Every four years, for almost two centuries, the Democratic Party of the United States has gathered in one of the country’s major cities to nominate candidates for President and Vice President. It’s an event that brings together tens of thousands of delegates, journalists, and officeholders from around the world.
This year, for the first time in history, no such assembly is taking place.
Instead, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the party is gathering remotely and holding the world’s first fully distributed national party convention, with speakers appearing from across America in a mix of live and taped segments.
Tonight was the first night of the most unconventional national political convention the country has ever seen. There was no arena packed with cheering, sign-waving delegates, no network television skyboxes with bright lights, and no constellation of satellite events at Milwaukee’s finest venues.
The 2020 Democratic National Convention was originally supposed to be on held on America’s fresh coast, on the shores of Lake Michigan, in Wisconsin’s largest city. Those plans had to be scrapped in the interest of people’s health and safety.
Bit by bit, the convention was scaled down until all that was left was a stage in a convention center and an apparatus for managing the feeds being distributed to television networks. Not even Joe Biden is making the trek to Milwaukee.
Republicans have been forced to adopt a similar format for their convention next week. But whereas they tried to delude themselves into thinking that a traditional convention would still be possible up until early this month, Democrats concluded weeks ago that they needed to plan for and pull off a fully distributed convention.
Tonight was the moment of truth for convention officials, who had the responsibility of delivering their first two hours of primetime programming.
For Day One, the DNCC adopted a theme of “We the People”.
Actress Eva Longoria served as the evening’s master of ceremonies, providing an introduction to each major new segment from a television studio.
Leon Bridges, Maggie Rogers, Billy Porter, and Steven Stills performed.
(Porter and Stills’ performance was unfortunately cut off by PBS, CNN, and MSNBC in their rush to put their own personalities back up on screen, but it did air on C‑SPAN and on the convention’s official video feed.)
Representatives Bennie Thompson, Gwen Moore, Jim Clyburn, and Cedric Richmond offered remarks, as did Governors Andrew Cuomo (New York) and Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan). Many of Joe Biden’s former campaign rivals (including our own Jay Inslee) appeared in a video to to promote his candidacy.
A group of Republicans headlined by John Kasich appeared to declare their support for Joe Biden’s candidacy from across the aisle.
And, in the final half hour, United States Senator Bernie Sanders and former First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a pair of powerful speeches for Biden.
Sanders, Biden’s last remaining rival in the 2020 Democratic nominating contest, gave one of his best speeches ever. He denounced Trump’s bigotry and thuggery, as expected, but also took the trouble of explaining what he and Joe Biden have in common with respect to policy. (It’s more than many people might think.)
As examples, Sanders cited Biden’s support for a minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour, lowering the eligibility age of Medicare from sixty-five to sixty, create twelve weeks of paid family leave, ending private prisons and cash bail, and launching a transition to one hundred percent clean energy.
Sanders also neatly tucked a devastating one-liner into the middle of the speech.
“Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs,” Sanders deadpanned.
“My friends, I say to you, to everyone who supported other candidates in the primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake,” said Sanders. “We must come together, defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice president. My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.”
Then it was Michelle Obama’s turn.
The former First Lady is one of the nation’s most admired Americans, and she demonstrated why she is widely revered by delivering a speech that may well be referenced in history texts a hundred years from now.
“I am one of a handful of people living today who have seen firsthand the immense weight and awesome power of the presidency,” Obama said.
“And let me once again tell you this: the job is hard. It requires clear-headed judgment, a mastery of complex and competing issues, a devotion to facts and history, a moral compass, and an ability to listen — and an abiding belief that each of the 330,000,000 lives in this country has meaning and worth.”
Obama — who has a gift for framing and explaining what progressive values look like in action — made empathy a major theme of her speech. Along with mutual responsibility, it is one of the values that most defines progressivism.
“Empathy: that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately,” she said. “The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes; the recognition that someone else’s experience has value, too. Most of us practice this without a second thought. If we see someone suffering or struggling, we don’t stand in judgment.”
“We reach out because, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ It is not a hard concept to grasp. It’s what we teach our children.”
Empathy is both a value and an ability. It may not be hard concept for progressives and biconceptuals to grasp, but it is not a value that Trump’s cult believes in. They have convinced themselves that empathy is a bad thing, and the poison that right wing personalities spew on their talk shows is proof of that.
However, empathy is in truth one of our finest traditional values. It is as American as baseball and apple pie. The best Americans in every era of our history have been people who cherished and practiced empathy.
“Like so many of you, Barack and I have tried our best to instill in our girls a strong moral foundation to carry forward the values that our parents and grandparents poured into us. But right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another,” Obama said.
“They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value.”
We may be at a low point, but we are not doomed, she stressed.
Elaborating on her previous convention speeches, she argued that Democrats can only win by going high. But that doesn’t mean tolerating evil and injustice.
“Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top,” Obama said.
We have to go high because America cannot afford to stay low, she reiterated.
“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us.”
“If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: 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,” she warned. “If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”
She’s absolutely correct. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that things can get worse. Much worse. Each of the past few years has been worse than the last. The election is perhaps the country’s last chance to escape the collapsing pit it’s in.
Given the events of the past few years, Michelle Obama’s speech struck a very different tone than her 2012 and 2016 speeches. It was raw and steely and passionate. It fit the moment, perfectly, as did Sanders’ speech.
Democratic activists and delegates from the Pacific Northwest were pleased with the opening night program, with many telling NPI it resonated with them.
“Great speeches, concise and to the point,” said Joan Tierney of Seattle. “Michelle Obama was utterly amazing and reached the hearts of voters. Bernie was a uniter and appreciated. John Kasich and Meg Whitman took a brave stance. I really enjoyed every speech and the children singing touched my heart.”
“I thought they did a good job of using the personal story angle to really highlight the massive difference in character between 45 and Biden,” said Zenda Boss-Hall.
“I was skeptical about Kasich but I think his talk, along with the numerous life-long Republicans was a good touch. (I hope it works.) I would have loved if they had been even more specific about the decades long war on the Post Office (although the Democrats are guilty on that front to some degree) and mentioned the seventy-five years of prepayments imposed for future retirement benefits, as well as the conflicts of interest with Mike Duncan and Louis DeJoy.”
“Overall, I think it was better than watching a typical convention.”
“I loved how Michelle pointed out the example we are setting for our children if Trump is reelected,” said Chris McCullough. “The example he shows them every day. Is this what we want our children to believe our country is?!”
“I’ve thought that for three years. She put it into words!”
The 2020 Democratic National Convention continues tomorrow with appearances by President Bill Clinton and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.