On Monday, August 17th, the 47th Democratic National Convention kicks off in no particular place, on a string of video broadcasts, without a live audience or an army of journalists or a whirl of parties awaiting the delegates afterward. The following Monday, the Republican National Convention ends not with a bring-down-the-house floor speech by Donald Trump, but with a quiet click when the president stops talking into a camera and someone presses “stop.”
Thanks to Covid-19, the nation’s quadrennial moments of political theater are, for the first time, entirely virtual.
Is there any reason to mourn the absence of the traditional political convention? Will there be a single tear shed for the staged balloon drops, the roll calls with all the suspense of a Soviet Politburo vote, the voice-vote endorsement of a platform that the nominee will feel free to ignore?
The obituaries for conventions have been written many times, and surely a lot of that old-fashioned folderol was going to end up consigned to history one way or the other. But there’s one convention feature that the parties are very much going to miss: the speech before a packed arena, with thousands shaking the rafters with their cheers.
And I’m not just talking about the acceptance speech. To a remarkable degree, convention oratory for a century and more—not just the content of the speeches, but the way they connect with the crowd in the moment—has helped set the course of the party, often raising and lowering political fortunes in the process. And for all the telecommunication tools at hand, there is no obvious way for the parties to replace a political weapon that dates back to Demosthenes, the speech that stirs the listeners’ souls.
Some of these have, indeed, been acceptance speeches. For decades these have been the centerpiece of the conventions, drawing tens of millions of television viewers, and often setting the theme of a campaign. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s acceptance speech is where he pledged “a New Deal” in 1932; John F. Kennedy’s in 1960 proclaimed that “we stand at the edge of a new frontier.” It was his 2016 acceptance speech in which Donald Trump described a broken America and boasted: “I alone can fix it.”