Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fessing up: I like national conventions

One doesn't have to look that far to find people bemoaning the massive spectacle that is the national political convention. This post was inspired by one recent conversation at my second blogging home at BlueMassGroup. But I'll admit that I like conventions. I hung around the 2004 gathering in Boston, and have attended every Democratic state convention for the past several years. Here's why:

First off, one common complaint is that such a large amount of money is being wasted. Well, NASCAR strikes me as a waste of money, too -- people driving large machines in circles is a billion-dollar industry. But heck, it isn't my money so I don't really care. Same deal on national political conventions. It's not really my money that's being's the money of the big-ticket donors to the parties. Sure, one can complain about the easy access of corporate suitors to politicians, but that isn't really the dominant argument. So if the Republicans and Democrats want to blow tons of money into putting on a show, go right ahead.

Secondly, I do love a show. I have no grudge against the feting of men and women who can throw a ball or swing a bat, but if they get such adoration, why not offer a little of the same every four years to people who will be spending our money, and making life-and-death decisions on a daily basis? The Opening Ceremony has no real significance to the athletic competitions, but is an inspiring spectacle. It is a key part of the Olympic experience, as the conventions are a key part of the political experience in our country. It's emotional to see Teddy up there, knowing this will likely be his last convention as Senator. I like pageantry, and I mention later on, it is a key part to raising consciousness and excitement about politics in this country.

Thirdly, I think that there is something important that happens at the state and national conventions. The kind of cross-fertilization of activists and politicians from across the country is important to exchange ideas and foster a feeling of community within the party and the country. Robert Putnam isn't the only one to note the gradual fading of American community, and that includes a sense of political community. This line of work that has such a direct impact on the American quality of life is held in such disrepute by Americans -- politics is universally seen as bad. Conventions give Mario Cuomo, Ann Richards, and Brian Schweitzer -- and Barack Obama -- platforms before audiences across America, establishing common touchstones in America that wouldn't otherwise be known. I've blogged in the past of the disastrous state of Belgium because there is no truly national political conversation, and these shows are a key part in avoiding the same fate in our nation.

If we can give over endless hours of primetime to a glorified singing contest that emphasizes the worst of the worst, to watching a parade of men hit a small white ball and wander off after it, to the solving of grotesque fictional crimes in all its gory forensic detail, we can bloody well examine and celebrate the machinery of American democracy. Politics should be seen as honorable and exciting again, and the conventions are part of approaching that change.

Fourthly, politics is a subject about which Americans are pretty ignorant. Take the example of the recent poll wherein 1% of respondents said they thought that Obama was Jewish. Americans are clueless about where things are in the Middle East, and are seemingly ready to give away the Bill of Rights as they don't know what's in it.

If it takes endless stagecraft, bad cover songs, dozens of speeches, and funny hats by the hundreds to hit Americans over the head until they come to understand the broad outlines of the American political scene, so be it. They may be excessive and strictly speaking not necessary to political process, but it is one of the few remaining keys to American political community -- and that I think makes them a good thing. Besides, you can always change the channel.

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