roadshow and town meeting. Perhaps then, at minimum, someone might read it. Ideally, the process would engage more citizens to think past the election and be part of how that agenda gets accomplished.
The parties need to find a way to reach out to a new generation and to reengage those disheartened by politics as usual. Democracy surely doesn’t require thousands of people in a jam-packed arena to accomplish that. And it might be better served by signaling that the era of candidate anointment by the few is over.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.