What Is the Point of a National Political Convention?

We are in national political convention season, a strange time where fifteen thousand media, political insiders, and protesters descend on two different cities without any formal reason for doing so. Delegates aren’t going to choose anything of substance – the party platforms are irrelevant and the candidates are selected beforehand. There’s no news being made, except for gaffes or something silly like that. The speeches are not particularly interesting. In fact, what these conventions are, more than anything else, are trade shows. Specifically, they are trade shows for the political class. The Democrats have said they will not fund their convention with corporate money, which is like trying to take the sex out of porn. Adorable. Not gonna happen.

Here are five purposes of these national political conventions.

Messaging – What most people – the TV audience – get out of a political convention is a framed message. This is delivered through a set of speakers, primarily the keynote the night before the nomination and the speech of the candidate himself. In 2004, the Republicans had Zell Miller give a nasty barnburner, and then George W. Bush delivered a softer speech in which he used gentler rhetoric designed to appeal to a larger audience. The Democrats chose Barack Obama, who gave a now-legendary speech, and then John Kerry gave a speech to accept the nomination. While the 2004 convention launched Obama’s national political career, the GOP did a better job using their convention to win the election. The Republicans’ problem in 2004 was with independent women. Bush’s use of terms like “flex time” during the big speech successfully began closing this gap, along with an initiative launched at that convention called “W is for Women”. The night before the nomination was a time when mostly partisans would watch, so the GOP used Miller as a way to fire up their base. The Democrats, by contrast, emphasized Kerry’s military service, and helped build Obama’s brand, neither of which helped in the final outcome of the election.

The 2012 race is both nasty and empty of substance. The Democrats are going to be delivering a populist message from Bank of America-land, while the Republicans will continue to deliver their strange ode to plutocracy and the virtues of capital.

Parties – Every four years, there’s the inevitable set of stories that come out about how sex workers in convention cities are excited for the boost in business. People chortle at the so-called hypocrisy of this, but it actually just speaks to the mundanity of what’s going on. A national political convention is like any big national event, it’s just a lot of powerful and wealthy people coming together to engage in business and leisure. So there are parties, lots and lots of parties. Most of them aren’t fun, they are miserable corporate affairs with various levels of food and entertainment quality. Much of the challenge is getting into the “right” parties, which is awful as it sounds. This is where lobbyists flourish, able to procure entrances to parties and credentials. Most major corporate lobbies – from banks to telecom to banks to energy to banks – host events, breakfasts, brunches, parties, etc.

Fundraisers – Not surprisingly, candidates from all over the country host fundraisers with insiders from all over the country. Most of the competitive primaries are at this point over, so you have lots of candidates who are trying to replenish their coffers. It’s a great opportunity for, say a first-time Florida or Nevada or Idaho Congressional candidate, to meet union or corporate leaders, lobbyists, White House or ex-White House officials, party committee leaders, sitting politicians, journalists, pollsters, policymakers, and activists. You get some cash, sure, but you make valuable connections that you can leverage later on if your race becomes competitive.

Training sessions – A good number of the delegates are sweet and good natured political activists who get the delegate slot as a reward for a job well done, volunteering, fundraising, just being a good member of the establishment. They are hobbyists, mostly, and strivers. There are a lot of training sessions for how to run campaigns, how to message, how to fundraise, and most importantly, how to help your candidate get elected. I imagine SuperPAC-style organizations will be present sponsoring trainings.

Protests and Security – Perhaps the most interesting part of a national political convention are the protesters and security forces, which together form a symbiotic relationship of arrests and attention. Local police forces get a candy hand-out from Federal coffers in the form of counter-terrorism money, and lots of national security apparatus is around as well. A convention is a great time for law enforcement to buy the newest and coolest toys in crowd control, and in order to do that it’s important to have threats. It’s not that there aren’t real threats, but there is a big incentive to portray anything as a threat. You’ll usually see the FBI or local police cracking down on animal rights activists or some other non-threat, with the usual excuses for harassment. The media is important in this, in that security forces want to make sure that protests are far more threatening than they are, and the press complies. At the 2008 RNC Convention, police arrested Amy Goodman, for no reason. The Youtube clip of her being arrested got over 1 million views, but it was ignored by the media and by both Democrat and Republican elites.

