Conventions: Spectacles of Power

 Political conventions by definition are spectacles. Most of us do not attend them but they are right there, in the media, on film and deep within the political consciousness of people.

American political conventions, particularly of the two major parties, have been increasing their spectacular value. They are pomp and circumstance. All the faithful turn out to nominate what has been, up to that point, a quite obvious choice. In the old days, there used to be “brokered” conventions, but that was before television created the appetite for watching politicians put on a show.

In general, those who attend conventions are dedicated party workers and as such they do not represent the electoral map of loyalties, much less the inclinations of likely voters. The idea is that the faithful will then go about converting the voters to their faith.

There is no real correlation between how great a convention is and the electoral success of the party in general election. Democrats rioted in 1968 and suffered huge defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon and the Republicans that year. Republicans defined the culture wars in 1992 in what could be called a page-turning moment in the party’s politics, but suffered defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton and the Democrats. John Kerry famously “reported to duty” in 2004 and the Republicans skewered him on his war record.

But there are balloons, hats and other paraphernalia; there are caucuses, meetings, secret and otherwise, and after-hour parties; there are celebrities and wanna bees.  These days, the conventions are like sports spectacles. Each party brings out the best technological and organizational wonders to dazzle the world. The idea, one assumes, is to energize the energizers.

Conventions are also exhibitions of power. Each party shows how dominant and useful its set of beliefs are and instills in the participants as well as TV viewers that it knows how to do things and believes that its dogmas will bring a better life.

There were famous conventions (and still are) of the Indian Congress party, where ageing party stalwarts hardly moving on the stage, sat around among white cushions. It was a big deal to read clues in who was sitting next to whom. The gatherings were exhibitions of power, especially a way of forming new hierarchies and reinforcing old ones.  The Janata Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party ushered in conventions a different color, saffron instead of Gandhian white, and they changed the aesthetic of politics for years to come.

British, French and Canadian party conventions have been known to imitate the American extravaganzas. Sometimes that has backfired on them as parties and politicians who mimic American political spectacles have been punished for that reason. But slowly that mode is slipping into other conventions, almost as if this country has been selling the franchises of holding conventions around the world. Much like sending abroad the design and aesthetic of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Conventions are not exclusive to democracies alone. In fact, there is good reason to believe that it is a fascist and dictatorial idea. Stalin and Lenin established the dark glamour of their party gatherings. Mao and others followed suit and we know how Castro used party gatherings to issue very regular statements on domestic and world policies. All of them use conventions to project authority. Any show of media, technology and tightly controlled proceedings shows exactly that.

One of the most famous and darkest recollections of political conventions we know is from the rallies of the Nazi Party in Hitler’s Germany. That has been memorialized in the film, The Triumph of the Will.  The force and discipline of party workers to simply toe the line of its leaders, not to speak in opposition to anything, complete absence of debate and the extraordinarily pleasing sensation watching perfected moves and gestures of their leaders and followers; all foretold what had to come. It is an exemplar of how political conventions become occasions for unity over debate, deliberative spectacular methods to overcome the power of questioning and hoping for the best as everyone returns to their humdrum lives.

August 24, 2008

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