America's oldest pastime is not baseball, or football, or indeed any professional sport. It is not going to the movies, or watching television, or spending time on the Internet. It's not communicating with each other via email, telephone, or any other method. America's oldest pastime will be on full display for the next two weeks, because before any of the rest of these things even existed, America has had a love affair with politics that endures and lives on to this day. But politics, especially as practiced during the national conventions, is nothing more than intolerance and bigotry writ large. But, unlike the more virulent forms of bigotry, political bigotry is not only celebrated in America but actually downright inevitable -- or at least, it has been since our country began.
The Internet has been widely used for less than a quarter of a century, email perhaps a decade longer than that. The telephone's been around more than a hundred years, movies for roughly the same century, and at some point along the way radio and television were added to the mix. Before the telephone, the miracle invention was the telegraph, which provided the first near-instantaneous news network in the country. Professional sports came into their own in the 1900s, as well, with baseball notably reaching back to the late 1800s. But politics has been around since before our country was born. Even more important: Without politics, our country never would have been born.
Depending on how you define your terms, politics (and politicking) have been a force in America since either the mid-1760s, since the mid-1770s, or since the Constitution was adopted in the late 1780s. Politicians actually engaging in politics was frowned upon back then, but it took place all the same. For a long time "electioneering" (as it was then called) was a very dirty word in American politics, but it certainly wasn't the only dirty word being used politically at the time (see, for instance, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings). It wasn't until Andrew Jackson's time in the 1820s that politics truly burst onto the American scene with all the traditional trappings we now enjoy (national conventions, national organized political parties, full-blown campaigning, and election paraphernalia, from red-white-and-blue bunting to campaign biographies to campaign songs to dozens of items you could purchase with your candidate's name and face on them). But, since then, this circus has never stopped.
For the next two weeks, we'll see both sides occupy center ring of this circus, as the Republicans and then the Democrats hold their quadrennial bash. While the spotlight is on each party, they will offer up what now amounts to a multi-day infomercial, in an attempt to convince American voters of the righteousness of their way of thinking, and the wrongheadedness of the other side's viewpoints. Part of the fun is the intellectual nature of the crassness of the spin. That sounds contradictory, but when you think about it, there wouldn't be any point to spin if it wasn't meant to convince the voter of your way of looking at things. Sure, spin can be dirty and muddy and all of that, but it is also an attempt to convince people -- by hook or by crook, by sacred truth or by Big Lies -- that you are right and those other fellows are wrong.
The very fact that such spin exists showcases how deeply Americans feel about politics. If there were no convincible voters out there, then there simply wouldn't be any point spinning, would there? The amount of people in America who decide which candidate to vote for in the last days before the election would probably shock partisans on both sides. But you have to wonder: If people have so little connection to the person they vote for, why do they bother voting at all? The answer is a deep-seated sense of duty and participation in American politics in millions of people. This goes beyond metaphors like the people who watch the Super Bowl who don't care one whit about the game and are merely watching to be entertained by the commercials. At least the commercials (some of them) do entertain. But voting isn't a passive activity; it requires action on the part of the voter that is an expenditure of free time and gives little or no immediate reward to someone who isn't deeply vested in one candidate or the other. The conventions exist to catch the passing fancy of these voters, and that of all the other millions who simply haven't been paying any attention to the election yet because they've been busy living their lives. The spin from both sides will be designed to draw these voters in and convince them to make the effort to vote this year -- for their side.
At heart, political conventions are the last remaining bastion of acceptable free-floating bigotry in America. Now, please note, I am not using this word to denigrate the Republicans or the Democrats specifically, nor am I suggesting that either party is guilty of racism, sexism, or any of the other myriad "-isms" that bigotry usually refers to in modern usage. But my dictionary defines the word bigot as "one intolerably devoted to his own church, party, or opinion" and gives as synonyms "fanatic, enthusiast, zealot." Note that word "party" in there. Virtually everyone attending the two conventions (excluding the media, one is supposed to assume) will be devoted to their party and their party's opinions. Appearing on our television screens will indeed be enthusiasts, fanatics, and even the occasional zealot -- 0n both sides, mind you. You can quibble about the "intolerably" part of the definition, but most of the conventioneers strike me as a pretty intolerant bunch, when it comes to giving the other sides' arguments the benefit of the doubt (or even common politeness).
