How to Steal an Election

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tags: election 2016



Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is her latest book.

 

At sunrise on the day before the Republican National Convention begins, in Cleveland, a hundred women will take off their clothes and pose for the photographer Spencer Tunick outside the convention hall. Naked, they’ll be holding up big, round mirrors to the sky, to catch the light. “Women will decide the outcome of this election,” Tunick says. He insists that his installation is not a political protest. “This is a work Republican women can participate in,” he says, bipartisanly.

This year’s Conventions will be held back to back, like a doubleheader, or two root canals in a row. The week after the Republicans meet in Cleveland, the Democrats will meet in Philadelphia. First Trump, then Clinton. But, what with the anti-Trumpers and the pro-Sandersers, some people are worried that all hell might break loose, which is unusual, since people more commonly worry that the Conventions will be boring. “At first blush, the Republican National Convention at Cleveland next week promises to be a very dull show,” H. L. Mencken wrote in 1924, when the incumbent, Calvin Coolidge, was the all but assured nominee. “Some dreadful mountebank in a long-tailed coat will open . . . with a windy speech; then another mountebank will repeat the same rubbish in other words.” And, while that really is what happens, lately more than ever (since 1952, no Convention has gone past the first ballot) the Conventions are never boring, if only because of the high jinks, not to mention the low jinks. In Chicago in 1864, the Democrats installed a giant sign made of coiled gas pipe. It was supposed to read “McClellan, Our Only Hope,” but the gas jets broke and the thing just flickered and died, hopelessly. Roscoe Conkling was so sure he’d get the nod in 1876 that he picked his Vice-President and a motto—“Conkling and Hayes / Is the ticket that pays”—only to be defeated by his erstwhile running mate, ever after known as Rutherfraud B. Hayes.

Until 1932, when F.D.R. decided to show up to accept his nomination, the candidates themselves skipped the Conventions, citing modesty, a precedent set a century before by Henry Clay. Asked by letter if he would be willing to be nominated by the short-lived National Republicans, at their one and only Convention, Clay wrote back to say yes but that it was impossible for him to attend the Convention “without incurring the imputation of presumptuousness or indelicacy.” When Grover Cleveland received a telegram at the White House informing him that he had been renominated by a Democratic Convention meeting in St. Louis, he said, “Heavens, I had forgotten all about it.” Many a journalist might not have minded if the candidates had maintained the tradition of keeping away. “Interviewing a candidate is about as intimate as catching him on television,” Norman Mailer wrote from the Republican Convention in Miami in 1968, to which some G.O.P. genius had flown in a pachyderm. “Therefore the reporter went to cover the elephant.”

It’s not all a bamboozle, especially not this election. The White House is at stake, and more, too: the state of the union. The worry, this time around, isn’t that the Conventions will be boring; it’s that they’ll be interesting, frightfully.

The Presidential-nominating Convention is an American invention. It is the product of a failure of the Constitution. Kings are born; Presidents are elected. How? This is a math problem and it’s a political problem, and it’s been solved but never resolved. The first nominating Convention was held in 1831. It was an attempt to wrest power away from something known as the legislative caucus, which was itself an attempt to wrest power away from the Electoral College. The first primary was held in 1901. It was an attempt to wrest power away from the nominating Convention. This year, there’s been a lot of talk about how the system is “rigged” by “the establishment.” It was exactly that kind of talk that got us the caucus, the Convention, and the primary, institutions built in the name of making American democracy more representative and more deliberative. But the more representative the body the less well it is able to deliberate: more democracy is very often less.




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