It was the third night of the Democratic National Convention and Joe Biden held the audience in at that Philidpehia convention center in his fingers. “Ordinary people like us, who do extraordinary things, we had candidates before attempting get elected by appealing to our fears, but they’ve never succeeded because we do not scare easily,” he bellowed from the convention hall. “We never bow, we never break, when confronted with crisis. We endure!”
Sweat and spit sputtered off of his body, his energy built as he belted out what many expected to be the final major speech of his long political career. “We overcome and we always move forward. That is why I can say, with absolute conviction that I am more optimistic about our chances today than when I was elected as a 29-year-old kid to the senate.”
The modern party convention exists in an uneasy equilibrium between the raucous, convoluted nomination process and the small army of political operatives trying to land a winning message for a rapidly approaching election. The Democrat’s convention this year spent most of its week of festivities teetering on chaos; a desperately organized show of “going high” sent against the backdrop of what Gawker writer Hamilton Noah described as “[a nation that] went over the edge.” “Everyone knew that you can’t push inequality in America up and up and up infinitely without at some point suffering a crumbling of the social order, a backlash against the legitimacy of all authority, and a widespread sense of Fuck This Shit. All of that is happening now,” Nolan wrote on the same day Biden addressed the convention. “Donald Trump voters are just one half of the pissed off people. The other half are here at the Democratic convention, screaming at the party they were told was supposed to be taking care of their interests for the past 30-plus years.”
And yet, Biden’s speech was working. Bernie Sanders may have been booed by his own delegates as he endorsed Hillary Clinton, an embarassing leak may have forced the resignation of the Democratic National Comittee’s embattled leader, and thousands of protestors may been trapped in pens outside the arena. nethertheless, Joe Biden was using all of his qualities in a dizzying full volume; his disarming cool-uncle charisma, the unshaking belief in an ther American ideal that is so lingustically compelling that you’d be forgiven for pretending it ever existed, and the macro-lens elder-statesmanship that defined his decorated and popular career as Barack Obama’s Vice President. “The 21st century is going to be the American century. Because we lead not only by example of our power, but by the power of our example. That is the history of the journey of Americans. And God willing, Hillary Clinton will write the next chapter in that journey.”
Four years later, Biden’s powerful speech feels naive and tragic. Democrats saw the edge far too late and Republicans plunged the country right over. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead as a result of President Trump’s remarkable mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. The one-sided facade of the Great American Recovery from the 2008 recession has been shattered, decimating entire industries and plunging the already suffering working class further into the abyss. Americans are contemplating suicide at rates never before recorded.
Rather than the familiar neoliberal governance of the Clinton dynasty, the story of the Democratic Party in the last four years is one of the ascendent left; the stunning upsets of the Congressional challengers across the country, the spirited debates of the 2020 primary that pushed even the moderate candidates into radical new ground, and the internal convulsions of the young and activists in the party against the professional class.
All of this chaos, all of this carnage, converges tonight in the first night of the Democratic National Convention, the gaudy ceremony reduced to a few scattered delegates in Cleveland and two hours a night of primetime speeches broadcast from living rooms. The only commonality from 2016 to 2020 is the presence of Joe Biden. In the feverish early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden led one of the most remarkable political comebacks in history. Supported by the establishment across the Democratic Party, Biden blew past Sanders to secure the nomination. Now, Biden leads a party begrudgingly unifying to make Trump a one-term President.
Tonight is important because we can begin to see the confines of what a unified Democratic message will be going into November’s election. And because the convention is so truncated—hours of speeches from promising mayors and first-term Congresspeople reduced to the primetime highlights—that message will be more concise and deliberate than in years past.
Expect some standard Democrat corniness. The four nights of speeches are unified around Biden-esque nonsense phrases: “We the People,” “Leadership Matters,” and so on. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the 2016 convention was also built around similar substansless themes. Rather than attempt to build a bridge from the massive protests against police reform that have swept the country this summer, the Biden camp appears to be ignoring it; there isn’t a single Black speaker under the age of 50 scheduled to speak currently, and the only representation from the Black Lives Matter movement will apparently be scattered protests outside the nearly-empty convention halls in Milwaukee. Democratic operatives have been telling the press that the night’s events will feature frontline workers who have had their lives upended by the coronavirus pandemic, but as of today we still don’t know what that means.
Instead, viewers will be treated to a rolling cast of Democratic mainstays. Here’s what the party has announced so far. With some exceptions (marked with an asterisk), convention organizers are going to try and hold each speaker to a tight two-minute slot.
Senator Bernie Sanders*, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Representative Jim Clyburn, Convention Chairman Representative Bennie Thompson, Representative Gwen Moore, Former Governor John Kasich, Senator Doug Jones, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Former First Lady Michelle Obama(*)
This is “unity night”. Progressive stalwart Sanders will speak alongside moderates like Cuomo and Klobuchar. A lot of establishment Democrats claim Sanders isn’t a team player, and he’s certainly working to prove them wrong tonight. Not only is sharing a stage with moderates and former Republicans, he’s also speaking on the same night as James Clyburn, the Majority Whip whose endorsement of Biden in South Carolina proved pivotal in turning the race against Sanders.
Democrats are trying to make a big deal out of former Republican governor John Kasich speaking, but historically such defections are rarely remembered and not even the Biden people can claim Kasich is a remotely popular politician. Doug Jones’ inclusion is notable only because it seems to cast doubts on press reports that the party was planning to abandon him in his longshot reelection campaign. Governors like Whitmer and Cuomo will likely spend most of their speeches attempting to paint Trump’s response to coronavirus as an objective disaster, exploiting the somewhat bipartisan disgust with the federal response.
