If political conventions were on the ballot, they would deserve to lose—in a landslide. Once the climactic moment of partisan drama, party conventions have become the denouement of American politics, providing made-for-television theatrics that serve no serious purpose.
It wasn't always so. From the early major party conventions in 1832 up until the middle of the 20th century, conventions actually served an important purpose: They nominated the party's candidates for president and vice president. They featured rousing speakers, credential fights, and debates over the party platform, but the big event was the nominating and balloting to choose the presidential candidate.
Usually, it took more than one ballot, and the delegates would continue (often with the help of back-room deals) until they could reach consensus—rarely a speedy process. (It took 103 ballots for the Democrats to choose John Davis in 1924.) Before television coverage, it was considered bad form for the candidates to attend, so rarely were there any acceptance speeches—the famous exception being FDR in 1932.
Serious fights over the party platform—which actually meant something—also took place. Platforms used to set the agenda for the candidates, rather than vice versa, so debating the planks of the platform at the convention was important. Delegates were, after all, setting the parties' positions on key issues and governing principles.
Consensus mattered. Twice, party conventions failed to resolve their differences: The Democratic Party split over slavery in 1860, as did the Republican Party over progressivism in 1912. Both parties lost the election.
They weren't always pretty, were rarely peaceful, and often came down to bare-knuckles politics, but conventions actually determined the nomination and set the party's direction. It was James Madison's concept of competing interests in action, with so many interests checking each other that the larger good was achieved. As such, like the political parties for which they were a vehicle, conventions proved an essential organ of our democratic system and profoundly influenced American politics.
Several things altered the substance and character of the conventions. The development of the primary system beginning in 1912 undermined the convention's decision-making role. Nowadays, primaries select the nominee, sometimes very early in the process. All conventions do is endorse the primary outcome and officially recognize the nominee. The last time a convention took more than one ballot to nominate a candidate was in 1952.
Meaningless ceremonies. With the advent of TV, conventions have become long infomercials to rally the faithful and present the nominee to the public. There are no floor debates, spontaneous demonstrations, or unexpected moments. Seemingly as many reporters attend as delegates, desperately looking for news, but there is no suspense. The outcome is preordained, every detail accounted for.
Party reforms after 1968—when the Democratic convention erupted into violence after Hubert Humphrey defeated the anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy—completed the transformation. The changes were intended to make the convention more open and democratic and less in the control of party bosses, a noble intention. But today, conventions are highly controlled media events with less actual participatory deliberation. Platforms are written before the convention begins, only to be ratified. One way to give conventions something significant to do would be to allow the delegates to select the vice presidential candidate. That last happened in 1956, when Adlai Stevenson hoped to unite his party to defeat Dwight Eisenhower. But political advisers would never let that happen now, given the strategic importance of the pick, so nominees just announce their own selections.
Political conventions may still be useful as a party pep rally. But other than as a coronation ceremony—and an expensive one, at around $50 million each for this year's performances—they serve no serious purpose.