There are other intolerant groups in America, and other gatherings to celebrate such intolerance. Bigotry (as popularly defined) still has its adherents, and groups of racists (or other "-ists") still do take place here. But they aren't covered for three days on prime-time television. They simply don't have the reach or the impact of the American political system. Raw, naked, in-your-face intolerance for others' opinions is actually pretty rare on the airwaves, outside the realm of politics. But that's exactly what will be on display for the next two weeks.
Both sides would, of course, cringe from being slapped with the label of bigotry. "We're tolerant of the other side's opinions; we just think they're idiots to believe such misguided moose poop," they will tell you, in all sincerity. There ought to be a term for such "tolerance," and it should be closely related to the phrase "crocodile tears." In actual fact, the bigwigs in both parties will sweat bullets throughout the entire convention week, in mortal fear of some party representative exhibiting their party's intolerance in too stark and noticeable a manner. One fire-breathing speech that goes off the rails, and millions of moderate voters in the suburbs might be lost, to put this another way (Pat Buchanan's name usually gets mentioned as "Exhibit A" for this sort of thing). Gauzy, family-oriented videos will be more the order of the day, although the delegates in the audience will doubtlessly be served up at least moderate heapings of red meat in between the schmaltz.
Conventions have many functions, of course. Other than party paper-pushing (proposing platforms that nobody will ever read, for instance), it all boils down to two major goals: convincing the convincibles among the American electorate, and stoking the fires of partisan bigotry among the party's base voters. High-flown words and fuzzy concepts will abound, which leads to a warning: Don't anybody try a drinking game using the word "freedom" or the phrase "I built this" during the Republican convention, or "Medicare voucher" or "middle class" during the Democratic convention, as this will be guaranteed to land you in a hospital before the night is over.
All kidding aside, though, I will be enjoying the next two weeks along with millions of other Americans. I will even be attending the Democratic National Convention as a member of the press, so I will see the party (in both senses of the term) up close and personal. I will be largely cheering for one side and booing the other, even while I attempt to maintain my reality-based perspective on the whole scene for my readers. But worshipping at the altar of reality means seeing things as they are. And it's hard to argue that what will be on display for the next two weeks will not be the last acceptable outlet for Americans to get in touch with their inner political bigot. But this bigotry is not based on what color your skin is, what religion you happen to believe, or even what sports team you root for; it is instead based on the eternal American self-confidence that your political opinion is the right one, and your vision for the future is the only possible answer to America's problems. These feelings run deep, and this streak of righteousness in the American public even predates the country itself. So I don't expect it to fade away anytime soon -- certainly not in my lifetime. American political bigotry is here to stay, so we might as well all enjoy the spectacle of intolerance that will be on display for the next two weeks.
(Program Note 1: Yes, the use of "moose poop" was tossed in there for all those -- on the left and the right -- who will be sorely missing Sarah Palin's scintillating presence on the stage this year.)
(Program Note 2: I will be one tiny cog in the media machine in Charlotte, and knowing that the hordes of other journalists will likely "scoop" me on any important story, I am open to telling the "stories not heard" during the Democrats' convention. Got a group that is protesting and wants some media attention? Contact me. I can't make promises, but I will certainly be interested in what is going on outside the hall as well as inside. So maybe I can help shine a light on things the television cameras are ignoring.)
(Program Note 3: Sorry for the number of program notes today, but very early this morning I was interviewed on a national Jamaican radio network with Rob Richie of FairVote.org. I don't have a link to a streaming version of this interview yet, but promise to post it when I get one.)
Chris Weigant blogs at: