The Sunday Magazine

Political junkies shouldn't mourn loss of U.S. party conventions: David Shribman

The next two weeks were set to fill our television screens with the political spectacles of both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, but the pandemic put an end to those plans. The party faithful and much of the media may be disappointed, but Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist David Shribman has been to a dozen conventions and believes that the centuries-old tradition is well past its expiry date.

‘Most of what happens at these conventions are bad for the parties and the parties don’t realize it’

Giant bags filled with balloons ready to be lifted to the ceiling inside the First Union Center, the site of the 2000 Republican National Convention, on July 27, 2000, in Philadelphia. (Tom Mihalek/AFP via Getty Images)

Over-the-top political theatre, flamboyantly dressed, placard-waving delegates and enormous balloon drops were supposed to flash across our television screens over the next two weeks.

The Democratic National Convention was slated to begin on Aug. 10 in Milwaukee, while the Republicans were lined up for the following week in North Carolina.

But political spectacles are not immune to the pandemic, which has radically changed the shape of the 2020 American election campaign. The Democrats have opted to go virtual, while the Republican Party is going ahead with a significantly scaled back convention.

"Part of it is that the Republicans want to say they have the courage of their convictions and will risk the virus for their man, while the Democrats have not committed or [aren't] brave enough," David Shribman told The Sunday Edition's guest host Laurie Brown.

David Shribman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist. (Submitted by David Shribman/The Globe and Mail)

Shribman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist. For 16 years, he was the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is currently a professor at McGill University's Max Bell School of Public Policy.

Although the lack of political theatre is a letdown for the party faithfuls, Shribman isn't disappointed. He has attended 12 political conventions, the first one in 1980 when the drama surrounded whether or not Senator Edward Kennedy would raise his hand with President Jimmy Carter to support him as the nominee at the end of the convention.

"That sort of drama was the kind of stuff we really cared about," Shribman said. "That was pure theatre and I am one of only 11 people in the entire world who remembers that, but so many people cared about it at the time."

Shribman says it wasn't long after that convention that he began to doubt the usefulness of the grandiose political events.

"I realized that nothing was happening of any consequence, except bad things, for each party," he explained. "Most of what happens at these conventions are bad for the parties and the parties don't realize it."

As for the scaled back conventions this year, Shribman says that although people may tune in due to Trump's brazenness and Biden's recent pick of Kamala Harris as his running mate, the true test for each party will be the televised debates.

"The debates really often have moments in which people can make their decisions," he said. "The debates made a big difference in 1960 and they made a big, big difference in 1980 with Carter and Reagan, so they can be really important."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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