Conventional Wisdom

Published August 20, 2020

City Journal

H.L. Mencken was the Homer of American political conventions—their jeering bard. How would he have covered a virtual convention in the Covid summer of 2020?

It wouldn’t have worked. How could he have deployed his ridicule, his slapstick rodomontade, his gaudy vocabularies of abuse and hilarity, while he sat before a flat-screen television in a row house on West Baltimore’s Hollins Street, watching what had become of the noisiest spectacle in American politics after it had been put in lockdown and reduced to the sound of one hand clapping?

But maybe I’m wrong about this. Tucker Carlson has Menckenesque gifts, and he has been riding high of late.

Mencken—W.C. Fields with a thesaurus, an overbearingly funny man—considered the American two-party system a touchingly fraudulent yet perfectly authentic form of national theater: the vaudeville of Boobus Americanus, about which Mencken, himself a vaudevillian of language, wrote with equal measures of affection and contempt. Of course, Mencken might have had a rough time with the ways of the twenty-first century. He belonged to his time and was more than a bit of a bigot.

In the Covid year 2020, Mencken would have found that the old political carny had passed into another dimension, a twilight zone, an eerie placelessness whose mise en scene resembles the stage sets of science fiction shows (Buck RogersCaptain Video) of the 1950s. The old political convention as social phenomenon—the democratic jamboree (drinks, noise, funny hats) convened to make a show of politics and choose a champion—was gone. Instead, upon the myriad screens, a procession of iconic images, now miniaturized (Obama, the Clintons, Pelosi, Schumer, and various Ordinary Citizens, a cast of many colors, postage stamps of democracy) spoke of the stakes involved in the election and of the issues—and, above all, of the horrors of the monster occupying the White House.

An audience, regardless of party, heard the virtual speakers’ applause lines and subconsciously awaited the usual clapping and cheering and other crowd noises—the old call-and-response. But those responses did not come. It was disconcerting. The speakers spoke into emptiness, into sleek silence. Their heartfelt messages (pleading, longing, fervent, poignant, self-conscious because spoken to no one real, merely to the camera) were beamed into outer space. Very strange.

And yet. The virtual convention is a new art form, but I cannot help thinking that it works—better than I would have expected, better than the former in-person convention, whose spirit, it seemed to me, had long since become a bogus, stale remnant of the nineteenth century. Since primaries and caucuses had taken over the task of actually choosing the party’s presidential candidate, the convention had lost all spontaneity and become a scripted television show, filled with cant and dead air. The Menckenesque charm vanished years ago. The conventions made me think of a cheap Las Vegas production: NOT THE BEATLES, BUT AN INCREDIBLE SIMULATION!

There’s a disorienting new metaphysics at work in the virtual version. The world is differently wired. The cant remains, but considering the new virtual event as a phenomenon of persuasion, without judging the politics or policies being advanced, one beheld in the new form a considerable advance in the fluency, the flexibility, the intellectual intimacy of the political convention. If the production was too slick, still, the pacing was brisk, and the variety of ideas and Americans on display was interesting.

Did any political convention ever change anyone’s mind? I doubt it. That was never the idea. A convention was intended to be a family reunion, a show of party unity and reconciliation. It was meant—by way of speeches, platform, and the parade of personalities—to offer the country a narrative line, a Democrat or Republican version of itself. “All right, we are two nations,” John Dos Passos wrote. He was thinking of the Sacco and Vanzetti case of the 1920s. But what he said has always been true, more or less, except during World War II. The political conventions became a nice way to dramatize the difference between the two nations, the mostly opposite American tribes.

The differences this year, of course, are as sharp as they have ever been. The realities are stark. The unrealities, too. Napoleon said that history is a fable agreed upon. Americans’ problem in the twenty-first century is that they cannot agree on which fable of themselves to believe.

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