Signs of the Times

The placards at the Democratic National Convention had more than symbolic importance.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

PHILADELPHIA—In a week’s new cycle filled with email scandals, hidden plots, foreign political hacking schemes, walk-outs, and calls to imprison the presidential nominee, at least one part of the Democratic National Convention appeared genuine. The signs, symbols, buttons, and placards that saturated wardrobes, convention photographs, and Wells Fargo Center trashcans are real and nontrivial examples of unity, conviction, and genuine belief in the power of politics.

On Monday night after Michelle Obama’s show-stopping speech I found myself scouring the convention floor for one very particular item. The objective of my quest was a two-foot-long purple sign that simply read “Michelle,” and had been held up by thousands as she spoke. I hadn’t thought much of them when delegates and viewers—all coordinated, of course—pulled the signs out during their cheers for her speech. But I exited the floor to discover a flood of texts and Tweets from black women in my life—my mom, my wife, and my friends—who wanted their hands on a sign. As I searched, I saw other questers looking among the ruins of nacho containers and under footprint-dusted bleacher seats for the same thing. While my own quest was doomed to fail, most of the successful treasure-hunters I saw, with their arms full of stacks of “Michelle” signs, were beaming black women.

Vann Newkirk / The Atlantic

Wednesday night I stood on the floor again, this time watching Vice President Joe Biden give a soaring oratory that perhaps overshadowed even President Obama’s. Members of the crowd were given one of two signs this time, alternating between “Joe” and “Scranton,” for Biden’s hometown. From a throng of reporters behind the delegates closest to the stage, I witnessed two unsuccessful trade offers to give up a “Scranton” sign for a “Joe” sign, one-for-one. Later that night I saw a woman trade a “Scranton” sign and a “Stronger Together” sign for one “Joe” sign. The price was set.

Vann Newkirk / The Atlantic

Even later that night, I watched in real-time as Bernie Sanders supporters put down their “Bernie” signs as President Barack Obama took the stage. Blue “Obama” signs and “yes we can” chants were ubiquitous across the arena, and through signage, Obama demonstrated his greatest strength in his own party. More than anyone or perhaps anything else, he is the connective tissue between the disparate groups of Bernie Bros, Hillary supporters, people of color, and white people that form the broad nucleus of the Democratic Party. As has been the message for the duration of the convention, the point of the signs was a show of unity and belief that the multi-identity project can succeed.

On Thursday evening, the importance of signs was amplified even more as Hillary Clinton took the stage to accept the nomination. At least five new signs were distributed among the crowd, including “Hillary” and “Stronger” signs, as well as a placard showcasing the Clinton logo on a field of a heart, symbolizing the slogan that “love Trumps hate.” I was among the crowd when they were given go cards and given instructions for how to use them to pull off a “card stunt.”

“You will be performing a card stunt at the end of tonight’s program, which will provide a unified patriotic picture through the arena,” the instructions told the crowd. While the message on the gestalt sign after Clinton finished her hour-long address was unclear—perhaps broken up by people unwilling to drop their other signs—the real message was still the same. Unity.

Vann Newkirk / The Atlantic

Of course, it’s all possible that what I saw was just the result of more coordinated cynicism—an attempt to short-circuit human group instincts to provide the most TV-ready image of solidarity. The provision of signage was certainly well-coordinated, until the card stunt at least; it created a very good TV image, and propaganda does work well to implement a sense of tribalism.

Regardless, the signs still represent a striking visual of the Democrats’ far-reaching and inclusive attempt at creating a tribe. When else have thousands of people of all races in unison held a sign proclaiming allegiance to and support of a black woman like Michelle? When else have they put their differences aside to cheer a black man on? When has anyone from California cheered for Scranton? And when has all of that been done in an experiment in electing the first woman president?

The case for cynicism in this election is clear. The sense I’ve gotten from interviewing people around Philadelphia is that they are being forced to choose the least-awful version of an awful future. But even in the midst of reasonable cynicism about politics and the Democratic Party itself, those signs were a glimpse of something more.