Why the DNC Worked So Well

The Democrats, in nominating their 2020 candidates, just did something rare: They publicly acknowledged people’s pain.

The sense of intimacy was heightened by the DNC’s willingness to admit the obvious: that it was making its case to a nation in pain. (Montree Wongsuli / Shutterstock / The Atlantic)

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.

That sense of intimacy was heightened by the DNC’s willingness to admit the obvious: that it was making its case to a nation in pain. Many of those who spoke acknowledged the depth of America’s losses—of jobs, of health, of hope, of global standing, of lives. Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, spoke of the meaning of his brother’s legacy. But he did not take refuge in easy optimism. He added: “George should be alive today. Breonna Taylor should be alive today. Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today. Eric Garner should be alive today. Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland—they should all be alive today.” Floyd then led viewers in a moment of silence to honor them “and the many other souls we lost to hate and injustice.”

In a world full of noise, few things are as powerful as quietness. After Floyd spoke, the DNC screen showed people in their homes, united in the absence of sound, their eyes closed, their heads bowed—individual acts of contemplation and mourning made communal. That moment of eloquent silence set the stage for a later appearance by Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, who joined a virtual roundtable with Biden. It set the stage for parents of children murdered by gun violence to share their pain in public. It set the stage for last night’s video tribute to John Lewis. It set the stage for Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to COVID-19, to tell the convention’s audience, “The coronavirus has made it clear that there are two Americas: the America that Donald Trump lives in and the America that my father died in.”

The Democrats understood the power of providing a place to grieve when there have been so few other places to do so. They also understood that mourning itself, written into the pageantry of a party convention, could serve as a rebuke to a president who seems constitutionally incapable of empathy. Biden has often talked publicly about the pain of loss—of his wife and baby daughter, and of his older son, Beau—and how the hurt resolves into an ongoing ache. Barack Obama, as he warned that Trump’s reelection could lead to the death of American democracy, seemed to fight back tears during his address. Michelle Obama offered a similarly dire assessment. Throughout the week, leader after leader eschewed platitudes for pain. They talked bluntly about the death toll. The numbers they cited sometimes varied—140,000, 150,000, 165,000. In the variations, the writer William Saletan pointed out, you could determine when the speakers had prerecorded their message. Like the rings of a tree that is being felled in real time.

Political conventions traditionally talk in soaring terms about inclusion, about “the people,” about political parties as agents of collective interest. In practice, they are run by a narrow group, some members elected, some not, that makes decisions about the most intimate elements of people’s lives: their health, their economic mobility, their place in American society. The term smoke-filled room comes from political conventions—specifically, one that took place 100 years ago, the Republican National Convention of 1920. The decision makers of that event—after several ballots and, presumably, several cigars—ended up nominating, as a compromise, Warren G. Harding of Ohio, whom historians consistently rank among the worst-performing of the U.S. presidents.

One hundred years later, the Democrats tried their best to bridge the distance between the public and the politicians who claim to work on their behalf. They succeeded, in part, by offering an event that, instead of ignoring people’s pain, acknowledged it. Shared it. Embraced it. Even the awkwardness struck a mournful note. After Harris delivered her acceptance speech, Biden came out to greet her. Normally they would clasp hands and beam as the crowd cheered and the balloons dropped. The running mates, indeed, seemed to want to hug each other. But they could not. This limitation, too, was intensely relatable. The show’s cameras briefly panned to the room in which Harris had delivered her speech: a sea of empty chairs, spaced out, lit in a ghostly gray. The negative spaces of all that might have been. Monday’s “In Memoriam” segment was accompanied by “I Remember Everything,” a song from John Prine, who died of COVID-19 in April. Got no future in my happiness, the song’s lyrics went, Though regrets are very few. / Sometimes a little tenderness / Was the best that I could do.”