What is lost if parties abandon naming conventions
President Trump this week announced the cancellation of the Republican National Convention scheduled to be held next month in Jacksonville, Florida. The move mirrors the Democrats’ decision to limit convention events to an acceptance speech by their presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
Some hope Democrats and Republicans will abandon conventions for good — a sentiment that reflects a popular view of conventions as overly scripted campaign ads with little substantive merit to the party or the public.
But party congresses have never been so important.
At a time of public health and economic crisis, and as the nation grapples with systemic racism and questions of who has the right to vote in our democracy, we must remember that conventions provide a rare mechanism for citizens to come together, learn from each other and press leaders to address their concerns. When long-term democratic processes like these are eliminated, we all lose.
Last November, I helped organize a mock nominating convention at the University of New Hampshire sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative. More than 300 students from across New Hampshire — home to the nation’s first primary — gathered to simulate the nomination and drafting processes for each party’s platform. They debated energy and people policy and, after a negotiated Democratic convention, nominated Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and President Trump, respectively, to lead their party slates.
The students left with a valuable lesson in civic life. They learned what it means to have and wield political power, and the importance of showing up and being counted – lessons we all need to remember at this time.
For Americans, national political conventions are an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of racial inequality in our political institutions. The first National Nominating Convention was conceived by Democratic-Republican Martin Van Buren in 1832 as a rare gathering of party leaders and activists to bridge major “geographical” and “sectional” divides – in other words, to build unity by removing differences over slavery.
At a time of dealing with the scars of slavery, the continued suppression of minority representation at the expense of building party unity demands our all attention. This summer’s conventions are an opportunity to find out whether the parties plan to carry on that legacy — or change it.
For voters, national party conventions are an opportunity to learn about each party’s ideals, values and political and legislative priorities. It is also an opportunity to meet the future leaders and rising stars of the party. Equally important, conventions shine a light on the voices missing from prime-time slots — those denied a seat at the proverbial table. Would the Democratic National Committee invite young Black Lives Matter activists to speak ahead of this summer’s convention?
For the party, national political conventions are an opportunity to reconcile factions after long and often bitter primary seasons, develop and share campaign strategies, and begin the hard work of building a winning electoral coalition.
Conventions also foster a very real and healthy tension between the party base and the leadership, and are a chance for the presidential candidate to share their vision for the party and the country. Platform battles over US military support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and LGBTQ+ rights – to name a few – highlight real differences of opinion. These battles may be getting rarer, but they’re still important. Activists, interest groups and the public deserve the chance to have their voices heard on these important issues.
Perhaps most importantly, conventions provide an all-too-rare opportunity for reformers to push for changes to the party’s nominating process. In 2016, that meant reforms to superdelegates — a charge led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt).
This year, the dissolution of the most diverse Democratic presidential field in American history demands an informed debate about how to promote a fair and inclusive nominating process and educate voters about the party’s future leaders. Likewise, strategic Republicans are likely to begin planning for any nominating reform in 2024.
On that chilly fall day last year in a New Hampshire convention hall, my students learned that political power means controlling the agenda. This means doing your research and demanding that your voice be heard whether you are invited into the room or not. It means learning the rules of the game and, if necessary, trying to change them.
This year, both parties are advised to follow public health recommendations and cancel in-person events. But they owe it to themselves and the country to find other ways to promote the civic learning, coalition building, and reform that all Americans deserve.
Emily Baer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.