Party Conventions Term Paper

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Party Conventions

Political Conventions: History and Overview

The conventional historical wisdom suggests that during the 19th century, American political party conventions tended to be raucous affairs, full of heated debates and arguments, in contrast to the present sanitized era of televised politics. Today, say the words 'political convention,' and immediately Americans' eyes glaze over with images of falling balloons, waving flags, smiling candidates' families, and outdated pop music. This suggests that over the course of the 20th century, party conventions tended to grow more staid, especially after the all-seeing gaze of television became a factor in voter's decision-making. The candidate's projected image from early on in the campaign became a more influential part of the electoral process so the conventions were scripted, rather than spontaneous. In fact, some people feel that campaigns have deteriorated to the point where they have no importance at all.

This would not entirely be accurate -- for every dull convention, there are conventions where vital issues were decided. Consider the divisive split between the Democrats and the 'Dixiecrats' in 1940, the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam protests during the 1964 and 1968 Democratic conventions, and other protests within and without of the conventional halls. They remind the viewer that conventions are still places of debate, rather than coronations. The level of divisiveness present in the current Democratic race for the nominee is unusual, but not unprecedented. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that the supposedly more entertaining conventions of the 19th century actually reflected a less participative electoral process, where political machines dictated who the candidate should be at the convention, rather than the more representative primaries.

This is not to say that television has had and will continue to have a major impact upon the way nominees are packaged, and no matter how vigorous the debate in the televised era, conventions are unlikely to become ideological bloodbaths within their halls, given the level of party media-savvy. The first political convention to be televised was the 1940 Republican National Convention, but television had less impact upon the final election results than subsequent conventions, since few Americans had televisions at this time. Television has only been thought to have a major impact on electoral results since 1952. Since then, one scholar complained that conventions became "choreographed, made-for-television events that double as free TV time for candidates. Because the candidates and their running mates are foregone decisions (the conventions serve only to ratify the winner of the primaries, and his or her running mate), the events are widely considered pep rallies for the parties, and not many Americans tune in. Consequently, they're not ratings bonanzas and the networks dedicate only about an hour of airtime to them each night.

But this ignores the fact that merely because a nominee is decided does not mean that there is not debate within the party. Furthermore, in 1952, Adlai Stevenson triumphed over a 'Stop Stevenson' campaign and won the nomination with a scant three ballots. Stevenson was nominated again in 1956 but refused to select a running mate. The Democrats as a party chose Senator Estes Kefauver over then- Senator John F. Kennedy in two ballots." Stevenson, of course, lost to Eisenhower both times, and although the contentious presentation of the party during the televised convention was hardly the only reason for his loss, it may have been a contributing factor.

This is why, in the 21st century, the current Democratic race is causing such anxiety within the party. It is feared that if the convention is called to play an important role in determining the candidate, as conventions were traditionally 'supposed to' in the 19th century it will simply present a negative image of the party to the public, and suggest that the Democrats are not really a party, but two opposing camps of contentious ideologies at war. Of course, a fractured Democratic party is not unusual, even in a winning year. In 1948, splinter group of Southern Democrats in the U.S. elections of 1948, rejected President Harry S. Truman's pro-civil-rights stance at the Democratic National Convention and decided to run and select their own presidential candidate, with the aim of forcing the election into the House of Representatives and preventing either Truman or his Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, from obtaining a majority of the electoral votes.

Although party platforms are not binding, clearly they are important to many members of the party, enough for certain factions to revolt when internal disagreements become too deep. "Convention resolutions became known as a "platform" in 1852 when Democratic National Convention delegates approved a "platform of resolutions." For example, the first Republican platform in of 1856 resolved to stop the spread of slavery into the Western territories. While platform writing used to be written by party leaders at the national convention alone and today it is more of a collective effort, this has not eliminated the controversy it can spawn. Disputes over ideology have been equally tumultuous as the processes involved in determining the nominee. For example, when the historic controversy brewing over slavery was played out at the Democratic national convention, when the party adopted Stephen Douglas' support of nonintervention with slavery in the territories, several delegates from the South walked out of the convention. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1964, the Democratic convention would be a site of civil rights controversy again, when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was created because when the state barred African-Americans from voting in the state primaries and conventions. When elected MFDP delegate Lou Hamer appeared before the Credentials Committee President Lyndon B. Johnson, fearing the negative coverage, preempted the news coverage of the committee with a speech of his own. "Ironically, the LBJ convention had turned away its friends from Mississippi, while seating the delegates of the white-led state party that hated Johnson. Party leaders did this because they wanted to prevent wholesale defection of white Southerners to the Republican Party."

Thus is it not entirely accurate to say that television diminished the inherently divisive nature of assembling a party platform and turned the convention into a coronation. In fact, in some cases the presence televised conventions may have influenced the process in a negative fashion. For example, in 1968, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy left the nominee in dispute, and party leaders (it was said) railroaded Vice-President Hubert Humphrey into the nomination. The televised violent protests that occurred in Chicago outside of the convention may have swayed viewers to see the Democrats as either out-of-touch (as many party insiders had no idea what was going on outside of the convention) or as unable to control the angry tensions erupting in America. More important than the party platform was the image presented of the party -- and this truth remains of all political conventions, even if few have had the visual impact of the 1968 convention.

At the 2004 Republican convention in New York City, anti-war protests were also rife. In one act of civil disobedience, "5,000 cyclists gathered in Union Square Park at 6 p.m. For 'Critical Mass,' a monthly bike ride around Manhattan, sponsored by environmental group 'Times Up!' " Months afterwards, criticisms dogged the NYPD about charges of police brutality and unreasonable actions during this and other convention protests. Although not parallel with the Chicago events of 1968, it shows that no matter how carefully scripted the convention and how certain the nominee, politics is a volatile mixture that cannot be micromanaged by any political party, Democrat or Republican.

Given the particularly difficult circumstances that have surrounded contentious Democratic fights for presidents in recent years, the party in 2008 is perhaps justifiably anxious that all conflicts can be contained by the time the convention is staged. No matter how placid the choreographed events, the various back-room debates between 'super… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Party Conventions.  (2008, May 12).  Retrieved December 15, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/party-conventions/4302983

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"Party Conventions."  Essaytown.com.  May 12, 2008.  Accessed December 15, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/party-conventions/4302983.