By Judd Gregg - 08/27/12 09:00 AM EDT
In a time of social media, iPads, FaceTime and constant communication, it is often difficult to understand the purpose and need for national political conventions.
The question that is increasingly being asked — and which is becoming more relevant — is why we need to have these quadrennial gatherings at all.
The platforms developed as statements of party policy at these events are often ignored — and the nominee of the party in some cases campaigns against them. The folks who attend the conventions used to take comfort in the assurance, at least, of enjoying a continuous good time.
But the actual convention partying has been scaled back considerably, as events were most often underwritten by those unsavory “special interests.”
Thus the event’s fun has taken a significant hit in the last decade or so.
This all creates the feeling conventions are anachronisms — developed in an era when people needed to physically gather to set the course of their parties and the nation — that hold only a marginal purpose in today’s digital times.
But are they really outdated and unnecessary?
If you look at what is developing in our political system today, one of the most significant events is the rise of the independent voters — currently the nation’s largest identified voting bloc.
Certainly, in almost every swing state — places critical to determining the outcome of the Electoral College and the presidential race — it is the independent voter who decides the winner.
This creates an atmosphere where party affiliation seems less and less important.
We hear constantly about how candidates, after they have obtained the nomination of their party, try to move “back to the center” so that they can win over the “critical” independent vote in the fall.
In light of this, one might be tempted to conclude the national conventions actually hurt the chosen candidates.
Conventions are, after all, naturally populated by “base” voters and activists, and end up highlighting positions that are most often not going to assist in attracting independent voters.
All this being said, there is a more important and significant role that conventions play that makes them not only relevant in today’s political world, but critical to the maintenance of our form of constitutional government.
The convention system and, more importantly, the primary process that leads up to the conventions give the parties a chance to reinvigorate themselves every four years.
Even though the outcomes are a foregone conclusion long before the conventions occur, they mark a clear decision point and chance for the identities of the two parties to be confirmed.
They also give the nominee his or her best opportunity to speak to the American people about his or her plans, in a way that is not filtered by the press.
If we look around at other democracies, especially Western nations, there are two essential differences with our approach.
First, most of them are parliamentary governments — so they do not have our system of checks and balances.
Second, they have multiple parties and thus the various interest and issue groups are diffused.
This second point is a critical difference.
The effect of multiple parties, even in a parliamentary form of government, is to make it extremely challenging to reach consensus on action, because the power becomes so splintered.
Our system, which has been a two-party system for most of our nation’s modern history, has given us the unique advantage of having two central organizations that bring people together under the broad umbrellas of either Democrats or Republicans.
This leads to a system that is able to better focus issues and push toward consensus and thus action.
It may not look like it works that well, but compared to multi-party democracies, the two-party system gives us a huge advantage. This two-party system is confronting many centrifugal forces in today’s world.
It is facing great pressure both from the independent vote and the rise of digital information, which naturally undermines the need for parties.
Without the forum of the political convention, the two-party system would be under even greater stress.
The rise of a fragmented system would gain greater momentum.
Those who believe that being unaffiliated with a party leads to better governance would find out rather quickly, with the further deterioration of the two-party system, that multi-party rule leads to a less effective and more strident form of government.
The physical event of the conventions might seem irrelevant to most Americans in our cyberworld, but the reassertion of the two-party system that they represent is critical to maintain a government that delivers a uniquely American democracy.
Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.