Gun safety activist Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed during the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., announces the Florida delegates during the virtual Democratic National Convention on August 18, 2020. Credit - DNCC via Getty Images—2020 DNCC
It should’ve been the most boring half hour of the 2020 Democratic National Convention: a procedurally necessary roll call of 57 states and territories to confirm the foregone conclusion that Joe Biden would be the party’s nominee for President. Yet amid speeches from the candidate and his wife, Jill Biden; his history-making running mate, Kamala Harris; both Obamas; both Clintons; and leaders from across the ideological spectrum, including Republicans like Colin Powell and John Kasich, Tuesday’s roll call stole the show. Rhode Island went viral with a “calamari comeback” slogan and a platter of seafood. Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri invented awards for her favorite delegations. And a Slate headline summed up the predominant response on left-leaning Twitter: “The DNC’s Roll Call Made Me Feel More Patriotic Than I Have in Years.”
Live TV can always be relied upon to provide a few laughs, whether intentional or accidental. Emotional responses are harder to elicit, particularly for speakers forced by the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic to address a bare-bones camera crew rather than a packed convention center. The roll call, in its sheer volume and variety, resonated so profoundly because it spoke to America’s most laudable values: diversity, resilience, aspiration. We heard from an Arizona teacher, a farmer in Kansas, students and recent grads whose futures have been put on hold. A Parkland father represented Florida, while a Nebraska meatpacking plant worker issued a wrenching plea: “Workers are dying from COVID, and a lot of us don’t have paid sick leave or even quality protective equipment. We are human beings, not robots, not disposable.” There were plenty of elected officials in the mix, too, but it was the regular people—of all races, genders, religions, sexual orientations—who made an indelible impression. They made us feel as though we were seeing each other, five months into a pandemic that has killed more than 170,000 Americans, and put face masks and six feet of social distance between responsible citizens and our neighbors.
It’s not that the DNC failed to provide any moving speeches—though the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama, both of whom used the intimacy of the new format to make persuasive arguments about President Trump’s incompetence, remain the party’s most eloquent communicators won’t necessarily work in Biden and Harris’ favor. But political conventions have the same problem as elections themselves: especially in a country as polarized as ours, people whose decisions hinge on party platforms, candidates’ records and cogent analyses of current events are likely to go into them with their decision already made. To win over independents and propel ideologically aligned non-voters to the polls, a convention must appeal to emotion as well as reason. That means making people feel seen as well as united in a common cause—a tall order when isolation and suffering are the new normal, widespread unemployment has turned colleagues into competitors and many households’ reserves of hope are running on empty.
Standard political theater just doesn’t cut it in 2020, as Thursday’s anticlimactic litany of testimonials from insiders, in particular, confirmed. And that’s even before you factor in a sitting President with an uncanny ability to hijack a news cycle by sending a tweet. Let’s not forget that Trump built his political persona on reality TV, a medium that, for more than two decades now, has been training American viewers to value the outsize personalities of exhibitionists over the scripted and focus-grouped optics of polished professionals. He may be no great orator, but his colorful deficiencies can create the impression of candor. A competent, orderly, yet banal convention is no match for an endless supply of rude, bizarre, yet memorable antics.
So it matters that the DNC proved incapable of divesting from cliché. Putting Biden’s “build back better” slogan in the mouths of speaker after speaker mostly served to remind viewers that these telecasts were an exercise in coordinated messaging. A keynote montage of “rising stars” was edited to show them uttering faux-folksy phrases like “That’s a big effin’ deal” in unison. Bernie Sanders’ warning about authoritarianism made an effective lead-in to Michelle Obama’s gentler speech…until the feed cut away from Sanders and into the living room of an apparently unimpressed family that didn’t notice it was on the air. A video themed around feminism awkwardly pasted photos of Women’s March attendees into yellowed images of suffrage parades and addressed female voters with cloying second-person narration that recalled Virginia Slims’ condescending “You’ve come a long way, baby!” campaign. And in what was perhaps the silliest rhetorical gambit of the week, Kasich shot his speech at a literal intersection to illustrate that America was at a crossroads. At best, this level of hokeyness elicits a cringe. At worst, it telegraphs that the DNC and the candidates it represents don’t understand the urgency of the current moment.
Americans who are hurting need to believe they’re being heard by those with the power to help alleviate their pain. That’s why the appeals of regular people, well spoken and otherwise, broke through so much politics-as-usual static. Along with the alternately funny, poignant and proud roll call, there was 11-year-old Estela Juarez, whose father is a Marine and whose mother was deported to Mexico in 2018. “Instead of protecting us,” she said, addressing the President, “you tore our world apart.” The words I couldn’t get out of my head this week came from Kristin Urquiza, who lost her Trump-voter father to coronavirus: “There are two Americas: the America that Donald Trump lives in and the America that my father died in.” If politicians care as deeply about families like the Juarezes and Urquizas as they claim to, then the only way to convey that concern to millions of voters trapped in quarantine nightmares of their own is to put aside the platitudes and hand over the microphone.