Digitizing our Democracy: Observations on Convention Season

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, September 4, 2012.

Because the week before classes start is when I’m at my peak in terms of work avoidance, I found myself watching coverage of the Republican National Convention last week.  Then, because I’m a giant dork, I also found myself watching C-Span’s retrospective on convention speeches of old.  I watched the badly distorted and spotty footage of George McGovern accepting his party’s nomination in 1972, Carter’s DNC speech in ’76, in which he mildly joked about the convention’s atypical lack of tumult, Clinton’s speech in 1992, where he joked about his own disastrous keynote speech of the 1988 event, and Barack Obama’s acceptance speech under the lights at Invesco Field.  I really wished I had been paying attention a week earlier when the retrospective on past Republican conventions would likely have aired as well.  I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit these political moments with the benefit of some hindsight and think about the changes they sought to anticipate and the ways they articulated themselves to a nation given its various historical moods.  Similarly interesting though was the staging and the evolving orientation of the speaker to the technology.

The retrospective brought to mind the documentary called “Primary,” which I watched during the last presidential cycle in 2008, after it had received some media attention during the high-profile Obama/Clinton contest.  What’s truly fascinating about the film is that it is created of footage shot during the presidential primary between Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy in 1960 in the run-up to the Wisconsin primary.  It’s a fantastic example of a camera being in the room before the room became oriented to the camera.  The electoral value in campaign events was still the people actually in the room, not the television audience, and the candidates’ behavior clearly reflected that.  While the next generation of technology (one that served Kennedy well) was present, modes of campaigning had yet to adapt themselves fully to its power.

So I was thinking of this as I watched McGovern and successive Democratic nominees address their respective conventions.  The technological revolution between McGovern and Carter was astounding.  Both were technically in color, but someone had given some thought to lighting Jimmy Carter.  McGovern gave his acceptance speech at about 2am after procedural delays extended the convention.  Did “prime time” even exist as a concept then?  Clearly the objective of the convention was not for the nominee to address a nationwide television audience.  By 1976 though, Carter stood well-quaffed upon an elevated stage with a backdrop pausing for applause lines so that the cameras would catch every inflection.  There even seemed to be an effort to anticipate some sound bites.  Television was certainly not new in the 70s, but it was here that the campaigns truly took notice of its power to shape opinions and expand audiences.  And for a generation we saw conventions ever more “produced,” culminating with the DNC’s Denver rock concert in 2008.

In this context though, I find the RNC Tampa convention to be a bit baffling in its extraordinary lameness!  There was a generation in which national political conventions captivated network television audiences.  Ironically though, in part because the networks were watching, the conventions had to replace the political intrigue that was long their reason for existing in the first place, with a sort of superficial, heavily-scripted, antiseptic entertainment quality.  What made conventions interesting was the last thing campaigns wanted viewers at home to see.  As a result, the networks began to lose interest, and began to trim back their coverage to only the speeches by key players.  Of course today we have to ask ourselves how many people are even watching network TV anymore.  I get the impression that our political conventions are on the cusp of another set of changes.  The Republican convention seemed caught between two generations of potential pitfalls.  There was the perceived need to squelch any commotion on the convention floor over the Ron Paul delegates.  Ironically, had the respective committees just allowed those delegates votes to be entered onto the record, the whole episode wouldn’t have even made the news.  It wasn’t happening during prime time after all.  Instead, the resistance to commotion created headlines and embarrassment for the party.  You would think that the lesson of Obama/Clinton would have been that winning a contested campaign was more important than the appearance of consensus.  Given the rumors stirring about a possible 3rd party Paul campaign that would basically destroy any chance Romney has, I would have also thought the convention would have taken steps to embrace their Ron Paul wing rather than alienating them—even if it meant letting the guy make a speech in prime time (to the ever-diminishing network audience), endorsement or not.  But because of the need to maintain the carefully scripted choreography of a television event, embarrassment is created by the effort to avoid embarrassment.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that technology shapes the practices of academics.  How has digital technology altered our approaches to research and teaching?  How has it infiltrated and altered our classrooms and conferences?  The way we communicate with one another is ever changing, and academia is in a constant struggle to keep pace, adapting our traditional time-honored approaches to new capabilities to inform, entertain, and educate.  Politicians face some similar struggles—they too need to inform, entertain, and educate an audience.  Their audience, though, is a whole lot tougher to pin down and increasingly challenging to reach as communication technologies proliferate.  Will the comparisons between 2012 and 2016 conventions be as compelling as 1972 and 1976?  And will politicians prove more or less adept than academics at adapting new technologies to the furthering of their enterprise?  Because if the Republican convention is any indication, at least one party has some considerable work to do in this area.