Rituals are important. They often seem silly or superficial or downright meaningless. But they provide continuity with the past and give us an excuse to do something we should be doing anyway but resist. Presidential nominating conventions fit this description perfectly and are rituals we need to embrace.
Yes, they’re too expensive and overly long. News organizations don’t need to send a cast of thousands to cover them. Both political parties spew pabulum during the events that’s an embarrassment to themselves and the rest of us. Take the theme for the last night of the Republican convention in Tampa: “We believe in America.” What else would a presidential candidate believe in?
As vacuous as these theatrics are, they’re also a useful reminder that an important election is about to take place. Despite the news channels’ monthslong obsession with the election, most voters have barely paid attention. The conventions, coming as they do as summer ends and school begins, ring a primal bell deep in our American consciousness that says, “The time has come to pay attention and decide.”
Like religious holidays, the conventions serve a practical purpose. Religious holidays are strategically placed to remind us to celebrate the harvest or to take a break from work every few months. The secular holidays that are the presidential conventions let us know that we need to begin to assess the performance of our federal leaders because we’re about to have a rare opportunity to make a change.
After the conventions, the marathon of presidential campaigns switches to a sprint. Unless voters begin the process of analysis and reconsideration, they could miss the November elections. Voters make their judgments gradually and without concentrating too much on what they’re doing, so they need to start early in September to have a chance of getting it right.
Conventions also provide us a benchmark against history. We can think back to what happened in previous conventions and compare with the latest ones. The act of comparison permits us to connect to our democratic roots and gives us a renewed sense of consequence. We know again the true weight of the choice we’re about to make.
That’s why the commentators who dismiss the conventions as unnecessary and doomed to disappear are making a mistake. We need the conventions if for no other reason than that we have had them for so long. Not to have them anymore would be to break with tradition and miss an opportunity to be handed a reason to care about an election.
Elections matter. Certainly this one does. The conventions this year — as rote and devoid of tension or controversy as they’ve been — enable us to take a moment and give some serious thought to what our vote will mean. Even the mere hours of prime-time speechifying that we’ve gotten each night of the conventions from the broadcast networks provide the time that many of us need, but haven’t yet taken, to consider who the candidates are and what they would do if elected.
Except for political junkies and policy wonks, most people hate political campaigns as much as they hate politicians. They would rather do almost anything but study the presidential wannabes. “What difference does it make?” they ask. “That’s hard work,” they complain.
They’re right. But the quadrennial ritual of watching the big speeches at the nominating conventions eases the pain. The balloon drops and confetti bring back ancient if not happy memories. We can cut the bitterness of partisanship with a splash of nostalgia from our youth.
The conventions are wasteful spectacles, to be sure. But they are our wasteful spectacles, and we need to embrace them.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.