Political Alternatives

Political Alternatives

OK, I tried to watch the Republican convention on TV–I really did–but the early rounds of the US Open were playing seductively on ESPN.

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OK, I tried to watch the Republican convention on TV–I really did–but the early rounds of the US Open were playing seductively on ESPN. My wife and I found that, when the GOP hoopla reached an especially repulsive peak of patriotic treacle, we could jump to the tennis and catch a couple of games, a far more satisfying drama of grace and power. When civic duty hectored us back to the politics channel, we found the Republican story stuck in exactly the same place we had left it. Thank God for President Resolute. Shame on that despicable Senator Creep running against him. The Dems’ convention was less demagogic, perhaps, but similarly dull in predictable repetitions.

The giggly Bush daughters were the low point (though probably I missed some others). Jenna and Barbara Jr. played Paris Hilton before the assembly of self-righteousness, and the gag didn’t work. They even made “off-color” wisecracks about their grandmother’s lack of hipness. John Kerry has better daughters. That’s basically all I learned from the Republican convention. Maybe the warrior president will be able to overcome this impression with his speech.

Zig-zag Zell Miller, the turncoat Democrat who started in politics alongside Lester Maddox, shot Kerry in the back with rat-a-tat zingers. Maybe the media will follow up with a careful examination of which lies were told, which facts were true. Miller seemed unconvincing to me–his beak is too large for his head–but that’s a question of taste.

The Vice President followed with his usual sense of know-it-all gravity. Boring. Even Cheney seemed bored. His manner of smirking while he waited for the masses to subside didn’t help. They went wild after his every sentence. Tom Shales, the Washington Post TV critic and always astutely attuned to the medium, observed that the GOP crowd “behaved like a bunch of yahoos who’d been bused in expecting The Jerry Springer Show. Nothing makes a worse case for the Republican Party than seeing a mob of them congregating.”

That’s entertainment? This is not meant as political analysis (who knows what the mass audience saw or believed) but intended as a plaintive plea to the media moguls who own and run the mass communications in this country. Please, find the courage to pull the plug on both national parties and put us out of our misery. The conventions are dead ritual, utterly empty and yet stupifyingly florid, a production that no longer has any resemblance to the original nominating contests that inspired intensity and combat, memorable oratory and genuine suspense. One can reasonably argue that television itself killed the conventions by turning them into grossly exaggerated message boards for ad writers. In return, it seems, the conventions are killing television.

My plea is a hopeless lament, of course. The corporate suits wouldn’t dare turn off the political parties. They know perfectly well that broadcasting a few evenings of deadly airtime every four years is a measly price to pay for their privileged position and the gracious treatment they always receive in Washington corridors. The reporters and pundits may grouse at the late-night open-bar parties about the weak content of the conventions, but these are very good parties, after all, especially in New York City.

So here is my alternative proposition: The broadcast and cable channels should be forced to give one or two nights every quadrennial to those eccentric, unsung political organizations that challenge the big boys–the minority parties, from the Greens to the Libertarians and whoever else manages to organize a national slate on the ballot in fifty states. As a practical matter, all these parties would have to meet in the same hall. They would have to wrangle out among themselves how to use the limited airtime. A lot of the speechifying would doubtless sound very weird to average Americans, but some of it might sound smart, even intriguing. Some of the floor action might get overwrought and a little like mud wrestling. The event would come to be known as the “zoo convention.”

An outlaw assembly of non-established politics would definitely make for better television–the passion and tensions of diverse people arguing for their intense convictions or crackpot ideas if you like, restrained only by the security guards. Imagine how entertaining this would be for the stay-at-home viewers. Imagine how much more informative for voters.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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