This year, I’d watch for a couple of things. First, will Occupy make an appearance? Last fall, protesters were able to make inequality a political issue, forcing politicians to address the question rhetorically, if not substantively. Some operational mistakes, but more importantly, the use of paramilitary forces to break up the protest camps, have sapped the urgency of the protests to the political establishment. There are now splits within the Occupy movement, with different groups taking away different lessons. With a fairly significant media stage, what will happen, if anything? Two, media insiders understand that the national convention format is a prop designed to force feed messaging to the public. This is not new, but what is new is the cynicism of the public towards the Presidential race. It’s the first set of national conventions since the bailouts, and these events are being held as the political class is held in low esteem. How will the press approach this dynamic?

Anyway, this format of politics is not going to be around for much longer. It’s boring, expensive, and increasingly irrelevant to the electoral process, such as it is. So to those at the conventions, have fun. Enjoy the game of swapping credentials, and/or enjoy the protests. And spend some money at a local establishment, so someone not in politics benefits.

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About Matt Stoller

From 2011-2012, Matt was a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He contributed to Politico, Alternet, Salon, The Nation and Reuters, focusing on the intersection of foreclosures, the financial system, and political corruption. In 2012, he starred in “Brand X with Russell Brand” on the FX network, and was a writer and consultant for the show. He has also produced for MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show. From 2009-2010, he worked as Senior Policy Advisor for Congressman Alan Grayson. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller.


    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      No, it’s All Vegas all the time: the worst of Vegas: tawdry, loud, fixed by Organized Crime syndicates, appealing to the lowest common denominator.

      1. Art Eclectic

        Not only that, it’s selling ice to Eskimos. Anybody attending a poltical convention is alread sold, they’re just negotiating on price at that point.

      2. Middle Seaman

        Conventions are NOT Vegas. Vegas is a unique American art form no one else could have invented. With the high art of Fake, there are a lot of great pieces of real art.

        Conventions are pure crap.

        1. Myshkin

          Vegas is not art, though it is raised as a significant cultural marker by some art theorists to toy with.

          There is, to my mind, little of value to learn from Las Vegas; perhaps only that the American dream is a fools errand, that we are superficial, we chase after a mirage, a false oasis in a desert. Vegas represents the symptom of an illness, not the illness.

    2. Sam Honeycutt

      The idea of a trade show would say that it had something that people want. The only reason I sometimes watch is to find out what they are going to do to me next, and how painful it will be.
      At least when they are in convention they are not in Washington so they can’t harm us during those two weeks.A not so small favor in itself.

  1. Jim Haygood

    The key message of these red white ‘n blue freak shows is that two, and only two, parties provide all the ‘choice’ you could ever want.

    At the supermarket you can select from several dozen brands of coffee. But the threadbare political ‘market’ offers only the slick salesman’s ‘false alternatives’ close: Do you want to vote for the renowned Tweedledum, or the up-and-coming Tweedledee?

    Anyone with a lick of sense answers this patently false framing with NOTA: None of the Above. Followed by WTF?

    A vote for a Depublicrat is a vote for organized crime.

  2. They didn't leave me a choice

    No offence to Yves, but why does she waste time on this charade. None of this matters. NONE of it. It’s just one meaningless, worthless self aggrandisement showcase after another. Hell, even the elections are completely meaningless, the only difference between the candidates is the colour of their skin. Both are rabid neoliberal scum, hellbent on protecting their looter friends in the financial sector.

    1. Ray Phenicie

      Point well taken even if it is a bit abrupt; nothing comes of analyzing why the current system is pathologically ill and criminologically focused on setting up a pyramid scheme for the top .025% to fleece the rest of the country.

