Arguments, Please

Argument ClinicThe Democratic National Convention has kicked off in Denver, and apparently it’s gotten off to a brisk start. The reviews of the speeches by Michelle Obama, Senator Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi suggest all have gone off without a hitch. No doubt, Michelle, Ted and Nancy breathed more easily once they got off the stage and out of the glare of the television cameras. They deserve to feel a cool, satisfied sense of relief. The convention so far has been carefully scripted, strictly managed, and well presented; the Democrats are doing their utmost to put their best foot forward, and so far have achieved almost Beijing Olympics levels of efficiency.

I suppose this masterful orchestration should cheer Barack’s supporters up. I can’t help but feel a bit of disquiet, however; something that tightly wound and absent of any genuine surprise cannot help but be somewhat dry, no matter how well crafted the rhetoric may be. It has all the hallmarks of one, long extended commercial, and is nearly as boring. I think in this regard America has much to learn from Britain, and from the debates that occur within British political parties.

It may sound somewhat perverse in a twenty-four hour, cable television news driven culture to say that arguments are worthwhile. After all, the American press would seize upon any open disagreements as symptomatic of a “split”. However to speak in pure platitudes and paper over the cracks is far less “genuine”: normal, intelligent people, if gathered in enough numbers, are bound to have big debates. This is not Stalinist Russia, after all; there is no obligation to keep applauding the party platform lest one thought to be disloyal. Even Karl Marx said that without the dynamic of criticism, no society can progress; the same holds true for political parties.

In Britain, arguments at party conferences are a fact of life. The Liberal Democrats, for example, argue every year about decriminalisation of marijuana. Within the Labour Party, there are annual debates about the role of the private sector in the provision of public services: how much should they provide, or if they should provide any at all. The Conservatives fight over Britain’s membership of the European Union and how quickly taxes ought to be cut. These discussions are not interpreted as a genuine “split” unless there is an actual rebellion: i.e., Members of Parliament refuse to vote in accordance with the eventuallly agreed party platform.

American conventions are not anything like this. In fact, these events have been little more than a rubber stamp for decades; the only opportunity there is for such discussion is when the party nominee is unclear. Perhaps the best convention in American history was the Democratic convention in 1948; the party was hopelessly divided when it came in, and it fought and argued. Harry Truman prior to the convention had little natural constituency; he had been an afterthought when selected to run as Roosevelt’s vice president in 1944. Indeed, there were some Democrats who wanted to draft in Eisenhower. Few wanted to stick with Truman; however the process of argument established his natural ability and force, and displayed the charismatic and moral qualities which enabled him to win an election pre-ordained to be hopeless.

Can argument be a negative? Certainly, if free speech is seen as a right to promote anarchy: the Democrats had quite enough of that in 1968. A combination of a party establishment that was frightened of the radicals, a group of radicals that was not willing to compromise, and the assasination of the bridge between the two groups, Robert Kennedy, meant that disagreement became destructive. By and large, however, disagreement is normal, cathartic, and allows both radicals and moderates to believe their voice has been heard, even if neither side gets all of their positions adopted.

The counterpoint is that a gathering that focuses on unity (which has a similar feel to the Beijing Olympics sense of “harmony”) should give Barack a substantial bounce in the polls. I disagree; predictable television like the convention is bound to switch off undecided or uncommitted viewers. This is not the fifties, after all, when there was a limited number of channels and programmes; no doubt some viewers are flipping back to women’s beach volleyball matches they recorded on their Tivos. Indeed, any “bounce” is likely to be attributable to the event’s coverage, rather than the convention itself. In contrast, because the Republican ship is rotting from within, and there is a fundamental split between the Evangelical and Libertarian wings of the party, this is likely to be much more interesting; I personally look forward to seeing some of their party faithful speaking in tongues and praying that Jesus casts out the demons within McCain. More worryingly and much less amusing is the thought that the Republicans’ lack of organisation may accrue the advantage of their getting all the arguments out of the way, rather than having them fester beneath the surface.

There is the possibility that the Democratic convention could still become a series of debates; for example, there is still some obvious disquiet among a segment of Hillary Clinton’s supporters. I suggest that the attempts to silence them are likely to be counterproductive; let them say why they are so convinced that Hillary ought to be nominated, even though Hillary herself has backed Obama. It may seem akin to primal scream therapy, but if the party gives them space for venting their anguish, they may finally be able to move on and do something useful. If not, they’ll simply look insane and lose all remaining credibility. Forcing them underground only gives added cause for grievance and creates an atmosphere of subversion rather than principled disagreement and a process of healing. Additionally, I believe Barack is more than strong enough to face down any doubters; he’s come this far, this seems like a small gulf to bridge.

However, I doubt this will occur, and I doubt that the “bounce” will amount to much: I sincerely hope I am incorrect, but I can proclaim expertise in what constitutes “boring”, having been exposed to endless tedium by working in the technology industry. This experience has imbued me with a desire to call a halt to it whenever possible: if I were in Denver, I’d likely be approaching the nearest convention official and saying, like a Monty Python character, “I’d like to have an argument, please”. It might be helpful.

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