Begun as a reform movement in the 19th-century United States, political conventions do little real party business today. Their one redeeming virtue? They are a showcase for political speech.
Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
If you have spent time inside a modern national political convention, you know that they are noisy, anachronistic affairs populated mostly by minor-league politicians, campaign advisers, journalists, and the same pundits you see every night on TV – all of whom mill around for most of the day and come alive for a few prime-time speeches.
So what’s the purpose of a convention these days? We asked Robert Lehrman to take on that question (you can read his observations here).
Conventions began as a reform movement, designed to break the backroom dealmaking in Washington that determined candidates for president in the early 19th century. Instead of congressional insiders deciding, delegates from around the country would gather to choose a standard-bearer. It was a radical idea at the time.
Over the next 150 years, conventions developed into sprawling, backslapping reunions with balloon drops, brass bands, straw hats, and their own forms of backroom dealmaking. By the mid-20th century, they were no longer the solution but the problem. The low point came in 1968 with public outrage at the mayhem inside and outside Chicago’s International Amphitheatre during the Democratic National Convention.
A new reform movement in the 1970s turned primaries and caucuses into the vehicle for selecting presidential candidates. So it’s worth repeating: What’s the purpose of a convention? Well, for one thing, you could see them as showcases for political speech.