I’ll admit I was dreading the prospect of watching this year’s “virtual” Democratic National Convention. For one thing, after more than five months of everything from work meetings to happy hours to baby showers moving online, the idea of two more hours of staring into a screen at people staring back out was pretty unappealing. For another, years of lackluster State of the Union responses have demonstrated the limitations of “politician in an empty room criticizes the president” as a genre. Nobody wants to watch two hours of State of the Union responses.
But after two nights, the Zoom-style convention has been a pleasant surprise: It’s remarkably watchable and more appropriate for this moment in history.
Neither party has entered a convention with any doubt about who would be the nominee since the 1970s, which means that voters under 50 or so know them only as extended informercials. In normal election years, the convention broadcasts rival the Oscars and the Super Bowl for feeling baggy and bloated—except unlike those events, they last a whole week and there are two of them. In fairness to organizers, it must be a near-impossible production to pull off: You need to hold speaking spots for party grandees as well as up-and-comers, gin up enthusiasm among supporters while reaching out to undecideds, present an image of party unity while also throwing a bone to every interest group and faction. There’s already not much room to focus on being interesting. And politicians being politicians, you can expect them all to drone on for far longer than they’re supposed to.
This year, the Democratic convention has what it’s always badly needed: an editor. The broadcast has moved along at a healthy clip—I was shocked that Bernie Sanders was speaking so early on Monday night until I looked at a clock and saw it was already 10:30 p.m. No one is droning on and milking applause. The format even kept Bill Clinton, the most famously long-winded speaker in Democratic convention history, to a tight five minutes. The “unconventional” roll call, with on-site speeches in each state and territory, was more visually compelling, touching, and fun than the convention floor shoutfests of years past.
The preprogrammed setup reduces the role of TV journalists in the broadcast, which—I hate to say it as a journalist—is just fine from a viewer perspective. Moderators Eva Longoria and Tracee Ellis Ross have ably emceed, albeit from a sort of weird CGI stage.
The lack of a live crowd saps some of the emotional drama—we’re unlikely to get an iconic, electrifying moment like Barack Obama’s 2004 speech this year. The tag-teamed “keynote” delivered by Democratic rising stars on Tuesday didn’t quite rise to that level, even if Stacey Abrams managed to pull it together at the end.
But the flip side of that is that the moments featuring “ordinary voters” are more effective coming from their literal kitchen tables and living rooms. The segments featuring the moving testimony of Kristin Urquiza, daughter of a COVID-19 victim, or health care activist Ady Barkan were as emotionally resonant as any speech at previous years’ conventions. The first night’s keynote speaker, Michelle Obama—in case you haven’t heard, she doesn’t like politics—seemed more comfortable sitting and talking into a camera than she would have been in the far-less intimate convention stage setting, which made her speech more powerful. Likewise for Jill Biden’s deftly executed speech from an empty classroom on Tuesday night.
Undoubtedly, there have been some missteps—John Kasich’s painfully on-the-nose “crossroads” backdrop, the viewers at home who clearly weren’t told when they were supposed to start applauding after Sanders spoke, the very awkward “celebration” moment after Biden was officially nominated. But overall the presentation has been polished and effective. The moments of camp, like the deliriously weird Billy Porter–Stephen Stills duet, at least felt intentionally campy.
Most importantly, the focused and serious (mostly) tone of the event feels more appropriate to a moment of grave national crisis than a normal convention would have. Nobody is really in the mood for backstage drama, pageantry, confetti, and cutaway shots of drunken delegates in funny hats right now. If nothing else, the format is a stark reminder of the situation that made it necessary, and the president responsible for that situation.
I wouldn’t mind if virtual conventions became the norm, even after the pandemic passed. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. In addition to being television events, these conventions also serve as massive trade shows for the professional politics industry. And you’re going to have a hard time convincing politicians to forgo receiving rapturous applause from a stadium full of supporters. This year is likely to be an anomaly.
And in some ways, we have to hope it is. The pandemic made this format necessary. But as a number of speakers this year have pointed out, the country was in crisis even before the coronavirus hit. The short-term priority for a Biden administration, if there is one, will be to create conditions that will allow for people to gather in large numbers again. The longer term priority will be to create the conditions that will allow for a political ritual as dumb as a party convention to ever feel appropriate again.