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Paul F. deLespinasse: Let's keep the virtual conventions
COMMENTARY

Paul F. deLespinasse: Let's keep the virtual conventions

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Both political parties found it necessary to hold virtual conventions this year. They should consider making this format permanent.

Fear of COVID-19 might have deterred many delegates from attending regular conventions. To borrow an expression from pacifists who ask "What if they held a war and nobody came?" party leaders needed to ask "What if we hold a convention and nobody comes?"

Scant attendance might have suggested an embarrassing lack of enthusiasm for the nominees.

The virtual Democratic convention was very impressive. The little I saw of the Republican convention wasn't overwhelming, but the Democrats demonstrated the possibilities of well-done virtual conventions.

It might not be fair to compare the two conventions, though. Republicans only decided on a virtual format shortly before the event, while the Democrats' earlier decision allowed time to get better organized.

Even before this year's pandemic, conventions had greatly changed since I first paid close attention to them in 1952. Twelve-year-olds should be too young to be interested in such things. But I was horribly bored, spending all summer with my grandparents in a town where I knew no other kids. It was impossible to leave the house for more than a few minutes because I was there to assist my grandfather, disabled by a recent stroke. At least listening to the conventions on the radio (Oregon didn't have TV yet) was something interesting to do.

Unlike more recent conventions, in 1952 we didn't know who would be nominated before they met. The uncertain outcomes — Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Republicans and Adlai Stevenson for the Democrats — made conventions much more interesting.

Listening to the 1952 conventions probably influenced my later decision to major in political science rather than physics or engineering. But the longer I studied political science, the more obvious the unattractive aspects of the conventions became.

The speakers' oratorical style, bellowing as if electronic amplifiers had never been invented, their exaggeration, and the delegates' disinterest in listening made it increasingly hard to take conventions seriously. And after primary elections became decisive, conventions no longer decided who the nominees would be. Having begun following conventions out of youthful boredom, boredom with cut-and-dried conventions led me to stop paying much attention to them. Until this year.

This year's Democratic convention was so interesting that I watched for all four nights without even falling asleep in my chair! Thankfully, speakers didn't shout but spoke more normally, having finally learned about the invention of microphones and amplifiers. It was nice that speakers could assume their audience was interested in hearing what they had to say, unlike at the old conventions where delegates were too busy networking to listen.

It was wonderful that more upcoming party leaders — not just one or two keynoters — could be introduced to the country and given time to say something. Perhaps more time could have been devoted to this at the Republican convention, where Donald Trump and members of his family got about 30% of the speaking time.

For delegates and newspeople who enjoy talking with them, virtual conventions must be an unhappy development. But although they resemble long infomercials, virtual conventions can be more interesting and informative for the average citizen.

The political parties should therefore seriously consider keeping conventions virtual, while looking for other ways for party leaders to get to know each other, to network, and perhaps even to party.

This being said, what we really need to do is to scrap the whole current system — primary elections and conventions — for selecting major party presidential candidates. No one would agree to fly with pilots selected this way. But in the meantime, we will have to muddle along with the existing system as best we can, with small improvements from time to time.

Paul F. deLespinasse of Corvallis is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. His most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. This column originally appeared in NewsMax.

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