What’s lost if the parties abandon nominating conventions

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President Trump this week announced the cancellation of the Republican National Convention scheduled to have been held next month in Jacksonville, Florida. The move mirrors the decision by Democrats to limit convention events to an acceptance speech by their presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

Some hope Democrats and Republicans permanently abandon conventions — a sentiment that reflects a popular view of conventions as overly-scripted campaign advertisements with little substantive merit for either the party or the public. 

But party conventions have never been more important.

In a time of public health and economic crises, and as the nation reflects on systemic racism and questions about who gets to vote in our democracy, we must not forget that conventions provide a rare mechanism for citizens to come together, learn from one and other and press leaders to address their concerns. When long-term democratic processes such as these are eliminated, we all lose. 

Last November, I helped organize a mock nominating convention at the University of New Hampshire sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative. More than 300 students from across New Hampshire – home to the first-in-the-nation’s primary – came together to simulate each party’s nominating and platform drafting processes. They debated energy and citizenship policy, and – after a brokered Democratic convention – respectively nominated Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and President Trump to lead their party’s tickets.

The students walked away with a valuable lesson in civic life. They learned about what it means to have and exercise political power, and about the importance of showing up and being counted — lessons that we all need to remember right now.

For Americans, national political conventions are an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of racial inequality in our political institutions. The first national nominating convention was designed by Democratic-Republican Martin Van Buren in 1832 as a rare meeting of party leaders and activists to bridge major “geographic” and “sectional” divisions — in other words, to build unity by suppressing differences over slavery. 

At a time of national reckoning over the scars of slavery, the continued suppression of minority representation at the expense of building party unity demands attention from all of us. This summer’s conventions are an opportunity to learn if the parties plan to continue that legacy — or change it.  

For voters, national party conventions are an opportunity to learn about each party’s ideals, values and policy and legislative priorities. It’s also a chance to meet the party’s future leaders and rising stars. Just as important, conventions highlight the voices absent from primetime speaking slots — those denied a seat at the proverbial table. Would the Democratic National Committee invite young Black Lives Matter activists to speak before this summer’s convention?

For the party, national political conventions are an opportunity to reconcile factions after long and often bitter primary seasons, to develop and share campaign strategies and to begin the hard work of building a winning electoral coalition.  

Conventions also foster a very real and healthy tension between party rank-and-file and leaders, and are a chance for the presidential nominee to share his or her vision for the party and the country. Platform battles over U.S. military support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, whether to declare Jerusalem Israel’s capital and LGBTQ+ rights – to name a few – highlight real differences of opinion. These battles may be increasingly rare, but they remain important. Activists, interest groups and the public deserve a chance to make their voices heard on these important issues. 

Perhaps most important, conventions provide an all-too-rare opportunity for reformers to push for changes to the party’s nominating process. In 2016, this meant superdelegate reforms — a charge led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt).

This year, the dissolution of the most diverse Democratic presidential field in American history demands an informed debate about how to promote an equitable, inclusive nominating process, and how to inform voters about the party’s up-and-coming leaders. Likewise, strategic Republicans would be apt to start planning for any 2024 nominating reforms.

On that crisp fall day last year in a convention hall in New Hampshire, my students learned that political power means controlling the agenda. It means doing your research and demanding that your voice be heard — whether you’re invited into the room or not. It means learning the rules of the game and, where necessary, seeking to change them. 

This year, both parties are wise to follow public health recommendations and cancel in-person events. But they owe it to themselves and the country to find alternative ways to promote citizen learning, coalition building and the reform that all Americans deserve.  

Emily Baer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

Tags 2020 presidential campaign Bernie Sanders Democratic National Conventions DNC Donald J. Trump Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden political parties Presidential nominee Republican National Convention RNC United States presidential nominating conventions

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