For three days, in the most patriotic gymnasium I’ve ever seen, I’ve watched my classmates introduce governor after congresswoman, and wield television cameras and a wooden gavel. They’ve come dressed like the politicians-in-training many may be. My friends and the rest of the people I pass along the Colonnade are participating in one of the most impressive displays of political involvement that can be seen around the country and, really, around the world.
I don’t say it to be hyperbolic. I spent last fall in Seville, Spain, learning to trust my tongue in another language and to live outside the United States. While I was there, I saw 44 percent of the Spanish people elect their next president and learned how they did this. Spain has no primaries and no nominating conventions. The electoral campaigns begin a few short weeks before ballots are cast. It was only one week before election day that portraits of the candidates were hung on the light posts all around the city.
This may sound appealing for a moment: fewer political ads and no televised debates among party members. The final two go at it only once or twice. There’s no media frenzy, either. Spaniards pick up their papers knowing El País will predict victory for the Socialist candidate, and ABC will champion the Partido Popular.
In short, there’s no real participation and public discussion is contained, in a land where olive and orange trees grow without bound. The Spanish people are political, sure. But my friends there wouldn’t talk politics in class for fear of losing friendships. When myseñora, host mother, cast her vote in November, she dropped a lista cerrada, a closed list, into the giant Plexiglas ballot box. She was voting for a party-not a person-because there the parties control the people. It’s not the other way around.
This mock convention, the 24th to be held here at Washington and Lee, would be impossible at the University of Seville. That we nominate our candidates and then elect our presidents and mayors separately doesn’t quite translate. The sevillanos don’t get to talk with their congressmen and attorney generals, like we’ve been doing these past few days. The people don’t decide which candidate best fits the party platform.
So we celebrate this weekend. The Warner Center, outfitted with blue curtains, red banners and hundreds of white chairs, is full of excitement. It’s not just about nominating a Republican candidate or, even better, getting it right. It’s not just about parties, Jon Huntsman’s address, greetings from afar by House Speaker John Boehner
We’re reveling in our right to participate. For this we build 54 floats-one for each state and territory-and hang the U.S. flag all about campus. Our pride in our country and in ourselves increases tenfold this weekend. We know that this right to participate is not only a hallmark of our American democracy, but it’s also what drew many of us to Washington and Lee in the first place.
We came to be where everyone asks to get involved.
We’re also grateful to have a forum for debate, because our political persuasions vary like our neckties-contrary to popular belief. On Thursday night, James Carville and Ann Coulter had their fair shares of fans in the audience, even though their politics differ as much as their hairstyles. No one asks the students who stand up and cheer for Ron Paul to sit down. The audience is happy to see their passion. (Coulter’s heckler has been the only person the crowd has discarded this weekend.)
I’ve been sitting in the press section for the whole of the convention, watching reporters watch us. And I’ve noted a definite admiration for what we’re doing, and it comes just as much from outsiders as it does from the students wearing state-delegate lanyards around their necks.
As the delegates’ votes are tallied, as Mitt Romney becomes our nominee, as bursts of red, white and blue confetti fall from the rafters, the thunderous applause from all is in no way a predictor of the votes we’ll cast in our state primaries or the national election this fall. This deafening sound is gratitude-gratitude for everyone from the ROTC color guard to the three student chairs who made this weekend happen.
We’re cheering for the school and for the country where this tradition can come to life every four years.
Photo from Washington and Lee University