Who watches party conventions these days? Political junkies, shut-ins, people who look at whatever’s on, plus a few folks who tune in out of a vague sense of civic responsibility, like Britons watching the Queen’s speech on Christmas afternoon. As viewership dwindles, the parties appear clueless about attracting the nationwide attention their conventions once monopolized.
But do they actually want people to watch? Should they? Nowadays conventions are more likely to bore a jaded electorate than inspire it. The only certainty is that viewers will resent having their favorite shows preempted.
With ever more networks chasing ever less news and overanalyzing ever tinier gaffes, only failure gets noticed. If a convention orator delivers a thoughtful analysis of global security, it will be ignored, but if anyone says something stupid, the whole world will know about it in 15 minutes. Even when someone (Sarah Palin) delivers an undeniably rousing speech, it usually makes no difference. As one spirited if modestly qualified political analyst wrote a couple of years ago, when you look back at memorable convention speeches, almost every one took place at the losing party’s convention.
So what’s the use? Perhaps it’s time for party leaders to stop chasing viewers and earn their eternal gratitude by setting them free instead. One of these years, an innovative consultant will find a way to cut out the media entirely — such as the . . .
Cyberconvention — In this day and age, getting everyone together in one place is a wasteful extravagance. Instead, why not hold the convention online, with delegates voting remotely from their family rooms during commercial breaks on ESPN? The Democrats could keep a running tally of how many tons of carbon they aren’t emitting, while Republicans could total up the tax dollars they’ve saved (yes, party conventions get some public funding). Delegates would live-blog the proceedings, post pictures of themselves in their pajamas, and talk about what they’re doing in between the votes (giving the dog a bath, reading Moby-Dick, etc.).
The benefits: No protesters in the streets, no groveling before TV executives for an extra half-hour of air time, no need to ensure an ethnic mix among the delegates. The best part is that with no central site to descend on, no expense account to pad, and no minibar to raid, few reporters would bother attending, so voters would have to rely on the accounts of the participants themselves. This way the Democrats would know that everyone covering their convention was a supporter, instead of just 95 percent.
So, the zero option is tempting — simple, clean, modern, and cheap. But asking a candidate’s handlers to give up free media is like asking legislators to give up earmarks. Think of it: Three days of non-stop propaganda! And with all the major broadcast and cable networks covering the convention, people would be sure to watch — if it weren’t three days of non-stop propaganda. To move convention coverage forward from the 1950s to the 1990s (which is cutting-edge by political standards), it’s time to try a . . .