Over the past two weeks, we've watched as online media have redefined how the parties’ national conventions work, who gets to participate in them and who shapes their messages. What does that mean for politics in the years to come?
First, some history. Until the middle of the last century, American political party conventions decided things. Right there on the floor, delegates from across the country voted to pick presidents and vice presidents. It wasn't always pretty (Democrats took more than 100 rounds of balloting to choose John W. Davis in 1924), and it wasn't always ethical. But Democrats, Whigs and later Republicans used conventions to balance their various constituencies and hammer out consensus around a nominee right there in the room.
The voters couldn't be kept at arms length forever. As communications technology evolved from the poster and the telegram, we gradually started to peek through closed convention doors. The real changes began with radio, but accelerated dramatically with the advent of television and the rise of the modern primary system. Conventions evolved into a show, mediated by journalists and aimed at a nation of voters. In the process, they lost most of the deliberative role in favor of spectacle.
Not that the show always succeeded. In 1968, for instance, violence in Chicago streets overshadowed the action in the hall where Democrats gathered. That year, network news coverage of running street battles between police and protesters undercut eventual nominee Hubert Humphrey and reinforced Richard Nixon's law-and-order message. Not surprisingly, future convention organizers took notice.
By the 1980s, planners had perfected the art of the scripted convention aimed at a broadcast audience. Events like 1984's nomination of Ronald Reagan for reelection were pure theater, with results ordained far in advance and visuals choreographed to send a message to the country. We did see occasional outliers like Pat Buchanan's divisive 1992 speech, which helped the Democrats more than it did George H.W. Bush. But most conventions hewed closely to the script, intent on controlling the political message and shaping the course of that year's presidential race.
Until this year, that is. In 2016, parties were no longer truly in control of their own conventions. The Internet took over. If early conventions were deliberative, and broadcast-era ones were a show, this year demonstrated what Party Conventions of the Third Kind, the Interactive Kind, can look like.
Even as the Republicans headed to Cleveland to nominate Donald Trump last month, social media was hard at work stomping on their message. Remember the first Trump/Pence logo, the one that "broke America's mattress”? The campaign pulled it within a day or two in the face of near-universal online ridicule. Meanwhile, they'd already fumbled their own VP announcement more broadly, putting it out on Twitter without the online infrastructure ready to take advantage of the moment.
Then came Melania Trump's speech July 18, with passages lifted from Michelle Obama's 2008 equivalent. Note that TV news anchors didn't break the story: a freelance journalist did it with just three tweets, and he unleashed another wave of digital mockery in the process. As the week progressed, Hillary Clinton was in on the act, with Facebook posts and tweets that tried to turn Republican messaging to her advantage. But thanks to the online public, that message was already muddled.
If Democrats were feeling smug, it didn't last for long. On the eve of their meeting in Philadelphia, WikiLeaks (at Vladimir Putin's behest?) released a deluge of embarrassing Democratic National Committee emails, firing up Bernie Sanders supporters and ending Debbie Wasserman Schultz's tenure running the party. Trump surely enjoyed the sound of Bernie delegates booing and chanting against Clinton at the opening on the DNC, and he was happy to join the fun with a string of tweets — threatening and otherwise.
Is this the future of political conventions? For the immediate future, yes. They're still a show, but new players have taken the stage as active members of the cast. And, they look suspiciously like us: the voters. Thank you, Internet.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com and a 15-year veteran of online politics. See something interesting? Send him a pitch email@example.com