      Here is my prescription and remedy; organize a new society from the ground up starting with the organization of a progressive party the writes a new way of life into its belief system and organizing principles. Those principles would be based on applying a fair and just distribution of rights and property for everyone.
      The implementation of this would start at the foundation of the current urban setting, the blocks and the neighborhoods. Just as the early Puritans used legal grants from the Crown ( I know, I’m setting aside the injustice worked on the American Indians), contracts that were entirely legal, such contracts could be used to set up corporations and co-ops to infiltrate into the current property ownership system. Once the blocks, apartment units and neighborhoods are in the hands of the new party, the rest of the city could be ‘conquered’ in a peaceful manner that would have the invincibility of ownership. Get a few judges and city council members elected and the city is taken without a shot being fired; a non violent revolution is possible. After a few of the state’s larger cities are on the side of the progressive party the rest of the state could be won over.

      A slow revolution by persistence in legal ownership and formalities should be able to establish a new society.

  3. Stelios Theoharidis

    I think we ignore the most important aspect of it, the need for the spectacle in modern times. You must to continue to appease the public with circuses and bread. The conventions are the circus. It mirrors religious, sports events, or military parades to wrap both the participants and the spectators in the false consciousness of the party, easily repeated phrases like liberty, individual responsibility, democracy. In their fervent repetition the reality of declining democratic participation and political corruption is masked. Being surrounded by so many individuals with seemingly common beliefs invigorates the participants. The mobilization of thousands in stadiums gives them the sense of community as well as the illusion of a mass movement when there is really only public apathy and disenfranchisement. It is also a celebration for two semi-tyrannical minorities for their continued control over an oligarchial system shared between the political and economic elite. Pseudo-religious rhetorical masterbation and self-congratulation.

  4. Middle Seaman

    Conventions are also:
    – Opportunities for the true believers to get together, enjoy the warmth, pretend, network, increase enthusiasm and recruit others.
    – Attempts to train the media dog to bark correctly. As in convert the unsuspected. One may think that this is impossible. Yet, enough money, enough booze and may be a young girl may do the trick.
    – Openning salvo for 2016, etc.

  5. LAS

    I thought perhaps the point of a convention is to gather them all at a single location and then wipe them out with a hurricane.

  6. Lambert Strether

    “Much of the challenge is getting into the “right” parties, which is awful as it sounds.”

    I remember (too lazy to find the link) a wonderful video from Felix Salmon and some other dapper Bertie Wooster-type duge about parties at Davos. The key taleaway is that no matter what level the party, the party goer is always consumed by the gnawing anxiety that the best party is really somewhere else. This is, of course, completely recursive and yet another example of recursive BS.

    1. Yves Smith

      I’m clearly not wired right. I have no interest in going to parties unless thrown by people I know and like, and even then, I’m a bit leery. The idea that I should have status anxiety about party invites doesn’t begin to register.

  7. Hugh

    Conventions are ceremony, rites of a secular political religion, the roots of which have been completely forgotten. They are about form, not content, and in our television age some free air time, although in our equally corporate age, such time is becoming vanishingly small. The corporations have better and more profitable ways to use the air waves, like summer reruns. If convention’s have any purpose, it is to legitimize the candidate and the party. It is like the coronation of a king or the anointing of an heir to be. The person like the ruling family can be stupid, weak, and corrupt, but the coronation sanctifies them, not for what they are, but what they signify. The problem for the powers that be is when the peasants become hungry and stop caring about the ceremonies of their rulers. That’s when revolts, reformations, and revolutions happen.

    1. Jonathan

      “If convention’s have any purpose, it is to legitimize the candidate and the party”

      Aside from the stray apostrophe, I believe you hit the bullseye. In fact, I might even take this a step further to suggest that the purpose of *elections* is to legitimize the two-party regime and its marketing messages.

  8. David

    “…Anyway, this format of politics is not going to be around for much longer.”

    OK Matt I’ll bite, what format of politics do you think will replace it ?

  9. The Gizmo51

    Is God sending a messenger with a warning in the form of hurricane Isaac telling us and the world that the republinos must be stopped at all costs? Was Katrina the first to show us republino incompetence?

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