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July 20, 2004

what's interesting about conventions (part II)

Yesterday, building off an essay by Jay Rosen, I argued that modern presidential nominating conventions are very interesting--not as part of the struggle to get 51% of the vote, but as rituals, performances, symbols.

Rituals, in turn, really affect politics and public policy. Political scientists and reporters typically try to explain politicians' behavior by assuming that they want to get elected and re-elected, or that they want to enact particular policies. But this analysis begs the question of why anyone would want to hold public office in the first place. Most people would rather die. It's no answer to say that politicians want "power." First of all, most people don't. Second, most political offices in the US don't come with much power; often their power is insufficient to achieve the outcomes that voters expect.

I think that some politicians are quite altruistic (contrary to what Nick Beaudrot says in a comment on this blog), and this partly explains their entry into politics. But to a large extent, I believe they want to participate in our public rituals. They want to hear someone announce them: "LAY-dies and gentlemen, the next great mayor of our magnificent city ... " They want to watch balloons rise up in a great hall when they take the podium. They want to cut ribbons and kiss babies and get interviewed on Nightline.

All this means that different people would enter politics if we had different rituals. (Likewise, different scholars would deliberately go into college administration if our academic rituals were different.) In this sense, ritual matters.

On our recent trip to Burgundy, I began re-reading one of my favorite books, Johan Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages (1919). Huizinga argues that chivalry (jousts, orders of knighthood, the cult of courtly love) was completely artificial by the fifteenth century. It didn't reflect the underlying reality of a commercial, urbanizing Europe. Yet people continued to "play" at chivalry very seriously throughout the century. In turn, chivalry mattered. It meant that political leaders had to be good at jousting. It caused some wealthy bourgeois (the "real" pillars of the society) to ruin their fortunes by marrying their children to poor nobles with good chivalric credentials. It certainly ate up a lot of social resources. And it served as an--increasingly inadequate--tool with which people tried to understand their world.

Modern political conventions are like the jousts of fifteenth-century Burgundy. They have lost their original purpose. In the long run, they are doomed. Yet they still matter.

Posted by peterlevine at July 20, 2004 11:25 AM

Comments

[I dont' have much to add on conventions, rituals, etc., except that this year the press has told the public that the conventions won't matter, therefore the conventions won't matter. As for how many politicians are altruistic; I have no clue.]

Sorry ... I cut my comment short.

I don't think all politicians are interested solely in power, especially at the state and local level. Much of your "rituals" hypothesis is probably correct. My comment was essentially an echo of something Bill Clinton said in his recent interview on Air America, plus a passage of _My Life_ where he wrote about a conversation he had with a Wyoming GOP Senator/Congressman, plus some of Stan Greenberg's observations in _The Two Americas_.

My point in response to "why civility really matters" is that if holding and maintining power is the first and foremost priority of a politician, he or she doesn't necessarily have interest in representing politics as a noble profession. What's more, if the policies such a politican advocates are likely to be opposed by those who want to have faith in the political system, he or she has an interest in portraying politics as something you shouldn't see as an admirable profession. In essence, if you want to institute regressive policies, civility matters: you shouldn't be civil.

One of Clinton's projects, by and large, was to improve the rating of the question "do you trust government to help people?" or "do you trust government to do the right thing?" This number reached it's peak with the Civil Rights movement at a time when more of the New Deal generation (who overwhelmingly trust government) was alive, took a nosedive with Vietnam and Watergate, continued to fall during the Reagan years (except for a brief uptick leading up to the 1984 election). It was on the rise again up until the Lewinsky scandal, where the combination of Clinton's lying and philandering, plus the vitriol of the "Get Clinton" campaign, took the number down again. The pot at the end of Clinton's balanced-budget, trust government rainbow was supposed to be a more permanent Democratic majority. But we didn't get to see if that was true.

One way for the GOP to maintain electoral control is to essentially demoralize the public. The theory is that if the "trust government" index remains low, much of the public will give up on politics altogether and stay home, while the combination of get-government-off-our-backs voters (e.g. single issue voters on gun-control, rural homeowners and small business owners who often [sometimes with good reason] blame expenses and hassles on government regulation, etc.), economic conservatives who love their tax cuts, plus the Christian Coalition, will continue to show up to the polls.

The 2004 election will probably decide whether or not this is a tenable long-term strategy for the GOP to keep winning 50-plus-1 elections. A high turnout in this election, coupled with major Democratic gains, would probably suggest that it is not, but it's unclear whether or not that will happen.

Sheesh, I need to get my own blog.

Posted by: niq at July 20, 2004 06:34 PM

I'd rather you kept contributing good stuff on mine.

Posted by: Peter Levine at July 20, 2004 06:44 PM

It was necessary to preserve chivalry to sustain honor before it could be institutionally replaced by organization, most importantly bureaucracy. The liege system sustained the state in terms of personal relationships. Honor was essential so that promises to give life and limb for each other were credible.

The convention is the only expression of the American parties in the electorate. It is the focus point for thousands of activists, the one moment in the political life of the nation where the party manifests itself.

Posted by: Hellmut Lotz at July 20, 2004 06:48 PM

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