by Stan Cutler
An infomercial is a long-form televised advertisement, the domain of fluent salesmen who demonstrate the amazing convenience of $20 gadgets. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic parties invest in a few nights of prime time to demonstrate the amazing virtues of their candidates.
You may ask yourself why anyone bothers to watch. Most years, the answer is that few do. This year is different.
Before the state primaries became our way of nominating presidential candidates, party loyalists would convene in the summers of general election years to negotiate a consensus presidential candidate. Now, that choice has been made before the opening gavel, before a clergyman stands at the podium to deliver an invocation.
Nor is there mystery about the conventions’ vice presidential choices because the delegates always endorse their presidential candidate’s choice, for to do otherwise would repudiate the candidate’s executive ability. So, as political theater, the conventions are dismal failures lacking in suspense. Snooze time.
But the conventions continue to be important to our democracy. During the weeks between the last primary elections and the beginning of the conventions, politicians representing the largest and most influential factions within the parties meet in committees to draft statements of governing principles and strategic goals. The opening gavel is their deadline. In this way, the conventions continue to be critical because they force the parties to state their positions.
Over time, since the platforms are far from law, they have a significant effect on governance by providing the policy foundations for domestic legislation and foreign affairs. If you have doubts about what the parties stand for, if you’d like to know how they justify their positions, read the platforms.
Both parties’ rules allow minorities to challenge the platforms during the conventions by offering alternative planks as amendments requiring a majority of votes for inclusion. The convention chairmen ask for voice votes and determine the winner by ear. If a vote sounds close, they have the discretion to call the roll and tally the state delegations’ individual votes to determine the winner. Given that the convention chairman is the emcee charged with the responsibility of demonstrating unity, meaningful roll call votes are avoided.
Platform fights are rare. A minority plank hasn’t won since 1948, when northeastern liberal Democrats outvoted Southern segregationists and replaced a weak civil rights plank with one that suggested that Truman, if elected president, would use federal law enforcement against state and local governments that persecuted African Americans.
That was the first televised convention. It took place here in Philadelphia, as did the Republican Convention. The manufacturers of television sets owned three of the four broadcast networks and wanted to televise the conventions as a means of promoting sales. ABC, which did not manufacture sets, broadcast because its airtime competitors (NBC, CBS, and DuMont) were doing it.
There was only one sponsor, LIFE magazine. Philadelphia was chosen because it was about halfway between Boston and Richmond, to which the Philadelphia stations were connected by coaxial cable. Less than a million TVs had been sold at the time, but most of them were in living rooms between Boston and Richmond.
More people, a higher percentage of viewers, will tune in to the conventions this year because there is drama, if not suspense. They are likely to skip most of the broadcasts and tune in to the final nights’ acceptance speeches, particularly that of Republican candidate Donald Trump, who continues to fascinate viewers in a unique way. In fact, his knack for attracting television viewers seems to be his only qualification.
So, a “huge” audience will tune in to watch his speech, probably more than will watch Clinton’s, and Trump will proclaim the disparity as proof of his qualification for the presidency, as if an infomercial is the same thing as an election.
Local writer Stan Cutler is covering the Democratic National Convention, which takes place in Philadelphia from July 25-29.