One of the first events of the Democratic National Convention, as it began airing on national television on Monday evening, was an “In Memoriam” segment that mourned the more than 165,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19.
You can read the segment as mawkish, or as a cynical exploitation of emotion for partisan ends: the stuff of a Hollywood awards show, wandering awkwardly into the wrong theater. But the segment was precisely what the moment called for. It offered viewers the opportunity to pause for a moment and consider that number once again: 165,000. All those lives, all the pain of the people they’ve left behind. Political conventions, as spectacles that are aired to the public, typically traffic in willful optimism. Their participants talk in breezy tones about bridges to the future, about possibility and prosperity and better days ahead. There’s pageantry. There’s confetti. There is, at the lowest moments, the Macarena. And there is, inevitably, the quadrennial reminder that more binds us together than tears us apart. Conventions are infomercials, basically. And while an infomercial will briefly acknowledge a problem—a messy home, a messy life, a knife that just won’t cut—it is much more interested, in the end, in selling you a solution.
The Democrats certainly had a product: Biden/Harris 2020. And they offered it to consumers in four easy installments: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The party’s pitch this year, though, was radically different from anything that has come before. It had to be. The convention that was originally going to air from the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee took place, instead, in multiple settings: a soundstage in Los Angeles, where Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus served as emcees, anchoring each evening’s proceedings. The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, where Barack Obama delivered a speech about the threats the Trump administration poses to American democracy. A beach in Rhode Island, where a state party chair delivered 34 of the state’s 35 delegate votes to Joe Biden—accompanied by a chef bearing a large plate of calamari. American Samoa, a cattle ranch in Montana, the craggy coast of California—the convention took place nowhere, which gave it the freedom to be everywhere.
Instead of appearing onstage, as participants have in years past, politicians and activists and voters simply recorded videos of themselves, often from their homes: politics’ kitchen table, no longer merely proverbial. There was some awkwardness, yes, as cues got jumbled and cameras captured politicians energetically delivering their speeches to empty rooms. Some of the Zoom-ified videos were shaky and grainy. That didn’t matter. In fact, it helped. Politicians are forever in search of ways to telegraph authenticity; here, as the DNC went DIY, was one. Kamala Harris, making history as she accepted her party’s nomination on Wednesday, shared her life story and connected it to the present political moment. She delivered her speech not to a crowd in a cavernous arena, but rather to people gathered at home. The address read not as a speech at all, but as a conversation.