Political conventions are useful. Really!

The conventions are much better at generating newsworthy moments than you might think, as reporter Richard Wolf points out in this morning’s edition of USA Today. A defeated Ronald Reagan wowed the 1976 convention with a six-minute stemwinder that commenced his victorious 1980 campaign. State Senator Barack Obama “became the star of the 2004 Democratic convention” with his speech. Bill Clinton flopped in 1988 with his 33-minute Michael Dukakis nomination. To that list of notable convention addresses one must add Sarah Palin’s televangelist tour de force at the Republicans 2008 show, which in retrospect marked her political high point…

What’s true of the conventions is true of the primaries: Yes, they’re heavily scripted and predictable. Yes, the news-to-blather ratio is huge. Yes, there are too many reporters chasing too little “news.” But that’s like saying that during a gold rush there are too many prospectors chasing too little ore. With that many folks pursuing a rare good, the likelihood of a jackpot being won increases. Perhaps we should be worrying that 150,000 reporters haven’t been assigned to the conventions to work the event as cultural anthropologists investigating the power of social ritual. There’s something spiritual about the faithful assembling every four years to pick a would-be king who jousts with another would-be king for the crown. At least an anthropologist could determine with authority whether or not the surplus of ritual has diluted the event of its spiritual force. Maybe that’s the reason that politicians like Mike Murphy pine for a convention decided, as if by magic, in a smoke-filled room by a political college of cardinals.