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How Have American Political Conventions Evolved Over Time?

It used to be that the candidates didn’t even attend political party nominating conventions. Then, they evolved into four-day celebrations of the parties’ nominees.

Harvard University historian Jill Lepore speaks with Here & Now‘s Robin Young about some notable moments at American political conventions.

Interview Highlights: Jill Lepore

On the emergence of the legislative caucus, and its political impact

“People thought very quickly — because there’s also popular vote — ‘Well, what are we doing? We’re voting for delegates to the electoral college. Are they supposed to vote the way we want them to vote, or are we just voting for them to make a decision on their own?’ And so there emerged a new system which is known as the legislative caucus, where the parties got together, members of Congress of the same party, and said, ‘OK, here’s who we really want to be our presidential candidate.’ And then they told delegates to choose that candidate, as the party system emerged.

Then people said, ‘Well now’ — people, ordinary people who are voting — ‘What role do we have in electing the president?’ And now by the time we get to the 1820s, these are people who aren’t used to having a king. So they said, you know, ‘We don’t want this king caucus, we want to elect the president directly,’ in a sense at least.

So they came up with his idea in Jacksonian America to hold the convention. Delegates from each state would come, delegates would represent members of the electoral college. They choose and candidate and it would be this great mass sort of embodiment of the idea of popular sovereignty — the people rule, the people will decide.”


On those who say the current party nomination system is flawed

“The trick is you can get a lot of political capital out of saying the system is rigged and needs to be democratized and the people don’t have enough of a vote. But you can only say that so many times. At the end of the day, are we just going to sit at our computers and all, at the same time, instantaneously vote and have a direct election of the president? We’ve kind of got to a point, what is the next level of reform?”

On the potential impact of a party’s platforms

“It would be a very interesting empirical study to systematically study the relationship between the platforms and the legislative successes of the party in power in the wake of the election. You see a lot in platforms, actually not of advancing an agenda, but of retreating from an agenda.

For instance, the Republican Party’s commitment to the [Equal Rights Amendment], which the Republican Party was the first party to endorse the ERA on its platform in 1940. But in the ’70s, the Republican Party for the first time abandoned its commitment to equal rights for women. That wasn’t a concession. That was a rejection of a whole arm of the party. It’s very important, it’s meaningful and it’s significant historically as an index to the direction of the party, but it doesn’t really auger it’s next successes.”

On her thoughts on this year’s conventions

“There’s this pervasive sense of foreboding about the possibility of violence. On the other hand, the upside would be — as a historian, as someone who cares about the past and cares about American civics and democratic institutions that provide stability to the United States and serves as a model for other nations — people really know a lot about the nominating conventions this year.

There’s really been a kind of a lot of conversation, like, ‘What is a super delegate?’ To some degree, that happens every four years from people who aren’t winning the nomination (who) begin noticing the system suddenly, they didn’t notice it three years after the last nominating convention, they only notice it four years afterward. That’s really good. It’s useful for people to sit up, have their ears perk up, and say, ‘How does this system work again?’ Not in a kind of paranoid, hysterical way, but to wonder, ‘What are the set of circumstances that led us to where we are, and is there room for reform? What is the role of money in these campaigns and in this system?’ Those are really urgent questions.”


Jill Lepore, professor of history at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quicken Loans Arena is decorated to welcome the Republican National Convention on July 11, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)
Quicken Loans Arena is decorated to welcome the Republican National Convention on July 11, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)
One of the first photos of the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Ill., on June 14, 1932. (AP Photo)
One of the first photos of the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Ill., on June 14, 1932. (AP Photo)

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