The primary purpose of a political convention is to advance that party’s chances of winning the next election. This is hardly a counterintuitive proposition, but it bears repeating occasionally, particularly in the face of complaints like those offered by Gawker editor Hamilton Nolan today.
Nolan is offended. He’s offended that Michelle Obama sometimes affects a stutter she doesn’t naturally possess, and by the production values of the DNC, and that “no political party stands for honesty.”
“Both parties,” he writes, “and their candidates, and their party machines, and their loyalists, and we in the media that create and nurture the narrative that accompanies all of them, have forsaken all attempts at sincerity. The conventions are a pageant. The speeches are performances.”
Well, yeah. But what else should they be? The point of a convention is to help its candidate get elected. That’s what it’s for. If it didn’t exist to do that, it pretty much wouldn’t need to exist at all. (The last major party convention that selected a presidential candidate was the Democrats’ in 1952. It ended badly for them.)
“It is considered gauche, juvenile, ignorant, downright simple,” he continues, “to insist that the process of selecting the most powerful person in the world be conducted in an adult manner, with a serious conversation between the candidates and the country on the serious issues that we, collectively, face.”
If I had Nolan here in front of me, I’d ask him to walk me through this. Because it seems to me that he’s saying one of two things, and neither of them makes much sense. On the one hand, he could be saying that a “serious” convention — one with less artful stuttering and crappier production values and a more adult approach to the issues — would be more likely to be successful electorally. But that doesn’t seem particularly likely, and it’s not an argument he even advances explicitly.
The second possibility is that he’s saying that parties should take this more “adult,” less-calculated approach even if it harms their chances at the ballot box. And that I just don’t get at all. You run candidates in elections because you want to win them. And if giving your candidate elocution lessons and hiring talented producers helps you win, then by all means, do that. Right? If not, why not?
Like Nolan, I wish the Democratic party weren’t the drone party. But the Democratic party is the drone party, and since they are, I don’t have a hard time understanding why their leaders (and their base, pro-drone or anti-) prefer not to talk about drones at their convention. That’s not what they’re in North Carolina for, to talk about drones.
Talking about drones during the DNC is probably good for Nolan’s blood pressure, and it may even be good for the country. But it’s no more noble to talk about drones during the DNC than before or after, and just talking about drones isn’t likely to do anything to stop the drones anyway. Because as much as I wish it was, the president’s drone policy isn’t an aberration in Democratic party policy.
One of the most praised moments of the DNC’s first night was for me one of the fakiest — Deval Patrick’s rousing call for Dems to at long last “grow a backbone.” Set aside the fact that Patrick, who most recently made headlines defending Mitt Romney’s vampire capitalism from Obama’s attacks, is hardly a credible messenger on the topic. Set that aside, like I say, because the big problem that folks like Nolan and I have with the Democratic Party isn’t that it doesn’t have sufficient backbone, it’s that the folks who run things don’t want to do a bunch of the stuff that we want them to do.
There’s a lot of stuff that Democrats do that I want them to do, like supporting abortion rights (kinda, mostly), and funding workplace safety inspections and appointing demonstrably-less-horrid judges to the federal bench. We’ll be worse off as a country if the Republicans win the presidency and control of Congress this fall. I believe that.
But replace a few dozen of the Republicans in the House and the Senate with moderate Democrats and we still don’t get a bunch of the stuff that I — and the folks who cheered the backbone line the loudest — want to get, because moderate Democrats (and Obama is one) aren’t interested in that stuff. That’s the problem with being a left-leaning Democrat, and it’s not a problem that gets solved by making the DNC more of a downer or Michelle Obama a less effective speaker. It’s a problem that gets solved, if it gets solved at all, by organizing — inside the electoral arena and outside it as well.
Hamilton Nolan’s piece today is called “Stuttering and Sincerity.” I don’t know if he chose that title or not, but I’m not expecting to see him disavow it, either. And nor should he. Though alliteration is, like the hitch in a faux-choked-up first lady’s voice, a contentless rhetorical move, that doesn’t mean it’s evil. It’s a tool like any other, and I’d no more ask a writer to give up his rhetorical tools than I would a conventioneer.