No nomination is ever entirely uncontested,” Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker earlier this month; “the only question is what form the contest will take—sound or fury.” Dr. Lepore, a staff writer at the magazine and a professor of history at Harvard, has spent a lot of time thinking about the sound and fury of nominating conventions past. In a recent interview, she explained how the events became what they are today, the why the “convention bump” may not apply in 2016 and how a convention is like a wedding.
What’s the purpose of conventions today?
To choose a candidate, to decide on a platform, and to fuel the spirit of party.
Can you say a little more about fueling the spirit of party? What does that mean, exactly?
Well, you can get married by going to the city clerk’s office and filling out a paper and signing it, or you can have a wedding, and a convention is more like a wedding than an election.
The candidate has been de facto chosen before the conventions for a while now, correct?
It’s really since ’68 that the conventions have been purely celebratory. Since ’68 it’s more like you already went to the city clerk’s office, and now you’re just having a party.
But you know that moment in a wedding where the priest or the rabbi or the minister says, “Your friends and your family and your community are here to help make sure that this marriage works,” that moment where everybody is invoked to participate in the bond that you are making? That’s the sort of wedding spirit that I mean — that this is collective endeavor.
Especially in Cleveland this year, are we going to see anyone objecting to the marriage?
Speak now or forever hold your peace — they should say that. Wouldn’t that be a great moment?
The Republican Party is so visibly falling apart, but the Democratic Party is falling apart too. Maybe it’s like you’re sitting at the table at the reception, and you’ve watched the ceremony, but everybody at your table is like, “Can you believe the two of them? I mean, terrible match.” People are already forecasting the doom of the marriage and the couple has been married for four hours, but you raise your glass and you take out your fork and you tinkle your glass and the ritual proceeds and in any good community, even if you didn’t think the people getting married are a good couple, you certainly hope for the best. Even the Free the Delegates people who are hoping for a different outcome in Cleveland, you hope that as with the state of the union generally that all these people are hoping for the best.
Does a convention where people are all saying “can you believe the two of them” bode ill for the general election campaign for either candidate?
It’s just going to be a rocky marriage. It’s not going to be easy going for either candidate. They both have huge challenges in the general election campaign, and I would even say the traditional political wisdom is the convention bump — there’s so much coverage of the four days of the convention for each candidate that while the conventions going on and in the little afterglow there’s a lot of polling bump, and then maybe the clever campaign strategist creates momentum from that.
But these conventions are back to back which is going to defeat that to some degree, and disadvantages Trump, because he’s not able to hold onto a sustained story about himself, and he’s really only got the weekend to hold onto a story about the convention.
When did protests become a big part of conventions?
What I say in the piece is that the contest used to be inside the convention hall and now it’s moved outside the convention hall. When the convention really was a political struggle over who would be the nominee, the point of protesting wasn’t quite clear — what you should try to do if you have a political agenda or a candidate you care about is be a delegate and get in the hall and work the hall. There has always been a lot of activity outside the hall, and there’s a lot of stagecraft outside the hall, and there’s a lot of gimcrackery outside the hall, but the idea that there’s meaningful political statements to be made outside the hall, that’s a kind of failed endeavor when you could still play a role inside the hall.
The biggest protests historically really are those ’68 protests. They’re about the war but they’re also about the delegate selection process, so they’re about, “we should be in the hall.” That was, I think, terrifying to a lot of whatever is now fashionably called the establishment, so we have the, “well, we’ll just make being in the hall kind of meaningless. We’ll let more people in but we’ll make it a meaningless meeting.”
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This interview has been condensed and edited.