Thomas J. McCarthy
This years national party meetings displayed poll-itics as usual.

An unusual amount of hot air suffused the American atmosphere this past August. I’m not referring to the wildfires in the West, but to the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Though less noteworthy, the conventions garnered more media attention, because when all was said (and said and said) and done, the conventions seemed even more uncannily self-perpetuating and self-consuming than the recalcitrant fires.

Successful politicians have always been adept at manipulating the spoken word—and, by extension, their audience. This is why, while everything imploded around him, President Clinton, “the great communicator,” managed to maintain high approval ratings. Befitting the times, self-interested exaggeration set the tone for the recent conventions, where videos outperformed speakers and the prominence of famous entertainers seemed to suggest a new form of populism—recruiting popular stars to help dumb-down the message.

In this vein, I was less struck that the conventions were so “scripted,” as every pundit remarked afterward, than that the people reading the lines were such bad actors. As tied to the Teleprompters as they are to the polls, the speakers tried with all their might to summon the utmost sincerity, and it showed. Their words and gestures—so unctuously earnest—-and their promises—so ridiculously sweeping—rang hollow, not because they’re bad people, but because they’re good politicians.

The truth is such a servant of expediency in their world that it is no surprise to have conventions geared to create an impression rather than generate substance or enhance public debate. Both conventions seemed orchestrated so that few people could disagree with anything in any speech—a redundancy, since ideas (as opposed to fuzzy promises, stentorian cant and homespun autobiography) were a scarcity. Inside the bubble of the Big Tent that both parties desperately strive to erect over the whole country, empty cliché rules the day (or convention week). Take the following lines from the nominees’ speeches: “We accomplished a lot;” “We need to rekindle the spirit of America;” “Greatness is found when American character and American courage overcome American challenges;” “Give me the opportunity to lead this nation, and I will lead.” These bold and incisive opinions brought delegates to their feet, never mind that they could have come from any candidate who has ever sought office.

As the centerpiece of our democracy, it is right and fitting that the conventions epitomize political speech as a genre: offend no one, attract everyone. They fulfilled the maxim of their name: to be convention-al is to be conventional—that is, “traditional, according to convention.” And opinion polls are the new benchmark of convention, so much so that political speech may be called poll-itical speech. Politicians have always had something of a finger-in-the-wind approach to crafting a speech, and political speech has always been stoked by rhetorical flourish and colored in broad strokes. But the overwhelming dependency on polls has meant that the speech that decides elections and helps to shape policy and the parameters of our national conversation is subject to every variety of breeze that blows at any given moment.

As political speeches go, so goes the politics of speech. All-important convention speeches tend to be less about engagement than assuagement, less defined by imagination than by image. In an age when projecting authenticity is a legitimate political strategy, the first question addressed by every post-speech panel was not “What did you think of what he said?” but “How did he do?” or “How will it play?” Everyone agreed: “He did what he had to do. He accomplished what he had to.” This is what convention demands, isn’t it?

More than anything else, this year’s conventions illustrated that poll-itics as usual is evidence that even as the value of public opinion rises meteorically, the level of public discourse is in free fall. Polls do not give the public a greater voice, only a greater cacophony of voices, which parallels a slow and steady watering-down of our civic sensibility. The quadrennial political conventions have the power to ameliorate this condition by providing the framework and vocabulary for talking about issues, goals and who we are as a people. However, while conventionspeak 2000 delivered ample partisan salvos about honor, integrity and squandered opportunity, both sides squandered an enormous opportunity for public service: to mold and heighten public discourse through plain and intelligent speech. To do this is to honor the public voice.

Sadly, though not surprisingly, convention speeches designed to rouse voters from their indifference only exacerbate the country’s inanition. The poll-tested gnomes and warm-hearted personal stories “play well,” but like so many balloons launched from on high, only pop on impact or lose their air in the cool light of morning. Yes, this is democracy at work, and we’re lucky to have it. But let’s be clear: inflating the rhetoric—or 50,000 balloons—is a far cry from elevating the dialogue.

Recently in Columns