William Jennings Bryan, carried victorious through the 1896 Democratic convention
If I walk out the door from where I live, away from downtown and into the rich, quiet part of town, I will encounter an old house where William Jennings Bryan spent his summers. According to local legend, he had a soundproof room where he could practice his oratory.
In the summer of 1896, Bryan — then a young, populist Nebraska congressman — took his famous booming voice to the Chicago Coliseum, where the Democratic Party was holding its convention.
The Democrats at the time were deeply divided on a number of topics, most immediately whether to issue coinage in gold or silver as well. It sounds dry, but the issue was one of those political icebergs, striking at deeper problems of class and power. With no certain nominee for President, Bryan took the stage, broadening his condemnation of gold into a fiery attack on the power of the wealthy:
We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.
Forget the currency issue; Bryant's genius was to capture common outrage so perfectly that it's still energizing to read.
Thundering to the assembled delegates, he declared "you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." He finished, arms outstretched, and the crowd went wild.
The results were a populist wet dream: "the Great Commoner" Bryan won the nomination over fat cat incumbent Grover Cleveland and became the first liberal to head the Democratic Party. The convention was one for the books: a genuinely suspenseful battle for control of the country's politics.
Now, I'm leaving for Charlotte, just down the mountain, where the Democratic Party — 116 years later — will again have its convention. To say "they don't make 'em like they used to" is an understatement. The nature of the event is the mirror opposite from Bryan's day, and how the American political convention stumbled from popular decision point to stage-managed spectacle is a revealing story.
It begins with a conspiracy theory. In the early 1830s, whole parts of the America was in full paranoid backlash mode against the Freemasons, widely believed to infest all levels of government as part of some mysterious plot. Their opponents decided to form a political party to run the bums out. Usually, this sort of quixotic effort either fizzles out or fades into simple annoyance.
But the short-lived Anti-Masonic Party did something unknown at the time: to better stave off the influence of nefarious men in aprons, they decided to bring their party delegates chosen by local members together, in public, to decide on nominees and an official platform.
At the time this was a contrast to the tradition of party power brokers straight out picking their man. This new way was far more grassroots, and so theoretically friendlier to the common people. In 1832, the Anti-Masons nominated William Wirt for President. Somewhat embarrassingly, he was a mason.
The major parties recognized the value of the Anti-Masonic party's innovation. The country was bigger, the electorate more diverse, and settlers were forming their own power centers. The old closed-door methods just weren't going to work as well to bind enough different groups together to achieve victory. For all their corruption, political machines have to maintain some measure of popular support to exist, and conventions offered a way to bring new groups into the fold.
For about the next century, the political convention served as America's brawling ground for its parties' differences. This is where the many, many factions of the main coalitions would hash out their disagreements and decide their leaders.
The high point was Bryan's 1896 triumph, a real surprise the reflected growing discontent with the casualties of the Gilded Age. But in the same year, the writing for the old style political convention was already on the wall. Bryan gave 500 more speeches as he steamed towards election day, inventing the modern stumping tour.
But dreams and charisma have their limits. On the other side Mark Hanna — the type of political Svengali Karl Rove dreams of being in his ballsiest power fantasy — tightly managed William McKinley's every word and slandered Bryan as a dangerous radical. McKinley won in a landslide.
Bryan became one of those self-designated People of the Future who live just long enough to become obsolete: he slipped into death after fighting on the wrong side of the Scopes Trial and Prohibition. By that point, undecided conventions weren't unheard of, but they were slowly becoming more rare. Hanna's breed of manager gained increasing control over party proceedings, and the local machines that formed the backbone of the convention system came under attack. Reformers pushed for state primaries as a way to give more power to the common people.
Flash forward to 1968, and the Democratic Party is again meeting in Chicago. This time, though, the result plays like a liberal's nightmare. As the party leaders dither, police riot in the streets, bloodying hundreds of protesters. The fact that Hubert Humphrey, viewed as a pro-war relic, took the nomination without winning a single primary led to a widespread push for a more democratic way of deciding nominees, one that didn't require they have to be part of the party apparatus to get a say.
That was pretty much the nail in the coffin of the old convention system. Zombie remnants keep rearing their heads from time to time. It was almost touching for political wonks to see Ron Paul supporters studying the arcana of the delegate selection process this year, hoping to secure their candidate an advantage he couldn't win in the primaries. They managed to cause a bit of a ruckus, but not much more, because we don't live in 1896.
Today, the convention as the deciding line is in the realm of fantasy. Aaron Sorkin crafted the last season of the West Wing around a divided convention with an earnest liberal reformer sweeping to victory on the strength of a grand speech. Sound familiar?
From the right angle, Santos even looks like Bryan.
The scenario is appealing to those like Sorkin with a great sense of drama and much more vague sense that the country's virtue has somehow crumbled, that the conventions of yesteryear represented a time when great men could take the reins in a sudden burst of popular energy.
But let's not romanticize the past too much: that ideal is, on many fronts, wrong. The political class of Bryant's day was even more limited than our own: white, male, Christian only (even the reformers like him). For all the lofty rhetoric and the ardor of the convention floor, delegates got there by stone-cold manipulation in the months before; Bryan even briefly brags about it in his Cross of Gold speech. Then, it was still possible to get the party's representatives together in one city to decide on their nominee. Now, it isn't.
From another perspective this fracturing shows a broadening of the country's democracy. Archaic clusterfuck that it is, the primary system does give the average voter more say in the nomination process than they had in Bryan's day. Like aristocracy, it might be a good thing conventions are robbed of most of their practical power, even if some are still drawn by a bit of the old glamor.
Even in their dotage, even with commerce and sponsorships replacing brawling debates, conventions still serve a purpose. They help to bring together a party's faithful in a way that doesn't happen very much. Activists, officials, political ops all get to make valuable face-to-face connections and plan for the years to come. Even the protesters decrying the very nature of political parties can't resist a target this juicy. Neither, for that matter, can I.
That's all well and good, and it makes the long mutation of the political convention understandable; less a corruption of democracy than a slow process of evolution, as reluctant elites have to let more and more groups into the polis. There's something reassuring, even cozy about that.
Perhaps. But those of us heading to the land of the Bank of America arena, checkpoints, and police cordons can't help but crave a raw shout, screaming defiance against the cross of gold.