Read: The missing piece in Biden’s convention speech
The other group is the participants—elected officials, staffers, volunteers, hangers-on, those already famous and those getting their start. People who go to conventions go precisely because of their messy spectacle and sprawl. What we love about conventions we would have loved if we’d been there to hear William Jennings Bryan give his “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention in 1896, or to watch Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller duke it out at the Republican convention in 1964.
But most people are not like us. Most have viewed the hot, sweaty, noisy, unsubtle conventions as inferior forms of entertainment, as out of date as William Jennings Bryan. Coverage hours have dwindled, and audiences have shrunk.
Because of the virus, the Democrats couldn’t deliver the standard loud, sweaty fare. Now that their week is over, it’s “obvious” to everyone how much better, for nearly everyone, the streamlined, virtual approach is. Better for the party, in distilling a message (and not having it chopped up by procedural folderol or pundit assessments). Better for the viewer, in having their public issues presented in more varied, comprehensible, and simply interesting ways. Better with shorter speeches; better with less delay for ritualistic applause lines; better in pacing and tightness and focus. Better with presenters generally speaking through the camera, conversationally, to viewers one by one at home, rather than orating at a crowd. Better with more showing than telling, more explaining than lecturing. Just, better.
It’s obvious now—though I’m not aware of anyone predicting how much better a virtual convention would be, before it kicked off. (This is a point I discussed last week on Social Distance with James Hamblin and Maeve Higgins.) And it will be obvious to the Republicans, as they ready their presentations for this week.
How can what we’ve just seen from the DNC be considered “cool”? In simplest terms, because, compared with previous conventions, the Democrats were able to convey their themes more coherently than usual, with less old-fashioned speechifying about them.
In one way or another, every single minute of the DNC programming advanced one or more of these points and ideas:
the trademark slogan “Build Back Better,” which was the most normal-convention-like, and thus least memorable, of the whole affair;
that Donald Trump is personally inadequate to the duties of office, yet also institutionally threatening;
that Joe Biden is an imperfect but decent person, with whom you might disagree but whom you would probably like;
that America is badly wounded but is not finished;
that the Democrats are in this together and are not sniping at one another; and
that you have to make sure to vote.
Think of the signature moments of these four nights, and how each was crafted to explain, to show, to underscore these ideas. It is churlish to pick out any one segment as “most effective.” Was it the fabulous reimagination of the roll call of states, which practically guarantees that this will never be done in the traditional way again? (Except perhaps in this coming week.) Was it Ady Barkan speaking through a computer because of ALS; or Gabby Giffords still relearning how to speak, nine years after her shooting; or 13-year-old Brayden Harrington magnificently persevering in his speech about stuttering? Was it Biden’s last major rival, Bernie Sanders, speaking with evident warmth for the man who had defeated him, or the Zoom-style panel of primary contenders sharing their memories of the campaign? Was it Jill Biden telling her story, or Kamala Harris telling hers, or Michelle and Barack Obama with their quiet-toned but deadly earnest message about the stakes in voting this year? Was it the tribute to John Lewis or the talk from Elizabeth Warren in a schoolroom, with children’s blocks spelling out BLM behind her? Was it Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general, on what it will take to deal with the pandemic, or Kristin Urquiza saying that her dead father’s “only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump,” or (as Megan Garber argued) the “In Memoriam” reflection on the many lives that had been lost? Was it Joe Biden’s implicit rebuke, in his closing address, to the constant Republican refrain that he had lost too many steps?
Was it—you can go on down your own list. The point for now is that the political world has seen something it hadn’t been aware of one week ago. The Democrats were forced out of the old, and figured out the new. They went from a hot medium, to one that was cool. In terms of political style, Donald Trump is pure heat. The rallies, the tweets, the boasts, the jibes. We’re about to see whether the party he leads will recognize the changed terrain, and how it might respond.