Yesterday, building off an essay by Jay Rosen, I argued that modern presidential nominating conventions are very interesting–not as part of the struggle to get 51% of the vote, but as rituals, performances, symbols.
Rituals, in turn, really affect politics and public policy. Political scientists and reporters typically try to explain politicians’ behavior by assuming that they want to get elected and re-elected, or that they want to enact particular policies. But this analysis begs the question of why anyone would want to hold public office in the first place. Most people would rather die. It’s no answer to say that politicians want “power.” First of all, most people don’t. Second, most political offices in the US don’t come with much power; often their power is insufficient to achieve the outcomes that voters expect.
I think that some politicians are quite altruistic (contrary to what Nick Beaudrot says in a comment on this blog), and this partly explains their entry into politics. But to a large extent, I believe they want to participate in our public rituals. They want to hear someone announce them: “LAY-dies and gentlemen, the next great mayor of our magnificent city … ” They want to watch balloons rise up in a great hall when they take the podium. They want to cut ribbons and kiss babies and get interviewed on Nightline.
All this means that different people would enter politics if we had different rituals. (Likewise, different scholars would deliberately go into college administration if our academic rituals were different.) In this sense, ritual matters.
On our recent trip to Burgundy, I began re-reading one of my favorite books, Johan Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages (1919). Huizinga argues that chivalry (jousts, orders of knighthood, the cult of courtly love) was completely artificial by the fifteenth century. It didn’t reflect the underlying reality of a commercial, urbanizing Europe. Yet people continued to “play” at chivalry very seriously throughout the century. In turn, chivalry mattered. It meant that political leaders had to be good at jousting. It caused some wealthy bourgeois (the “real” pillars of the society) to ruin their fortunes by marrying their children to poor nobles with good chivalric credentials. It certainly ate up a lot of social resources. And it served as an–increasingly inadequate–tool with which people tried to understand their world.
Modern political conventions are like the jousts of fifteenth-century Burgundy. They have lost their original purpose. In the long run, they are doomed. Yet they still matter.