WITTMAN, Md. — Are political conventions obsolete? Last week’s Democratic Party’s National Convention in Boston was quite a show. But with limited network coverage and little news to report, commentator after commentator wondered out loud if these partisan gatherings have outlived their usefulness. A few even suggested that the Fleet Center fiesta just concluded, and the GOP bash planned for Manhattan later this month, might be remembered as the last conventions ever gaveled to order.
We may well be witnessing the last major party conventions – but not for the reasons most pundits are talking about. For if neither of the two major parties wake up to the fact that people are sick of politics as usual, it will be the parties and not just the conventions that will be headed for the ash heap of history.
The signs of growing unrest have been there for years.
- In 1992, Ross Perot challenged both parties from the outside and receives unprecedented support for a modern independent candidate.
- In 2000, John McCain mounts a spirited attempt to challenge the Republican establishment, requiring an under-handed and Herculean effort by George W. Bush’s campaign in South Carolina to stop McCain’s insurgency.
- In 2004, Howard Dean emerges from nowhere to challenge the Democratic Party from within. It takes another Herculean effort by the party’s establishment to stop his candidacy in its tracks – but not before he arguably got the closest any true outside insurgent has come to winning his party’s nomination.
The parties look at these three failed insurgencies as failures at the risk of their future existence. Message to both -- the next wave may be your last.
The Internet is making the two parties, as they now stand, obsolete. The parties exist because they can provide organization in every region and locale in the nation. But the Internet is quickly giving individuals the power to build their own organizations around the candidate of their choice. It will only be a matter of time before this power outstrips that of the two parties if they fail to understand what is happening.
The parties exist as a means and a mechanism to raise needed millions to fund campaigns. But the Internet has proven that you no longer need a party structure of wealthy donors to compete – the Net empowers average citizens to participate and fund the candidate of their choice. And the Internet has proven that a candidate can achieve, or exceed, the funding prowess of the party’s big money donors.
It is only a matter of time until the right candidate attracts millions of Americans using the Internet to his or her cause and outdoes both parties in fundraising.
Staving off extinction
It does not have to be this way. A party can reform itself, but it has to recognize that reform is necessary. As they say, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing you have one. Human nature being what it is, the party that wins this November will feel redeemed and see little need to reform. The strobe lights of victory have a way of blinding people.
The rest of 2004 will mask this coming sea change in our politics. Ralph Nader will not be much of a factor because he has failed to convince enough Americans to believe he has a chance to win, and Dean’s strong bid to remake the Democratic Party from within has all but doomed Nader's crusade.
No. The rest of 2004 will be about John Kerry and George Bush going toe-to-toe in what will be the biggest spending spree in American political history. The American people will rightly focus on which of these two men should lead our country for the next four years. But once that choice is made the two parties will have a limited time to understand and come to terms with the new age of empowerment we live in – and to embrace that age, or wither and die.
Beware of blog
The two parties are not unlike the mavens of the recording industry who were caught unawares by Napster. The Internet, with its communities, political discussion groups and blogs, is on the rise in politics. Like the recently humbled executives of the recording industry, our two top-down political parties are not immune to the same surprise — the same kind of bottom-up change.
The election of 2008 will be a completely different kind of affair. The real question isn’t will we have major party conventions, the real question is will the two parties change enough to still matter?
Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's former campaign manager, is an MSNBC contributor and a political analyst for "Hardball with Chris Matthews." He's contributes to Hardball's weblog, and is author of "The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything."