Columns share an author's personal perspective.
Days after the Democratic National Convention ended, it was revealed that 1,069 Democrat delegates voted no and 87 abstained in the poll on approving the party’s 2020 platform. A Fox News report claimed that the news outlet had sought the vote tally for days and suggested that the DNC delayed releasing the results because the number of people who disagreed with the party were a sign of "Dem discord."
The implication was that the dissent was inconvenient to the message that the party was disseminating that week during a four-day presentation that Bill Press called "the best (convention) ever."
I was an Alternate At-Large Delegate for the Biden-Harris campaign for the Connecticut Democratic Party. I participated in all of the online events with other delegates, all of whom were available to vote, so I didn’t get a chance. But I don’t know how I would have voted on the platform. I might have been the 1,070th delegate to vote no.
I have my reasons. In Biden’s original criminal justice platform, specific pledges to address the needs of incarcerated women convinced me that he was somewhat aware of what’s really happening in the system. Only Biden and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed the treatment of female inmates in their plans. (Disclosure: I helped write the Bloomberg criminal justice and violence against women plans.) I wish the criminal justice reform planks in the Democratic platform had been more specific and, quite frankly, stronger, closer to Biden’s original plan.
That opinion of mine, though, doesn’t mean that I don’t wholeheartedly and unabashedly support the Biden-Harris ticket. I do. But this year I wouldn’t have been able to explain myself, even if I had been able to vote, not only because the COVID-19 pandemic digitized human contact, but because conventions are far less deliberative than they used to be. And that’s largely because they’re televised.
Networks shared the first political convention in real time in 1948. The early televised conventions were more folly than the fine film work dominating news channels since Aug. 17. Everything from makeup gaffes to problems with live white doves released at President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 nomination marred the patina of perfection that modern conventions aim for. The dove incident caused the late convention chairman and congressman Sam Rayburn to declare on a live feed: "Get those g****** pigeons out of here."
Experts agree that simulcasting the conventions contributed to eliminating deliberation at the convenings. As soon as people got the hang of the production, the fact that conventions were televised actually ended up affecting the politics in the hall - as well as the party’s ability to get it’s message out.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis passed over for his vice presidential pick Jesse Jackson, someone acutely aware of the celluloid reality of politics. The prospect of Jackson’s supporters’ disrupting the televised convention became a bigger story than the Democrat’s message. Jackson’s speech ended up being the most watched one of the convention, attracting him more attention than the nominated candidate himself. The lack of harmony that they worked so hard to hide became the focal point.
Parties are so worried about the appearance of disunity that they’re not having the discussions they need to have. David Ifshin, former general counsel for Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign said: "A successful convention for the convention managers (though not, of course, for the network reporters) is one in which all disagreements are papered over."
It’s not just the Democrats. Compare the Republican delegates who weren’t even able to vote on a platform Aug. 24. Instead they passed a resolution that actually prevented any of them from proposing an amendment or replacement to the platform they adopted in 2016. The Republican National Committee resolved that any such motion would be out of order. They blamed media coverage for this decision - one that’s tantamount to censorship - yet the irony is that the RNC is totally dependent upon that same coverage. All 21st-century conventions are - that’s the problem.
A party’s decision to forego television broadcast will invite accusations of opacity; an event that’s televised is transparent. But that argument ignores the fact that the press can create that lucidity in other ways. Traditional convention coverage involves interviewing individual delegates by prowling the convention hall. That type of reporting - which doesn’t have to be seamless like two hours of live broadcast - wasn’t possible this year, but it’s secondary to the show even when it’s doable.
Generating genuine discourse about pressing issues only strengthens the campaign. The Democratic platform was deliberated and fought out before it was announced in June - but by party elites. Leaving television out of the conventions and letting delegates duke it out would also give more of a stake in the process to people who’ve traditionally been left out of platform development.
Forcing candidates to engage on issues that matter to voters isn’t being negative. On the contrary, it’s the least we delegates can do to help our party get elected. But we can’t really do it when the convention managers are concerned more in how the party appears than how it operates.
Disagreement has become betrayal in a cancel culture; it might not have been just the televised and purely virtual nature of the 2020 conventions that discouraged any discussion by delegates. Even in private, without prying lenses, delegates may have rethought speaking their minds.
I have no idea how the party would have reacted to a "no" vote on the platform from someone like me if I had been able to make it; as welcomed and honored by the inclusion in the delegation as I feel, I’m aware I have far less pull than Montana Gov. Steve Bullock or U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ro Khanna, all of whom panned the platform. They can get away with it. Me? Not so much.
There’s no doubt that candidates need the direct contact with the public that four days of primetime programming provides; the expected convention "bump" in polling doesn’t come from the party faithful. And research shows that the bumps are greater for harmonious conventions after highly disputed primary seasons.
I think it improves the campaigns - and therefore the leadership that will eventually follow after the election - to have delegates do their jobs and decide what the party and the campaign stand for. Imagine the height of the convention bumps when the 4,750 delegates actively achieve that unity by being able to discuss party principles without the concern of how those debates will play on TV.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.