Commentary: Just say no to GOP convention

Nashville need not put out the welcome mat for a festival of fascism.

June 29, 2022 7:00 am
The elephant in the room. (Photo illustration: Getty Images)

The elephant in the room. (Photo illustration: Getty Images)

The column below appeared here six months ago when Nashville emerged as a contender for the 2024 Republican National Convention. Music City is now in the final two cities under consideration—Milwaukee being the other—and next week Nashville’s Metro Council will begin to consider approving a contract with the RNC to host it. Approving the document doesn’t equal a done deal for Nashville, as Milwaukee has already done likewise, and the RNC reportedly won’t make its actual choice for another month or two. 

Milwaukee, like Nashville, is politically blue, with Joe Biden winning around two-thirds of the 2020 vote in Milwaukee County as he did in Davidson County. The politics of the current moment differ, however. Milwaukee’s mayor Cavalier Johnson is all in for the convention, describing himself as “excited” to sign their contract framework a few weeks ago. Nashville’s John Cooper initially was receptive, but recently has been more circumspect in public comments. The difference? It might have something to do with the fact that Milwaukee’s Johnson just handily won a new mayoral term in April, while Nashville’s Cooper is looking at significant opposition to his impending reelection bid in 2023. 

Even if the political winds have shifted a bit since the city’s RNC bid first surfaced, one thing clearly hasn’t changed: hosting the convention remains a profoundly appalling prospect that Nashville’s Mayor (after growing some backbone) should repudiate, and the Metro Council should emphatically reject. 


A hypothetical: Imagine you’re the convention and visitors bureau maven for a good sized city with the tourism infrastructure to handle large meetings. An organization actively seeking to undermine the operational integrity of American democracy wants to meet in your city and rings you up seeking the kind of sweet deal on room nights and meeting space you roll out for big groups. Do you bite? Maybe so—if you are morally obtuse enough to regard stewardship of the city’s tourism brand as an ethically neutral enterprise. 

Not so hypothetical: Site selection for the 2024 national party conventions is under way, and Nashville’s tourism-industrial complex has let it be known they would welcome the 2024 Republican National Convention to Music City. Butch Spyridon, who leads the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp (yes “Corp” with no period for who the hell knows what reason), says the CVC submitted a bid to the Republican National Committee in December at the behest of Gov. Bill Lee. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Nashville Mayor John Cooper is “on board with the effort.” 

Under normal circumstances hosting a Republican convention could be a point of cultural and civic pride for Nashville: a blue city embracing red America’s quadrennial political celebration in a warm hands-across-the-aisle (hands-across-lower-Broadway?) embrace. But “normal” the GOP of 2022 is anything but: a party not just stoked by democracy (and science) rejectionists, but led by and thoroughly infected with them; a party whose self-defined future in power hinges on making it harder for people who might not vote for them to vote for anyone. 

Butch Spyridon, president, Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation. (Photo: NCVC)
Butch Spyridon, president, Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation. (Photo: NCVC)

I am not painting the GOP with a brush of authoritarianism because of the rantings of a few fringe members: party leaders are fully involved. Even RNC chair Ronna McDaniel refused to recognize Joe Biden as president until quite recently, still won’t say Biden’s election was legitimate, won’t criticize the effort to block congressional certification of the 2020 result, and has done nothing to slow the GOP’s state-by-state rollback of voter access.

Should cities be factoring value judgments about the ethics of convention business partners into the choices they make about the meetings they bid for and the deals they strike? Of course they should, just as any firm should consider the moral significance of any business transaction.

The CVC’s Butch Spyridon begs to differ. In a professionally polished display of moral poverty, Spyridon says his organization’s role is “to book convention business for Nashville without bias.” He adds that it is “not appropriate for the CVC to pick and choose which groups get to meet in Nashville.” This attempt to make the CVC look like Switzerland doesn’t pass the smell test. 

Hey Butch: When you get a convention inquiry from the National Alliance (“no civilization has ever survived racial mixing…we want to lay the groundwork for a healthy white nation to emerge from the chaos ahead”) or the American Freedom Party (“we seek to end the ongoing war on European masculinity…it is the men who must lead, and if men are no longer masculine, they will be ineffective leaders”), are you taking the call? Are you booking their meetings “without bias”? Are you helping the League of the South (“we are in the early stages of a war for white survival”) negotiate a hotel block?

If as CVC chief you’re not picking and choosing which groups get to meet in Nashville then you should find another line of work. Sure, it’s easy (and fine) to be morally disengaged if the urologists and the oncologists both want to use the convention center on the same weekend. But when the white supremacists come a’callin it’s your job to grow a moral spine and tell ‘em to go fuck themselves. The same goes, I contend, for a major political party working actively to undermine the very political system its convention is supposed to advance.

And if the convention and visitors bureau lacks the courage to refuse to do business with protofascism, then perhaps a mayor with principles (and a spine) will. But wait, Nashville’s is already “on board.” What he should be saying if he had any capacity for moral leadership: “Go turn your party back into something that encourages democracy and accepts science, and then we can talk about having your convention here.”

Let me forestall here any First Amendment freakout. Yes, a city offering a platform for expression cannot restrict access on the basis of viewpoint, so if it’s a parade permit the GOP wants they can have it. But the city is under no obligation to enter into one contract because it entered into another. The CVC (a private non-profit that contracts with Metro but isn’t Metro) need not offer the NRA and Planned Parenthood the same deal to hold a meeting here, and they don’t have to respond to a party convention RFP if they don’t want to. 

Under normal circumstances, hosting a national political convention would be a point of pride, but the GOP of 2022 is a party whose self-defined future in power hinges on making it harder for people who might not vote for them to vote for anyone. And even if that weren’t the case, we shouldn’t bid for the Democratic one either: these conventions are nightmares.

It is worth mentioning that according to Spyridon, Lee asked the CVC to bid on both parties’ conventions, but that’s a nonsense bit of posturing: even Gov. Clueless has the minimal sentience to know that Democrats won’t locate theirs in a city whose blue citizens were just politically disenfranchised by spiteful Tennessee Republicans. 

But even if that weren’t the case, to be honest we shouldn’t bid for the Democratic convention either. Let’s face it, these conventions are nightmares. Sure, they put paying humans in hotel rooms and restaurants, which is pretty much all that Butch Spyridon and the CVC give a shit about, but they turn a city’s downtown into a police state. As we saw with the last pre-pandemic RNC in Cleveland in 2016, a convention will get a “special security event” designation from the Department of Homeland Security, putting the feds in charge, militarizing local police for crowd control and unrest suppression, and making the area around the convention site into hostile territory for free speech and civil liberties. Not worth it. 

So, Republicans, until you find a way to transform yourself back into a functional political party with a governing agenda that values (or at least doesn’t actively devalue) consensual democracy, howzabout you take your convention business elsewhere.

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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.