The Republican primaries are dragging on. Candidates Santorum and Gingrich are now publicly musing about forcing a "brokered convention." It might mean the delegates at the Republican convention in Tampa in August will cast meaningful ballots rather than being stage props in a political marketing exercise. But that's not likely. Given that the last winning Presidential nominee to win his party's candidacy at a brokered convention was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, one understands that political self-interest will probably trump that dramatic possibility.
This weekend in Toronto, a similar, but much less consequential, convention will take place in Toronto. Canada's federal New Democratic Party—a party with socialist roots which for the first time in its fifty year history won official opposition party status in last May's election—is choosing a new leader. Until a decade ago, Canadian political parties typically chose their leaders through delegated conventions where the decisions were truly made on the convention floor. There are now various systems at work. In this week's NDP race, all 125,000 members are eligible to vote either through a mail-in ballot, on-line, or at the convention. It's an experiment and depending on how many vote in advance, the convention may be decisive or it may amount to little more than a PR exercise in which the convention is simply a venue for some public arithmetic and fanfare introducing the winner.
Apart from political junkies, I doubt many people lament the decline of significance of the political convention. However, Scott Reid's "lament for a convention" in the Ottawa Citizen last week highlights several valid arguments as to why the conventions of yesterday had more to offer than ugly smoke-filled backrooms which seem to subvert democracy. In fact, the case might be made that in spite of appearances to the contrary, convention decision-making improves democracy.
The debate is about more than political voting processes. It really unmasks a larger cultural trend in which group decision-making has become about counting the results of individual decision-making rather than anything that resembles a deliberative process. There is something fundamentally different about a group decision in which each individual comes to his or her own conclusion in whatever isolated process they choose and a decision that emerges from a group dynamic of consensus building. There is something about the give and take, in real time, in the same room, that improves our understanding of an issue and moves towards improved decision-making. A healthy debate involving people who care, who may begin arguing different options but through the process of questioning, testing, and even highlighting the weaknesses of each, move to a consensus opinion is too rare.
Where does that happen these days? Informally on occasion, but for the most part, we have become too individualistic to even bother sparing the time and energy such formal processes require. Not only in political spheres, but increasingly in the organizations I belong to (including church settings) there is an increasing desire to skip the meeting (we're too busy for that) and revert to on-line conversations or decision by polling.
I will be watching with interest this weekend to see how many NDPers, a committed lot of politicos, forgo the temptation to mail in their results but actively engage in real time decision-making. It may be a little more messy politically, but it is a healthy process that is good for democracy and will likely lead to a better decision.