Of course, the big event is Michelle Obama’s speech. The widely popular former First Lady reportedly views her address as her big contribution to the Biden campaign. Which means this is probably the only time we’ll see her give a big ol' speech this fall.
Former Acting US Attorney General Sally Yates, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Former Secretary of State John Kerry, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, Former President Bill Clinton, and Former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden(*)
Tonight’s theme is “Leadership Matters,” and frankly I don’t see what qualities of leadership are invoked by giving a speaking slot to Bill Clinton in the year 2020.
It’s actually kind of a bust night all around: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is listed as a speaker, but only because she is representing Sander’s delegates in a 60-second nomination speech. That is 60 seconds more than any other member of “The Squad” will get, at least. Expect less egregious limits on her fellow Biden-Sanders Climate Committee chair John Kerry. Chuck Schumer, who is currently leading the Democratic minority in the Senate through one of the institution’s most pathetic episodes, will also be speaking for presumably longer than one minute.
More speakers: Sally Yates is the former Attorney General that Trump fired in 2018. She will likely talk about how Trump is bad. Lisa Blunt Rochester is here because she is Delaware’s sole Congressperson. Joe Biden is also from Delaware. Tough night.
Featuring Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Governor Tony Evers, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Kamala Harris(*), and Former President Barack Obama(*)
Harris will be speaking from an auditorium in Delaware. We aren’t sure where Obama’s speech will be, but organizers have said it will be live. The big question is whether or not Harris’ acceptance speech can break through in this unconventional format, and if she can withstand being overshadowed by Obama’s speech.
Featuring Vice President Joe Biden(*), Sen. Cory Booker, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Andrew Yang, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Sen. Chris Coons, and the Biden Family
Alrighty, big night! Obviously the headliner here is Biden’s acceptance speech, which is traditionally the apex of convention week and home to most of the spectacle. Organizers have insinuated that there will be some kind of smaller-scale analouge to the ballon-drop moment of years past. We’ll see how that goes!
Beyond the theatrics, the substance of Biden’s speech remains an open question. As we’ll get into later, Biden hasn’t indicated where exactly he wants to take the party.
Other interesting things: Senator Chris Coons is a unremarkable senator currently facing a primary challenge from the left. He is also Biden’s friend and from Delaware, hence why he’s getting this prominent speaking slot. Andrew Yang is here because he complained on Twitter.
What I’ll be watching for
Joe Biden’s Party
Joe Biden won because he is popular with a large portion of the Democratic electorate. This popularity is due primarily to the Vice President’s proximity to Barack Obama and Biden’s personal empathy. Most Biden voters support him principally because he is not Trump.
You cannot represent an entire political party based on these characteristics. It’s Biden’s party now, at least for the time being, and it’s still unclear what exactly that means. Most of Biden’s stated political beliefs—a unflappable commitment to bipartisanship, a tendency towards renewing the status quo with incremental change, and a deep skepticism towards the demands of a younger generation—feel out of step with the moment at best and at worst alienating to the younger and less informed voters that could be galvanized by this time of upheaval. Biden’s operatives may want to tell New York Magazine that he’s going to be the next FDR, but there’s little evidence in Biden’s political history that he’s interested in such decisive change.
To his credit, Biden has shown flexibility since tying up the nomination. He’s one of the few nominees to move left entering the fall campaign season, signing up for moderated versions of Sanders and Warren proposals. Does he fully embrace these proposals at the convention as the future of the party? Or does he try to return the Democrats to the Obama era of wonky incrementalism? Does he just mutter about his dad for ninety minutes?
The Uneasy Alliance
The left may have lost the primary, but it still seems like they control the party’s future. Energizing wins by Jamal Bowman and Cori Bush against entrenched incumbents in congressional primaries suggest that the progressive message is connecting with new communities. Meanwhile, the Squad has proved their staying power by successfully fending off well-funded primary challenges. Bernie Sanders spent the weeks after his 2016 candidacy trying and failing to unify his frustrated supporters with a party establishment that treated them with contempt; this summer, he’s been acting as elder statesman to the progressive movement he helped inspire, collaborating with Biden on unity policy committees while using his small army of followers to funnel money and volunteer hours into the campaigns of his elected peers and endorsed challengers.
How is this represented in the convention, if at all?
Democrats love to embrace technology; they just suck at using it. Expect this dynamic to be on display throughout the week, an the event that the Washington Post says “could set a new standard for national political gatherings.” I suspect Democrats will be happy with just getting through the week with a minimum of viral technical glitches.
The logistical challenges are daunting. Broadcast networks reportedly demanded as much live content as possible, forcing the party to package speeches from dozens of different locations together live. Video kits with professional routers and lighting have been sent to most of the speakers, but this does not appear to be an especially technically literate lineup.
Since the McGovern-Fraser Comission effectively killed the smoke-filled-room intrigue of nominating a candidate, the Democratic political conventions have become mostly drama-free affairs. The convention hall setting at least allows for the unpredictability of a live crowd and the potiential for some audio-visual theatrics.
None of that will be on display this week. Organizers say they are encouraging speakers to try and make their shots visually-appealing, but expect a lot of Zoom call setups. Will that be able to break through to an audience that was already losing interest in political conventions? We’ll see.