Michelle Obama speaks at the 2020 Democratic National Convention
Michelle Obama speaks at the 2020 Democratic National Convention

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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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