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The talking heads who infest cable news channels absolutely love political conventions. They get to show up with a microphone and sit in an elevated desk, making themselves feel and look important. They get to meet and talk to famous politicians, and hobnob with the political elite. Most importantly, they get to feel like they are a part of “something historic.”
So it is no wonder why these same talking heads tell you just how important conventions are. To hear them talk, it is an important event that gives a candidate a chance to convince millions of Americans that they are the right choice for the country. They can showcase who the candidate is, what they believe, and why they are better than the other guy.
Don’t let them fool you. Political conventions — both the Democratic National Convention that is happening this week, and the Republican National Convention that will happen after — are pointless, meaningless, self-indulgent wastes of time that no longer have any real significance. And 2020 should be the year that these ridiculous events were put out of their misery.
Political conventions through time have, in fact, mattered. In early American history, they were not tools of mass persuasion, but they were certainly eventful gatherings that made real decisions that influenced the results of an election. In 1860, for example, Abraham Lincoln made use of the division within his party among many more prominent men to ensure he was everyone’s second choice and ride that division into the Republican nomination for president. That certainly had massive consequences for the party, the 1860 election and indeed American history.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that the political convention lost any kind of meaningful purpose in terms of decision making. Today, nominating contests are decided months before a convention happens, making the formal nomination a simple formality. Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee on Tuesday, but we knew he was the nominee months ago.
Still, though that decision-making capacity was eventually removed, with the growth of television and mass media, conventions were in fact a very important event that did everything that the talking heads of today think that it still does. Captive audiences of many undecided voters were glued to the television to watch the festivities and were genuinely introduced to candidates, learned about them, and formed an opinion about them. The speeches of the nominees mattered. This was an important moment.
But remember why it was an important moment. In the four decades between 1960 and 2000, cable television was not widely adopted, and there was no such thing as smartphones and social media. The Internet was absent for most of that time period, and only about four in 10 households had internet service by 2000.
In short, our collective societal experience was very different than it is today. You had only a handful of broadcast channels, all of which broadcast wall to wall convention coverage, forcing millions of Americans to watch it, if they wanted to watch any television.
But today? You have heard from political candidates whether you like it or not. Endless advertisements on television, streaming audio and video, internet banners and countless other venues makes certain of that. But 24-hour cable news, blogs and social media reinforce that.
If you want to know about somebody and what they believe, it will not take you longer than a few minutes to know more about that person than you would have ever wanted to know.
In short, today you have options.
The only people watching the Democratic National Convention this week are people who have already made up their mind in the election, and want to experience the self-affirming warmness of validation in that decision. The only people watching the upcoming Republican National Convention will be the very same in the other direction.
So let’s stop pretending, and just acknowledge what a tremendous waste of time these conventions are today.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland.