After a remarkable primary season, the Republican national convention smacks of anticlimax. The delegates now gathered in Cleveland have been deprived of a floor fight over the nomination of Donald Trump, whose coronation as the GOP’s standard-bearer is now all but certain.
With free time on their hands, the delegates might turn their attention to a knottier problem: what politics should encompass in an age when capitalism has largely satisfied the basic requirements of food, shelter, and clothing (an issue I explore in the fall issue of Chicago Booth Review). It’s a dilemma John Maynard Keynes famously predicted, a kind of crisis of purpose: once the struggle for subsistence has largely receded, Keynes said, people will be free to focus on other concerns, many of which might only addressed by policies at odds with a free market. In the next two weeks, I will be visiting both party conventions to investigate how Democrats and Republicans alike are responding to the perturbations of a postscarcity politics.
How much productivity should we trade away for higher wages? What level of inefficiency is tolerable to ease inequality? How much growth should we give up for the common good? Whether or not they recognize it, these are exactly the type of questions Republicans are currently contending with, and they are not alone this election cycle. Similar quandaries have dogged the Democrats, too, making possible the rise of Bernie Sanders.
A muddled vision of government’s raison d’etre is a perfect environment for political chaos. It is also at least partly to blame for the ambivalence among some Republicans toward their nominee. In alarming numbers, GOP grandees are skipping the Cleveland gathering altogether. This includes the two most important Republican officials in the state, Governor John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman, the latter of whom began hedging his bets as soon as it looked like Donald Trump would win the nomination, declaring in April that he would spend “very little” time at the convention and explaining in June: “Nobody listens. Nobody covers it.”
This is not normal behavior. Conventions are parties for the party as much as for the presidential nominee. A four-day moveable feast, they are around-the-clock affairs featuring public talks, private luncheons, soirees, salons, and sensations aplenty as well as endless opportunities to see and be seen. If you cannot find things to do at a quadrennial convention, you are not trying very hard. In fact, you’re probably not trying at all.
And that’s what makes this week so unusual. With reports that many GOP officials are going so far as to refuse to hand out their allotted passes in order to deprive The Donald of a full convention hall, the spectacle in Cleveland, or the lack thereof, cannot be entirely explained by either a scorched-earth primary season or a noisome nominee. It may instead be a symptom of the cultural crack up Keynes foresaw.
I am increasingly convinced that Trump has come so far this election cycle not despite his sportive vulgarity and tendency to pick fights with the very people he should be courting but because, whether by design or dumb luck, his antics have exposed shortcomings of an ideological disposition ill-equipped to address the concerns of a postscarcity politics. The fight for the Republican nomination, no less than the struggle among the Democrats, may be seen as a battle in the war over a new frontier in American politics.
I’ll be visiting that frontier over the next two weeks. I look forward to reporting back.
The Conventional Wisdom series features John Paul Rollert’s dispatches from the 2016 Republican and Democratic national conventions. You can see more Conventional Wisdom posts here. If you want to engage the discussion, tweet John Paul @jprollert.