by Stan Cutler
Super Bowls and political party conventions are ritual ceremonies. Anticipating 2016, when the Democrats come to Philadelphia to nominate a presidential candidate, we know a significant part of the proceedings will be ritual, almost devoid of meaning.
To understand why this is so, why Political Party Conventions mean so little to us, why so few of us need the old ritual anymore, let’s compare a couple of conventions, the Democratic Party affair held in Philly back in 1948, the one upcoming in 2016 and any Super Bowl.
Ritual ceremonies, particularly weddings and funerals, are important ways for families in our culture to maintain group identity. We go to these affairs to see the core of our tribe and to remind ourselves and our families that we still belong.
As communication technologies have advanced, they have changed the ways we interact with our families and tribes. For one thing, we can initiate a group experience, we don’t have to wait for somebody to die or get married, we can re-establish our connections anytime we so choose by email or Facebook. We watch reality TV when we need a dose of cultural confirmation. The technologies allow us to be selective, to eschew family for “friends.”
But to reaffirm our national identities, we still need the national ritual ceremonies. Not so long ago, it was the quadrennial Republican and Democratic conventions. These days, for many of us, the annual Super Bowls serve the purpose.
The 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia was a great ritual – a funeral in honor of the beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This presented the Republican branch of the family with a dilemma at its ritual. They couldn’t say bad things about FDR – that would be like slandering your father. They had to make do with a straw man, somebody to blame for the American family’s woes. Their straw man was The New Deal.
When the conventions are funerals, the parties love it because it gives them a theme and a way to claim the virtues of the deceased as their own.
But there will never be another convention like 1948’s. When Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945, the national pain was severe. Think about the day you watched the crumbling towers and billowing smoke of the World Trade Center. Remember that pain? On the day FDR died, Democrats and a lot of Republicans wept openly when they heard the news.
He’d served for 15 years and three months, and we were like 15-year-olds whose wonderful father had just died. My mother’s eyes, even when she was in her nineties, 50 years after her beloved President died, would fill with tears when she remembered the radio announcement of his passing. She never voted Republican – to have done so would have been disloyal to a man she’d loved. For her, that convention was a necessary ritual, a milestone in her life. The 2016 conventions’ rituals will barely be noticed.
Consider any Super Bowl by comparison. It’ll be a safe little drama, a vicarious chance for the joy of vindication or the momentary humiliation of well-paid defeat. Convention rituals serve another function – patriotic celebrations that define our nationhood. These days, we unfurl the stars and stripes on the gridiron and listen to an American idol sing the national anthem. And there’s always a bit of the funereal — a pause to remember fallen troops and a fighter jet overflight.
Conventions exalted democracy as the essential American attribute. They weren’t about the symbols, they were what the symbols represented. It wasn’t only about who won the nomination, the trophy winner, it was about the process of democracy itself, the game itself, the penalties and the play calls, the strategies and the score.
The Republicans and Democrats try, convention after convention, to adjust the show to the expectations of a television audience. But no matter what they try, over the decades, their audience share has dwindled and will probably continue to do so.
We don’t need the conventions for patriotic rituals anymore, we’ve got the Super Bowl. But what of the democratic rituals? Because we don’t see them performed anymore, perhaps we’ve forgotten how democracy is supposed to work. The democratic process is central to our American identity. We have to ask ourselves what chance our children have to appreciate the most admirable of American qualities if they are not given an opportunity to see democracy in action.