election anxiety countdown

76 Days: Convening

The Democratic Convention is underway in… the internet. It was supposed be in Milwaukee, but Covid-19 pushed it online, as it has pushed so many things.

This smaller, studio- and home-taped version is working. It is more intimate and faster-paced. Perhaps the days of expensive conventions are over. Decades ago, the convention floor ceased to be a place where the parties conduct the messy business of politics in public. The purpose of party conventions today is to create made-for-TV (made-for-streaming-video?) moments that give voters a formal (re-) introduction to the nominee and kick off the urgent work of the final weeks of the campaign.

I attended the 2008 and 2012 conventions. Witnessing Barack Obama’s acceptance of the nomination at Denver’s 76,000-seat football stadium is a moment I’ll never forget. I’m sure that everyone there that night went on in some small way to contribute to Obama’s victory, the historic gathering fueling our work. But it was a moment made for the screen, made for home audiences first, and the cumulative efforts of the millions watching at home surpassed those in the packed stadium by far.

It is expensive to rent out stadiums and convention centers, to fly your most engaged supporters across the country, buy up all the hotel rooms within 100 miles, feed and transport everyone for several days, pay for security and policing for an entire hotel and convention district, or an entire downtown. There have to be better ways to spend the money on winning the election.

Then there is the carbon footprint. Recent Democratic conventions have made a push to be more sustainable. This is to be expected from the party that has the common sense to acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis — but the hundreds of delegates and groups who seek to influence the party each have an impact that is harder to measure. I still discover worthless plastic trinkets with corporate logos and advocacy slogans from those conventions a decade ago in odd corners of my apartment.

In the big picture, whatever carbon cost is associated with the Biden campaign will be trivial compared to the impact his administration will have if it rejoins the Paris Climate Agreement and implements national policies that help flatten the curve of a warming planet. Then again, if Coldplay is committed to figuring out how to have a carbon-neutral or net positive concert tour, I’m sure Democrats can do the same.

The carbon footprint of a virtual convention might be much lower, but what is lost when a convention is not held in person? The most engaged members of the party from all over the country do not have a chance to meet in person, to talk about ideas, break bread together, drink and celebrate and strengthen ties across different parts of the country.

But also, a less expensive convention may mean less fundraising from big corporations. A virtual convention means there are no social events sponsored by big donors after the night’s speeches. No need to see progressive governors show up at a cocktail hour sponsored by the oil industry.

But also, those who disagree with the direction of the party are not on camera. No dissenting t-shirts or signs. No acts of protest on the streets outside. I am continuing my way through Timothy Denevi’s Freak Kingdom, and have just read the section on Hunter S. Thompson’s day at the Chicago convention of 1968 when anti-war protesters and bystanders (and Thompson, with a press badge) were pinned down and beaten by Chicago Police.

With a virtual convention, reporters like Thompson (and unlike Thompson) will be forced to do more work to cover the story of dissent. How do protesters march on a video that was taped hours or days earlier in an unknown location? I’m sure new ways of marching, disrupting, and dissenting will emerge. We may see some of that next week when Trump’s version of a virtual convention takes place.

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