Blog #18 – The Conventions that Might have Been


Blog # 18 – The Conventions that Might Have Been – A Fantasy of Democracy

These were not really conventions; they were pep rallies. Only the faithful were invited, only the faithful were addressed. Outreach over the media was as much to activate the already convinced as to convince even more. Decision-making, presumably what conventions are for, are naturally limited to those already on board, but even among those there was no discussion, only ratification; the clear differences within the parties, the differences among the diversity in the claimed big tents, were never put on the table, never discussed, certainly never worked through. Discussion of conflicts of values or of interests was strictly tabooed. And certainly no serious effort was ever made to talk to the other side, to moves towards the unity of purpose that both sides constantly proclaimed the country sorely needed.

Imagine an alternative scenario: suppose the two conventions had taken place in the same city, at the same time. Suppose each convention had invited a key member of the other party as a guest speaker to their convention, and listened openly to what they had to say, with the opportunity to ask tough questions and hear answers. Suppose that the two parties agreed on what the big problems were in advance (not so hard: jobs, cessation of hostility and peace in the world, the environment, the costs of health care, inequality – really not that much disagreement that these are the real problems). And the formed working groups of randomly selected delegates from the two conventions to meet with each other and talk about those problems. They will of course not agree on much, but will understand each other better, will find some commonalities, will perhaps come up with approaches that in the present atmosphere of give no quarter would never have a chance to surface. Let the two conventions then reassemble separately, debate their draft platforms change and/or debate them honestly. And then, on the final day, suppose the two conventions met together and each presented their platform, with their arguments for it, to the whole assembly.

Conceivable? Not really; a fantasy, today. And that’s very sad. But the other experience of the conventions is even sadder. The real problems of our society were virtually taboo in the speeches, completely absent, indeed deliberately suppressed

Now imagine that, instead of all the speeches about how great America is, how things are getting better or staying bad, how trustworthy our leaders are and how they love their children and all humanity, suppose we had speeches that grappled with some basic issues dividing us:

• What is our vision of a fair society? Is inequality a bad thing, a necessary thing, how much of it should we aim for?

• Will the market lead to the kind of fairness we want, and if not can government move us in a better direction by interfering with its operations?

• Are there limits to growth? Is growth an over-riding objective in a good society? How do we define growth anyway?

• Social values are taken as somehow intrinsic to all human beings, and to be respected in a free country. But we also recognize limits to that respect: corporal punishment, bigamy, sexism and racism, persecution of non-believers, are considered properly outlawed even if justified as “social values.” Where is the dividing line, how is to be drawn, what is the educational or formal role of government in establishing and enforcing the line?

• Assuming a common commitment to pursue the general welfare and provide a durable safety net for all, is there any limit on our ability to achieve those ends? Do we lack the resources to do so, or is it a matter of their allocation, their distribution among groups?

• In what ways do we believe Americans are superior to others? Are we entitled to a leadership role in inter-national affairs, and if so how and why? To what extent should we submit to international law? Is global democracy a meaningful concept?

Imagine three days discussing such issues, with all the skill and care and money and enthusiasm and sophistication that went into these two mammoth conventions: would we not have a better democracy? We’d still have conflicts of interest, of course, struggles for power, etc., but we’d at least expand the proportion of those conflicts and struggles that could be resolved by rational discussion and understanding — and maybe relieve the grid-lock we now face.

It is sad that we can only see these possibilities as fantasies, cannot really imagine such possibilities within the gridlock and the superficiality of discourse of our present political process. Wouldn’t even a wide-spread discussion of them be great?