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Presidential Political Conventions: One Giant Party?

During every presidential election cycle, both the major and minor political parties hold what is called a national convention to select who will be on the party ticket for president. Some argue that these national conventions are just a place for the party to rally its base around a set agenda, and to have a celebration. Others argue that they serve as an important feature of our constitutional republic by ensuring that conversation within parties can exist and people’s voices can be represented. As a result of COVID-19, both the Republican and Democratic parties have made changes to the format of their conventions. In this eLesson, students will explore the history of political parties, assess the purpose of national political conventions, and analyze if conventions can still serve their purpose during the pandemic.



Have students read Federalist No. 10 and answer the following questions. Note: They can read the shortened section below or the full, annotated paper on Handout A.

Federalist No. 10 Selections

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed, than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction… By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: The one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: The one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. It could never be more truly said, than of the first remedy, that it is worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an aliment, without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. The second expedient is as impracticable, as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed…The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. The two great points of difference, between a democracy and a republic, are, first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens, and extent of territory, which may be brought within the compass of republican, than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former, than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other…

  1. Why does Madison state that factions are dangerous in a republic?
  2. How does Madison define a faction?
  3. According to Madison, what can be done to cure the cause of faction? Why does he state this to be dangerous?
  4. Do you agree with Madison that the “causes of faction are sown in the nature of man”? Why or why not?
  5. According to Madison, what is the fundamental difference between a democracy and a republic?
  6. In your own words, summarize Madison’s argument for why a large republic will help alleviate the effects of factions.

Next, have students read Handout B: Functions of Conventions, Handout C: 2016 Republican National Convention, and Handout D: 2016 Democratic National Convention. Lead a class discussion on the purpose and effectiveness of conventions as a tool for supporting popular sovereignty. Use the questions below to guide the talk.

  1. According to Handout B, why were conventions originally created? What purpose do they serve now?
  2. Does the disunity shown at the 2016 Republican National Convention conflict with Handout B’s description of the modern convention? Why or why not?
  3. Does the disunity shown at the 2016 Democratic National Convention conflict with Handout B’s description of the modern convention? Why or why not?
  4. Would Madison describe party conventions as factions? Why or why not?
  5. If party conventions are factions, can the fact that they are made up of members from various states and backgrounds alleviate their negative impact?
  6. If the national conventions are not held in-person this year due to COVID-19, what impact may that have on the political process? On popular sovereignty?