by Stan Cutler
A journalist/actor sits with two consultants in a studio and asks them their opinions on issues of the day. The consultants know that they are to keep their responses to a minute or less, lest they lose the television audience. The journalist/actor imposes the rules of order in service of the advertisers, rarely allowing more than three exchanges between commercials. This form of “debate” is useful, usually in shoring up opinions we already hold.
The presidential candidate debates are more interesting, especially the final ones pitting the Republican and Democratic nominees against each other on television during a commercial-free hour. In these, the moderator imposes different rules of order to stimulate the debaters to offer expansive opinions.
The people who orchestrate the quadrennial Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions try to avoid debate. But the 1948 Democratic Convention was an exception. That year, the debate was unavoidable. That convention was held in Philadelphia, my city, from July 12 to 14 and until 2 a.m. on the 15th, during a heat wave.
The Democratic Party will be back in 2016 for the first time since Truman was nominated. They are coming to this cradle of democracy to do something. They’ll preen and grin and wave in front of the giant screens. But they won’t debate. They never do at these affairs, which is precisely what made the Democrats’ 1948 Convention so interesting. What will the Democrats of 2016 do with the airtime?
The rules of order that were used by the chairman of the ’48 convention were the rules of the United States House of Representatives. The Chairman was Sam Rayburn, the top dog Democrat on Capitol Hill. He had been Speaker of The House before the 1946 debacle that saw the Republicans obtain majorities in both houses of Congress.
The rules of order Rayburn imposed were crystal clear to him, they were the same rules he used to wrangle Congressional votes. He knew what to do with a gavel. And yet, despite the imperative to appear unified, he had to conduct a debate that was guaranteed to shatter the party.
Congresswoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz, who will wield the gavel in 2016, is grateful that she will face no such challenge. We do not expect anything like that kind of drama at her affair. This upcoming Democratic convention will be historic, but it is unlikely to be remembered for the debates. Wasserman Schultz is the first woman chair of the Democratic National Committee, wearing shoes once worn by the likes of the formidable Sam Rayburn.
She is the third Jewish DNC chair. And in 2016, for the first time, a major American political party is likely to nominate a woman presidential candidate. It shapes up as a historic convention, but public displays of amity are more likely than public debate. We won’t see delegates rising to question points of order, nor will there be disagreement with the campaign platitudes issuing from the podium.
Airtime is too costly to be wasted on proceedings that will diminish the audience instead of increasing it. All of that democracy stuff, if there is any, will take place during commercials. In a way, that’s too bad. Despite all of the negative aspects of the old conventions, they were truly lessons in representative democracy.
Little by little, our notion of the American democracy has become a singular focus on elections; few of us care about or even understand legislative processes. That’s too bad. Not that our current forms of legislative decision-making provide much that we can admire. The houses of the U.S. Congress have become more like platforms for election campaigns than legislative bodies. (I will have more to say about this in another article.)
Sam Rayburn’s work as the chairman of the Democrats’ 1948 convention was masterful. Because tens of millions of people were listening on the radio, he taught an entire generation how to do democracy – a way that worked in the most difficult circumstances. And he did it in front of a television audience, who watched his every move, heeded his every word. He gave a generation of Americans a civics lesson. It’s a lesson that may never again be taught. We have to ask ourselves what chance our children have to appreciate representative democracy if they never see it.