It was a politically cautious and ideologically inhibited Democratic National Convention that nominated Joe Biden for the presidency in mid-August. A long and contentious primary campaign that featured the most crowded and diverse field of contenders in the party’s history finished not with a bang but with a virtual meeting.
This was a convention of familiar ideas and limited debate. Instead of a bold vision for necessary change in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” viewers were presented with nightly jeremiads from our times—as if we were not already aware of how bad things are in a moment of pandemic, mass unemployment, rising xenophobia, unaddressed structural racism, and climate crisis. Instead of giving America a taste of the new ideas energizing the Democratic Party at its grass roots, viewers were offered servings of political comfort food. The infomercial imprint was so complete that the biggest controversy involved a bizarre misreading of the whole point of a nominating convention—which is, of course, the gathering of supporters of distinct candidates and causes for the purpose of choosing a ticket capable of pulling together a grand coalition of, dare we say it, New Deal proportions.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose mass following and mastery of modern communication platforms would, in a more dynamic party, have secured her a keynote speaking slot, was given 96 seconds to perform the routine task of placing in nomination the party’s second-place finisher: Senator Bernie Sanders.
Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the surge in progressive political activism that powered the Sanders campaign and that in 2018 helped her unseat the House’s fourth-ranking Democrat in a party primary. She said she was speaking “in fidelity and gratitude to a mass people’s movement working to establish 21st century social, economic, and human rights, including guaranteed health care, higher education, living wages, and labor rights for all people in the United States; a movement striving to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia and to propose and build reimagined systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past; a movement that realizes the unsustainable brutality of an economy that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth for the few at the expense of long-term stability for the many and [that] organized a historic grassroots campaign to reclaim our democracy.”
At a convention that needed an infusion of policy, especially progressive policy, Ocasio-Cortez should have been celebrated for using her minute and a half as she did. Instead, moments after her remarks, NBC News’ official account tweeted, “In one of the shortest speeches of the DNC, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez did not endorse Joe Biden.” A firestorm ensued, with her as the target. It took more than three hours for NBC to acknowledge its mistake, delete the offending statement, and admit that it “should have included more detail on the nominating process.”
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That was an apt metaphor for the four-day parade of tightly scripted two-hour sessions that were long on personality and short on policy and procedure. This was not a Democratic National Convention so much as a “Biden for president” advertorial. On many levels, it worked. The candidate gave the best speech of his 50 years in politics. Reaching back to his roots as an East Coast Irish Catholic politician who came up in the age of the Kennedys—he writes in his autobiography that he “got the idea” for a career in public service from John Kennedy’s 1960 campaign—Biden delivered an acceptance speech that spoke to the hearts of Democrats and even quoted a philosopher (Søren Kierkegaard) and a poet (Seamus Heaney). Just as JFK did. Just as Robert Kennedy did, even more frequently and even more powerfully, after the assassination of his brother.
Like RFK, Biden tapped into a deep well of personal experience and grief, and that gave meaning and authenticity to his high-minded rhetoric. Yet his was not an agenda-setting speech. Its core message, like that of the convention, was that Biden is a good guy and Donald Trump is not. Biden delivered it well, but Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and Bernie Sanders did an even better job of speaking to the existential threat of a second Trump term. It was striking to see a former president standing in front of an image of the Constitution as he asserted, “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.” It was chilling to hear Sanders, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Galicia, tell viewers, “Under this administration, authoritarianism has taken root in our country. I and my family and many of yours know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency, and humanity.”
No honest observer would begrudge Democrats the time they devoted to outlining the danger posed by the current president and his partisan allies in the stark terms employed by Arizonan Kristin Urquiza, the daughter of a Covid-19 victim who had put his faith in the president’s counsel about reopening in the face of a continuing pandemic. “My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump—and for that, he paid with his life,” she said. Urquiza’s short address was riveting, as was vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’s indictment of not just the Trump administration’s failed response to the crisis but also its failed response to historical injustice, noting in her acceptance speech, “While this virus touches us all, let’s be honest, it is not an equal opportunity offender. Black, Latino, and Indigenous people are suffering and dying disproportionately. This is not a coincidence. It is the effect of structural racism.” Of all the words that have been said about the pandemic, few ring truer than the California senator’s assertion that “this virus has no eyes, and yet it knows exactly how we see each other—and how we treat each other.”
To the extent that this convention set out to make a case for why Trump must be rejected, it succeeded. It also succeeded in framing the arguments for moving beyond Trumpism, with sincere reflections by Biden, Harris, and other speakers on the racist and xenophobic politics to which the Republican Party barters off its birthright when it embraces the president’s agenda.
What was missing was the sense of what comes after Trump. The convention planners proved able diagnosticians. They recognized the horrors of the moment, producing poignant videos commemorating the Covid-19 dead, answering the climate wake-up call, and showing 11-year-old Estela Juarez writing to Trump about how his brutal immigration policies had torn her family apart.
But without the crowds of contentious delegates caucusing and organizing protests, without the cheers and the signs and the sense of urgency that come with an in-person gathering, there was little pressure to go deep when discussing ways out of the “historic crises…the perfect storm” that Biden described in his acceptance speech. Was it really necessary to have former surgeon general Vivek Murthy devote half of his two minutes on the national stage to the telling of another story of Biden’s decency? Wouldn’t his time have been better spent outlining specifics for how to renew the status and strength of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to combat Covid-19 and pandemics yet to come? Couldn’t Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Pramila Jayapal have been invited to make the case for why a single-payer health care system like Medicare for All is the right response to a crisis in which millions of people have lost their jobs and their health insurance? Couldn’t Representatives Ro Khanna and Tim Ryan have taken a few minutes to explain how their plan to provide Americans with a monthly $2,000 stimulus check would save the economy? Couldn’t Representative Ilhan Omar have spoken from Minneapolis about the killing of George Floyd, ending police violence, and the fight against systemic racism? Couldn’t the Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash have been permitted a few minutes to describe the Green New Deal? Couldn’t Andrew Yang have ditched the laudatory remarks about Biden and Harris and expounded on a universal basic income?
It’s true that these leaders would have taken bolder positions than those espoused so far by Biden or the party’s platform. It’s also true that both parties have devoted themselves over the past several decades to ridding their conventions of unwanted drama. But this willful avoidance of internal debate has never done the Democrats any good. And it was doubly embarrassing at this year’s convention, where the party found plenty of time for renegade Republicans like former Ohio governor John Kasich but far too little time for the rising generation of progressives who have recognized the call for a bolder politics—one that reaches out to young people and to all of the disenchanted and discouraged potential voters that Democrats need to gain a mandate in November. Opening up the discourse and welcoming honest and aspirational debate does not weaken a party. In one of the most inspiring addresses to the 2020 convention, health care activist Ady Barkan moved listeners to tears when he spoke of those who are always “demanding more of our representatives and our democracy.” Such people do not divide or diminish the party. Rather, they strengthen its appeal by suggesting that another politics—and another world—really could be possible.