If Andrew Jackson or Woodrow Wilson or even Dwight Eisenhower could be resurrected to watch political conventions today, they would probably be most astonished not by the jumbotron screens or the swarm of media professionals or even perhaps the remarkable change in the racial complexion of the delegates (at least on the Democratic side). They would be most puzzled by the number of featured speakers who aren’t politicians.
It’s not the actors and singers who would seem out of place; conventions have always been political theater, and the commingling of show business and elections goes back mush further than we realize. The change had happened gradually, but over the last several convention cycles we have seen the Lenny Skutnikization of conventions. Lenny Skutnik was the passenger on the downed airplane who heroically pulled a struggling woman out of the freezing Potomac, and was recognized in Ronald Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union address with a seat in the balcony and shout out in the speech. Ever since, presidents have often populated their State of the Union speeches—and the balconies—with everyday heroes and victims.
But not even Lenny Skutnik and his human-prop successors have been invited to speak to a joint session of Congress. At conventions, it’s different. Over the last century, political power in our system has shifted from party operatives and power brokers—from ward bosses to party chairs to governors who control huge blocs of voters—to the experts who traffic in words, images, and symbols: the pollsters, speechwriters, media strategists, and other assorted spin doctors (including, in recent years, the data masters who micro-target candidates’ appeals). Simultaneously, the primary audience for conventions has changed, from the party faithful in the hall to the millions watching at home or TV (or even following—or trying to follow—on Twitter).
In the last couple of decades, these wizards of image-making have prospected for ratings and bounces in the polls by showcasing not just the party’s heavy hitters but the ordinary Americans with compelling stories to tell. Philadelphia probably represents a watershed of some sort. The stage at the sports arena has been trod by all manner of voters: mothers and daughters of the victims of gun violence; veterans of war; immigrants made good; beneficiaries of federal largesse; community advocates who’ve punched above their weight; and on and on. Even the President of the United States on Wednesday night was introduced not by a political patron or congressional partner but by a seventy-something Gold Star mother from Ohio who spoke of the warmth of a presidential hug.
Presumably, the new mandarins of media politics have concluded that these testimonials work. They humanize politicians. They translate their lofty or abstract policies into concrete realities. They illustrate how choosing one party or another, one candidate or another, makes real differences in real people’s lives. We know that the plural of anecdote is not anecdata, but these affecting snapshots of individual triumph over adversity often leave a deeper imprint on the memory than another politician’s stump speech.
But one can’t help being a little cynical—not toward the speakers, whose tears and quavering voices are unaffected; nor toward the audiences, at home or in the hall whose reactions are genuine; but toward the spinmeisters, who seem to be sprinkling them through the week like expert chefs with their favorite spices, treating them as an ingredient in an appetizing recipe.
And for some of us, there’s something lost in the change. A few decades ago, the networks’ coverage of the Olympics began to deemphasize the sporting contest themselves and focus on the personal travails and backstories of choice athletes—the sacrifices they made, the comebacks they attempted, the family support they enjoyed. Those who wanted to see more trial heats and preliminary matches were out of luck. So, too, the conventions no longer revel as they once did in politics proper, and networks no longer tout their “gavel-to-gavel coverage.” And along with the spouses and children of the candidates, the emphasis on biography, the downgrading of events like the showcasing of the party’s congressional candidates—which happened Wednesday before practically anybody was watching—the rise of the citizen testimonial marks another step in the peculiar form of democratization that American politics have taken, where insiders are always suspect, outsiders presumptively virtuous, ordinary folk as worthy of the spotlight and the microphone as their tribunes, and tales of everyday life as politically effective as a good old fashioned stemwinder.
But so be it. The convention is for the people.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is a longtime contributor to Dissent. He is the author, most recently, of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (W.W. Norton).
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