Political Conventions and H. L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken as reporterI wisecracked to a friend that I was grateful to have survived the most recent political conventions. Even though my experience of the convention was limited to watching a few important speeches for two nights, nevertheless, it was an event difficult to endure. The abundance of partisan assertions and red meat affirmations of political orthodoxy were a bit much to take.

Cynicism about political conventions has a great tradition in American thought and satire. The best known critic of conventions is the newspaper writer and satirist H. L. Mencken, whose classic essay proposing abolishing conventions can be found in The American Scene: A Reader. It is entitled: “Conventions Have Become Ill Managed and Inefficient Carnivals, Thinks Mencken.”

Mencken says in his essay that although the convention system does serve some purpose in that it allows people from all parts of the country to express themselves on current issues, “in practice it has become so enmeshed in formulae that two-thirds of the ends that was designed to achieve are defeated.” He observes that the delegates spend most of their time making “hollow maneuvers of trained animals.” According to Mencken, the average delegate spends hours in a vast hall listening to speeches, the contents of which he is already knows and is not able to participate in the assembly intelligently. Similar attacks on political conventions are made today in such articles as The PR Show: Have Nominating Conventions Outlived Their Purpose?, from the Bulldog Reporter. Both articles agree that conventions are often empty shows that reveal little thought.

However, I think we can avoid such a negative view of political conventions if we look at them from the standpoint of their social function. According to many sociologists, the function of such a gathering is to strengthen the bonds between group members through creating a common state of excitement. Emile Durkheim, the famed sociologist, in his classic study of Australian Aboriginal religious and ceremonial life called Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, considered mass tribal ceremonial gatherings as exercises in “collective effervescence.” As the term suggests, the very act of gathering of people into a mass group can generate a collective excitement that gives energy to that group. Applied to a modern political party, gathering such assemblies as political conventions can also serve the purpose of strengthening the solidarity of the party and strengthening the individual bonds of association among group members.

From what we see on television, the collective excitement Durkheim describes is often expressed in various ways in the convention. It is most clearly shown in the wearing of silly hats and costumes. These sartorial excesses contribute to a festival atmosphere:  Donald Duck headgear on one delegate, a colonial tri-corner hat on another. This type of clothing gives evidence of a celebratory spirit in these political gatherings.

The excitement of such a gathering is also expressed in the shouting of slogans such as “four more years” for Democrats, and “we built that” for Republicans, an activity that seems quite similar to the religious chanting indicative of the collective effervescence of the Australian tribes. Little demonstrations develop among the state delegations when their state’s name is mentioned in a speech. These spontaneous movements of the crowd can also be seen as another expression of collective effervescence. The most important expression of enthusiasm in a political convention can be found in the enthusiastic response to in stories that are told about the life and deeds of the candidate that elevate his or her profile. Those personal stories often induce a feeling of connection between party members and the leadership.

The bonds of party community are also strengthened by the telling of such stories concerning the candidates' lives. These stories stir emotions that cement social bonds or solidarity that Durkheim discusses. These stories also contribute to increase the common energy of the gathering, who are recharged and then told to use that energy to go out and spread the message. Following Mencken’s analysis, neither the stories nor chants qualify as rational discourse. Political conventions are organized ostensibly to discuss the great issues of the day and determine the platform. Yet the one thing you will not find in a political convention is careful, rational argument on an issue or set of issues. In the three nights of each convention we have heard a great deal about unconditional love given Senator Marco Rubio by his family in childhood and the sacrifices made by parents. We are also told of the trials and tribulations of the early married life of Mitt Romney and Ann that evoke our sympathy. We admire the strength of values of family and faith embodied in the youth of young mayor Julian Castro. But we hear little about a clear economic program in these personal speeches and the emotions they evoke. Nor have we heard about a clear plan for restoring the economy or any time tables for budget cutting from such sources. It seems conventions are not about reasoned argument, a fact that H. L. Mencken bemoans.
 
However, viewed from an anthropological point of view, political conventions do make sense and serve a purpose: they affirm a common faith and set of values for a crowd of members who can most fully feel the power of their convictions in such a common celebration. In a sense, H. L. Mencken is in a sense right to call political conventions carnivals. But there is a place for such playful gatherings in our political world where we need a forum to express and most importantly celebrate commonly held values and ideals.