It turns out the crowds, the balloons and confetti were merely froufrou, just window dressing. Stripped down, it was even easier for the themes of this week’s Democratic National Convention — and the party’s vision for the future — to break through.
The Democrats’ unity on display could be a bit ripe for parody, for sure, a little like seeing Sylvester and Tweety Bird declaring a temporary truce before the inevitable chase continues. The scenes of comity — Republicans crossing over to extol the character of Joe Biden, progressives vowing to work with moderates — would most certainly be replaced by the usual infighting and struggles for policy influence even, or especially, if Democrats win big in November. That’s the Democratic and (small “d” democratic) way.
Sometimes a “big tent” gets awfully crowded, and messy. And with Democrats, the mess can sometimes overwhelm the message or, as in 2016 when Bernie Sanders’ supporters were still complaining loudly on the convention floor, consume it.
But that oft-used expression, that diversity is America’s strength, so often mocked as cliché, still has the ability to provoke a sentimental misty eye if offered with sincerity. And when a loud segment of America obviously rejects it, captured on way too many angry viral videos — well, that’s when it becomes more important to protect the promise.
“Uniting America” has been the message of the Democratic National Convention and the party’s campaign, virtual and otherwise, moving into the fall. Democrats are betting the country is exhausted and pushed to the brink by challenges that an entertainer in chief is ill-equipped to handle.
Of course, a former first lady was the one who laid out the stakes and the way America can change the trajectory in a speech that proved former President Barack Obama could be the second-best speaker in his own house.
Wearing a necklace that implored Americans to “vote,” Michelle Obama warned: “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me — they can, and they will, if we don’t make a change in this election.” President Donald Trump, whose name she mentioned just once, may not be malevolent, in her telling, just “the wrong president for this country. He cannot meet this moment.”
And what a moment it is, in the middle of a pandemic with a rising death count, economic upheaval, with a stock market boom even as eviction notices and bills are as relentless as that virus, and a reckoning long in the making on racial inequities.
I was in that Philadelphia hall in 2016 when Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high,” which got a 2020 update with teeth: “Going high means standing fierce against hatred, while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”
Meeting the moment
A virtual convention is awkward, no doubt, though anything that makes the speeches shorter is a good thing. At times, it has managed to be goofy and endearing. That roll call of states nominating Biden proved to be the travelogue America needed while stuck in place, providing a chance to hear the accents, view the landscapes, see Americans of every race, ethnicity and orientation, and learn the catchphrase or calamari that gives each place its quirks. Again, diversity, with reminders — in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of a race massacre; in Wyoming, of the hate crime that killed young Matthew Shepard — of the fear and hatred that has always wanted to obliterate some Americans’ very American dreams.
Some speeches were as effective as they might have been in a crowded auditorium: a young woman whose father died, she believes, because he listened to the president downplay the dangers of COVID-19, and the security guard who became the first person to put Joe Biden’s name into nomination for president, saying, “I could tell he really saw me.”
There were conversations with Americans who depend on health care and benefit checks and medicines — items not given, but earned — and often delivered by a Postal Service under siege.
There was the symbolic setting of Jill Biden, the teacher in an empty classroom, recounting, with long-ago photos, the tragic, triumphant and oh-so-human biography of the no-longer presumptive candidate America knows all too well.
The Democrats’ message this fall will be empathy, competence — and history, as California Sen. Kamala Harris breaks a barrier while being seen as the safe choice. I have to laugh and cry at the notion that a child of immigrants from Jamaica and India could be seen as safe.
Still, I realize, that particular bit of progress, like the eight years of a Black family in the White House, will be more than some of my fellow Americans can handle.
Of course, on the ballot will be the character of the Joe Biden America believes it knows as well as that security guard who only met him that one time.
Everyone knows it isn’t his whole story, and in a time of turmoil, Americans do want to know some details of the “what next,” some of which may or may not be settled in debates that have become their own kind of sideshow.
More of the same?
But this week does offer a contrast to what Republicans seem only too willing to provide.
Next week, the GOP convention no doubt will have surprises. But now that we know the St. Louis couple who waved weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters have been invited, we know plenty. That gold-plated invitation backs up Trump’s campaign message to “be very afraid” — of suburbs with housing affordable enough for teachers and nurses and cooks to live next door, of neighbors of different races and creeds, of know-it-all doctors and scientists, of a vice presidential candidate born in that foreign land of Oakland, California.
As the Democrats meet, Trump tweets support of a House Republican primary victor in Florida, who was banned from a couple of ride-hailing apps after she tweeted in 2017 that she “never want[s] to support another Islamic immigrant driver.”
Not so much attention, however, to the topics occupying the thoughts of worried parents, teachers and children or those rural Americans dependent on an efficient postal system or anyone who is familiar with a bipartisan report from the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee detailing Russia’s thumb on the scale for Trump in 2016 and, apparently, 2020.
Back to the clichés, it’s all about “optics,” we are repeatedly told, implying that substance gets lost along the way.
But this year, when we are at home, forced to “focus,” despite the Zoom applause and musical interludes, the optics are the substance.
The different visions of “America the Beautiful” could not be clearer.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.