Herb Paine: The 2012 Conventions ? Lost Opportunities

August 22, 2012

Jim Lehrer once noted that “the political conventions are among the few ‘shared’ national political events left.” If only this were still so.

Americans don’t “share” the Conventions as they used to -- and the Parties are far from what they used to be.

The Republican Party faithful will convene in Tampa this weekend with the Democrats to follow a couple of weeks later in Charlotte. What should be grand moments of political education for the general public will be more notable for the triumph of entertainment over content.

Each camp of party loyalists will retreat to the comfort zones of their choice  -- FOX or MSNBC, Hannity or Maddow -- for the highlights of the day -- filtered, customized, and editorialized to suit their already existing biases. It’s a lot of preaching to self-selected choirs.

For those already in the decided column, this is no great shakes. They will relish the Conventions as rallies to energize the troops and to ridicule and blame the opposition for the country’s social and economic woes. They will celebrate the intricately choreographed coronations of their chosen leaders. They will feel justified in their self-righteousness and adequately armed for the political battle to come.

At the end of the day, however, the conventions will reveal and confirm a lot about the state of American politics in 2012: not merely the extent to which we are a polarized nation but more about how the sensible center of American politics is deeply at risk and how each Party has contributed to this crisis.

Take, just for example, the Republican Party Convention. Mark my words, you will not hear the names of Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt invoked, for their ethics of fairness and social justice are no longer the ethics of this party. This is no longer the Party of Reagan or Goldwater -- they would not abide the extremist and reactionary elements that have kidnapped it and intimidated the more rational Republican leaders. You will hear no rejection of those extreme elements in the Party that challenge the Americanism of our President or suggest that some rapes are legitimate or that there are traitors in the White House or that some citizens are more equal than others. You will not hear the wise counsel of an Eisenhower about the dangers of foreign entanglement or the military industrial complex. It is now a different Party, far removed from its history and core values – more like a throwback to the politics of the mid-19th Century, wedding the anti-immigrant nativist views of the Know-Nothings with the elitist perspectives of the Robber Barons.

The absence of balance, substance, and fact at these Conventions is all the more alarming because, if it is true that this year’s elections will offer unprecedented choices between two vastly different views of the role of government and two decidedly different approaches to stabilizing and growing the American economy, and that the social contract of the last seven decades is up for grabs -- then the Conventions will have become another lost opportunity to inform and educate about the merits of one choice over another.

Election Day on Nov. 8 is now our last shared national political event -- and the final count that day will likely confirm just how little the Conventions helped to bring us together and how successful they were in pulling us apart.


Herb Paine is a business strategy consultant, former candidate for Congress, and social critic.