After a career of teaching history, it is so much fun to write about nonsense.
Saturday, March 7, 2020
This election season is turning bizarre.There—that is my entry for this year’s Redundant Platitude Contest.
In particular, the Democratic primaries seem destined to create chaos at the coming party convention. Every single day, the news reports claim that the lack of a single dominant candidate will result in “a brokered or contested” convention. The talking heads on the television use the two terms interchangeably, and they shouldn’t, for a brokered convention is very different from a contested convention.
First, let’s start with the surprising news that party conventions are not part of the constitution, which never mentions either political parties or conventions. There are few laws that actually govern political parties, most of the rules that regulate party operations are drafted by the party themselves. If you want to create your own party, imbibe a case of beer, and then suddenly announce your party’s platform and your slate of candidates. There is nothing to stop you from doing so, and personally, I've always thought it was a shame that America doesn't their own version of the European Pirate Party. England not only has a Silly Party, but a separate Monster Raving Loony Party.
Political party conventions are actually relatively new in American History. The Democrats first convention was in 1832, at which they chose Andrew Jackson. For the Republicans, the first convention was held in 1856 when they selected John Fremont. Jackson won and is currently on the $20 bill; Fremont lost and has a couple of streets named after him out West—sic transit Gloria mundi.
A brokered convention is one at which the party officials meet privately and reach an agreement about who the candidate will be. The decision involves, at most, minimal input from the voters (who presumably are anxiously waiting to learn the identity of their favorite candidate). This has been portrayed in countless films, invariably set in smoke-filled rooms populated by bloated plutocrats, smoking cigars and imbibing bourbon while relaxing in overstuffed leather chairs. (Like a mafioso meeting, only with less spaghetti.)
Since the term, “brokered convention” implies (correctly) shady backroom deals, you will almost never hear a politician use the term.
Presumably, the candidate is selected after numerous reciprocal deals. “I’ll back your man if I can pick the Secretary of State and the Postmaster General.” These kinds of political deals were so widely accepted as the norm that when Lincoln won the nomination, his handlers may have promised more political jobs than actually existed. Such deals inevitably led to corruption and malfeasance, prompting the Civil Service reforms after the Civil War, a measure that curbed but by no means eliminated the practice.
The last brokered convention—at least the last one done obviously—was the 1964 Republican Convention when Barry Goldwater failed to win enough pledged delegates to win on the first ballot, so former President Eisenhower worked together with Governor Nelson Rockefeller—who had also run for the nomination but came in second to Goldwater—to “convince” delegates to choose Goldwater.
These political machinations were well-known, resulting in mass protests at the convention, in heated arguments on the floor, and in public demonstrations outside of the hall.The convention generally devolved into a political dumpster fire, which was fully reported on the evening news and was in no small part responsible for Goldwater’s inevitable loss to Johnson in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.(Four years later, the Democratic convention was much, much worse, but that is a different story.)
By comparison, a contested convention is one at which no single candidate has enough delegates to win on the first ballot, resulting in multiple votes before a candidate is selected. The last such convention occurred in 1952 when the Democrats struggled to find a suitable candidate because the candidate they actually preferred, General Eisenhower, was running as a Republican. This problem, coupled with the general public’s dissatisfaction with a party that had held the White House for two decades, all but guaranteed that the Democratic Convention would accomplish nothing more than choosing a sacrificial lamb doomed to make pleasant speeches before losing gracefully.
You wouldn’t be completely wrong to say the Democrats didn’t even really try that year—they even held their convention in the same city and in the same convention hall as the Republicans had, just a few weeks earlier. Their eventual victim, Adlai Stevenson, lost with such grace and style that four years later, the Democrats let him lose to Eisenhower a second time.
Note. The 1956 election is the first I can personally remember, though somewhat dimly. There was a lot of joking about the amount of time Eisenhower spent playing golf. (I know what you are thinking—NO! Neither Eisenhower nor Trump set the record for playing golf, since neither came close to Woodrow Wilson.) I remember seeing, perhaps a year or two later, bumper stickers that read: “If we have to have a golfer for president, elect Sam Snead!”
Both parties have learned that contested conventions usually result in a loss at the ballot box, so party officials desperately try to privately broker the convention to prevent a public fight and the resulting inevitable loss at the ballot box. Contested conventions are such bad news, that no one really wants to see one occur….Except historians and political junkies. I qualify on both counts.
If we carefully examine all the party conventions since the Civil War, there have been 18 contested conventions almost evenly split between the two parties. From those conventions, only seven candidates were successfully elected, but four of those were during years where both parties ran candidates resulting from contested conventions, meaning one of the contested candidates had to win. Only three times in the last 150 years has a sole contested candidate managed to win the White House.
For contested convention madness, few measure up to the absurd chaos of the 1924 Democratic Convention. While the party had two popular candidates, the front runners were competing against fifty-two other candidates, including Marcus Coolidge, a relative of then President Coolidge, who was seeking reelection. The most serious deadlock was caused by the Ku Klux Klan, reemergent after World War I, who opposed Al Smith on the grounds that he was not only a Catholic, but he opposed prohibition.
It probably surprises you that the KKK supported prohibition, as it seems only logical that morons who would cut up their mother’s bedsheets and act like fools just had to be drunk at the time.
It was also probably a good thing that the convention was held at Madison Square Garden, since eventually, the convention broke down into the sort of general violence that one associates with prize fights and hockey matches. By the second day of voting, disgusted spectators were spitting from the balconies on the delegates below. Long before a consensus could be reached, many of the delegates ran out of money and simply went home.
Finally, after 17 days and 103 ballots, the dwindling remaining delegates selected a “dark horse” compromise candidate, West Virginia Congressman John W. Davis. The entire nation, acting as one, said exactly what you are thinking—Who the hell is John W. Davis? The answer is simple—the guy who lost to Calvin Coolidge.
Both political parties have changed their rules over time to avoid contested conventions. At one time, a candidate had to have a two-thirds majority to win. That rule was changed in the 1930’s to require only a simple majority. When even that became unlikely, the parties began to experiment with “super delegates” (unelected delegates who are chosen by the party and who are free to vote for whomever they—or more likely the party leaders—desire).
Unfortunately—at least for historians eager to see a gory convention—this year will probably not result in the carnage we would like to see. Since there is simply too much to lose, the Democratic Party will quietly move heaven and earth to prevent multiple ballots. Call it a “brokered convention lite”—a sanitized vegan convention that is less filling, with fewer calories and no red meat for the starving political junkies and eager journalists.
How can I be so sure? Well, the last time the experts promised us a contested convention was in 2016, when there was absolutely noway the Republicans could possibly unite behind anyone.