Political Conventions

In the last thirty years, I have attended a number of California  state-wide political conventions, mostly because my late wife, Pat Wiggins, was an active politician and officeholder.  Much useful work was done at these conventions on identifying public policy ideas and in developing relationships, but they had very little effect on the selection of the Party’s nominees for the various state offices.  But there was a time when conventions mattered…

In the summer of 1956, my family had just moved into our new home on Watt Avenue in Sacramento, right across from the bowling alley.    My father had just surprised the family by bringing home a new television set to replace the cheap Kenwood model we had left behind in Beaumont, Texas.   It was a surprise, because Dad had been reluctant to purchase any kind of TV set until about a year before we left Beaumont, and even then he brought home the cheapest possible model.   When we got to Sacramento, and he brought home the Zenith, my sister and I were stunned.

It turned out that my father had an ulterior motive for his uncharacteristic investment in popular culture.  He was a big supporter of Adlai Stevenson, and he wanted to watch the Democratic Convention to see if Stevenson was going to get a chance to lose again to Eisenhower.

I was captivated by the Convention.   (My sister, who was only eight, was not.)  In those days, you had a choice between NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley or CBS’s Walter Cronkite.   My father was a Huntley and Brinkley fan, and for four days we watched them every chance we got.   We listened to the speeches – Civil Rights was in the air, but support was muted because of the Democrat’s need to hang on to the supposedly Solid South.  We heard famous men being interviewed from the floor, people like Harry Truman and Averill Harriman ( a Double Dactyl, but unfortunately, Harriman is too obscure these days for me to write one making fun of him.).

When the roll of state was called for the Presidential nomination on the third day, there was real drama, because no one could firmly predict what would happen.   As the roll call went on, I kept score, as though I were at a baseball game, and when the tide started to turn clearly towards Stevenson, I got so excited that I jabbed the point of my pencil into my palm. ( I still have traces of graphite embedded under the skin.)

We need to find a way to make politics engaging again, instead of distancing.   We should probably start by celebrating people like Elizabeth Warren. who stand for something besides positioning themselves to do well in a partisan primary.

The Populist Imperative

My grandfather, John Conner, Professor of Government at Texas A&i University (now part of Texas A&M) was proud to call himself a populist.  For him, it  meant standing up for the little guy, for supporting workers and farmers, rather than the big business elite.  Above all, populism was about equality for ordinary citizens under the law.  He considered the Warren Court’s one man – one vote decision in the early sixties to be the most important of his lifetime.

Interestingly, he had little to say about Brown vs Board of Education, which most people would consider to be the most important.  I’m afraid he combined a lack of prejudice that was remarkable who was born in rural West Texas in the early 1880’s, with an apparent lack of interest in Civil Rights issues.

He wasn’t opposed to Civil Rights; it was just that populism was the ideology that had formed hum, and he saw everything from that perspective.   Looking back, I wish that he had been more sensitive to racial injustice, just as I wish his son, my father, had been more sympathetic to the Vietnam protestors.   But both of them were essentially populists, and that seems to me a very good thing to be.

Populism needs a revival in this country.   We are slouching towards oligarchy, and we are not doing nearly enough about it.   The Reagan era is over; maybe it’s time for Elizabeth Warren.