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.
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.
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.