Column: We should abolish political conventions now, while they’re fresh in our minds

What does the romance between Jill and Joe Biden have to do with whether he’d make an effective president?
(Associated Press)

Now that they’re over, let’s be honest about political conventions.

They’re theater, they’re propaganda, they’re pep rallies. Nothing meaningful happens at them. First established in the 1830s, they once served a purpose — to select a party nominee, often in a smoke-filled back room, but sometimes on the convention floor — but that hasn’t been true for half a century.

At best, they offer the parties a chance to excite their voters, lay out some themes of the campaign, hammer their enemies and introduce an often unknown vice presidential nominee.

Doing away with these pointless quadrennial exercises would be a fine idea.

But don’t kid yourselves: Abolishing the conventions wouldn’t fix a deeper problem, which is that American presidential campaigns are too often deceptive, manipulative and misleading.


Just consider this year’s conventions. The Democratic National Convention, by far the less offensive of the two, focused overwhelmingly on creating a heartwarming emotional connection between voters and the candidate — rather than on explaining what Joe Biden would do as president.

Really, what does Jill and Joe’s romance have to do with how we’re going to beat back COVID-19 and rebuild our economy? What does the friendship former Vice President Biden forged with a security guard on an elevator tell you about how he’ll combat climate change? What does his relationship with an Amtrak conductor say about how he’ll untangle our complicated and dangerous relationships with Russia and China?

I’m not saying character is entirely irrelevant, especially if you’re running against a person like Donald Trump, whose deeply flawed character is a big part of the problem with his presidency. But the Democratic convention was dominated by mawkish, feel-good, likability moments designed to fool us into voting for Joe Biden for the wrong reasons. Why? Because the political pros know that Americans like nice-guy candidates with hard-luck beginnings who overcome obstacles. They like tragedies and romances, especially set against uplifting music. Saccharine videos have been de rigueur since at least 1992, when a slick mini-documentary — “The Man From Hope” — about candidate Bill Clinton told the story of his rough childhood with an alcoholic and occasionally abusive stepfather.

But is this any way for a grown-up nation to pick its leader? With TV spectacles closely modeled on awards shows like the Oscars?

And whatever sentimentalism and misdirection were on display at the Democratic convention, the Republicans were worse. Far worse. At their convention, lies, anger and fear were what the marketing professionals decided would best win voters.

The narrative the Republicans spun was the ugly mirror image of Biden’s message of empathy. It was encapsulated in Kimberly Guilfoyle’s unhinged opening-night rant about socialists and rioters and “cosmopolitan elites” who want to “destroy this country ... steal your liberty, your freedom and they want to control what you see and think and believe.”


Then there were the gun-toting McCloskeys, who warned that Democrats want “to abolish the suburbs altogether.” There was a Cuban immigrant who compared Biden to Fidel Castro. There were some token efforts to portray Trump as a family man, some lame efforts to woo Black Americans and women, and there were plenty of untruths about the president’s record. But the message always reverted to this: The world will collapse in anarchy and chaos unless you reelect Donald Trump.

Or, as Trump put it on Thursday, ”No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”

The conflation of Biden (who you’ll remember was the moderate in the primaries) with anarchists and the “radical left” was particularly outrageous. In reality, he opposes defunding the police, has condemned violent protests, won’t destroy the suburbs and isn’t a socialist. But stoking fear is an old GOP strategy going back to Nixon, and lying is a Trump specialty.

It would be easy to dismiss this all as politics as usual. It is politics as usual. But it is unhealthy nevertheless. The definition of demagoguery is playing to emotions rather than reason.

A country with problems on the scale of those facing the United States needs more than focus-grouped narratives and shallow arguments as it ponders its future.

It would be nice to think we could be more like some European countries, with shorter, cheaper and more serious campaigns. But in recent years, democracies elsewhere have become more like us, rather than us becoming more like them.


It would be nice if candidates ran more transparent, issue-driven campaigns that were less reliant on poll-driven dishonesty and unregulated spending. It would be nice to overturn Citizens United and enact meaningful public financing. It would be nice if the winner of the popular vote always became president.

But for the moment, Americans could improve the process by refusing to be manipulated and asking the right questions about policy and priorities, and about what makes an effective and trustworthy president.

Emotional appeals about empathy and likability are off the point. Lies, horror stories and red-baiting are outright dangerous.