Politics

The Democrats Almost Made Us Cry

The DNC’s third night was an emotional, surprisingly stirring synthesis of the pains we’ve endured for four years.

Obama's head is seen against a blue background with stars and a sign reading "2020 Democratic National Convention."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by DNCC via Getty Images.

Jordan Weissmann: So, Lili, the big question: Did you actually cry tonight? Because I almost started weeping a few times during the third night of the Democratic National Convention.

Lili Loofbourow: I held on until it got to Estela, the little girl reading her letter to Trump about her mom’s deportation.

Jordan: That damn near broke me. Literally choked back tears at that one.

Lili: The messages of this convention have been decency and empathy. Now, there can be some built-in feel-goodery to that, but the montages tonight did a gut-wrenching job of exposing what people have gone through to an extent that curbed any incidental self-congratulations. It was devastating to hear Estela talk about how her father had voted for Trump but wouldn’t this time, now that her family had been torn apart. “Kids in cages” has become such a trope by now; it was brutally effective to show footage of kids crying out “Papa” intercut with footage of Trump calling immigrants animals. It felt tonight like Democrats successfully took stock of a lot of damage we hadn’t had to think about as an ugly collection. The Parkland kids!

Jordan: Right, I think the opening montages did a few things really successfully.

Lili: Like what?

Jordan: First, as a lot of people have observed, there really hasn’t been much policy talk during this convention. Bernie Sanders talked a bit about the progressive aspects of Biden’s platform, but mostly, like you said, it’s been about decency and empathy. Tonight, they managed to connect empathy to very specific policy issues: gun violence, immigration, women’s rights, climate change.

Lili: Totally agree. And really underlined the extent to which policy has, well, consequences. Horrible ones.

Jordan: And they did it in a raw way, basically ripping off a lot of the emotional armor I think some of us have developed over these past few years, at least for a bit.

Lili: Right—I was shocked to realize how long it had been since I’d thought about Parkland (especially considering how intense my feelings about that shooting had been). And people flooding the airports after the Muslim ban. And family separations. And all these other outrages that one shoves to the back in order to confront whatever garbage is going on right now. It was a pretty powerful synthesis.

Jordan: Also, the choice to feature an undocumented mother who’d literally carried her child across the border to get medical care and save her life.

Lili: That was unbelievable. It really shook me to see that (and made me worry about them).

Jordan: I know that’s catnip for a lot of Democrats these days, but there was a time the party would not have dared feature that kind of story.

Lili: I’m shocked that they did, to be honest! That was really … dare I say it … brave.

Jordan: Like, yeah, Donald Trump’s decisions have heaped misery on a lot of actual human beings, and these are their faces. They gave us policy substance and feels at once. Which is a feat.

Lili: How did that tie in to the story they’re telling about Trump, do you think?

Jordan: So, I think very directly. Do you remember the essay “The Flight 93 Election“?

Lili: No!

Jordan: So, in 2016, the Claremont Review of Books published this essay by an anonymous conservative writer who went by “Publius Decius Mus.” And the gist was that, no matter what you thought of Donald Trump, Republicans had absolutely no choice but to vote for him, because this was the last chance the GOP had to wrest control of the country back from the forces of liberalism before people like Hillary Clinton consolidated permanent control of the country. This was how it opened:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

It was controversial at the time, but in the end, it basically captured how a lot of conservatives felt. (The writer, Michael Anton, later joined the administration, by the way). To some extent, I feel like the Democrats are basically making their own version of that argument this convention. Bernie Sanders’ speech the other night was about how we’re battling fascism. Tonight, Barack Obama told Americans, “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.” That is extremely, extremely stark language coming from a former president. The point is that you don’t have to love everything about Joe Biden. But you do have to understand the stakes of what we’re up against.

Lili: Yeah, especially one who respects post-presidential norms as much as Obama does—and tends to exercise extreme restraint.

Jordan: Right? Mr. Professorial is screaming that this plane is going to crash. And I think the policy section kind of primed viewers for that message. Because, holy shit, we’ve just lived through four years of an administration that treats children like animals, proudly.

Lili: The strange thing I guess—re:messaging—and I don’t think it’s wrong, just intriguing, is the extent to which our circumstances are being framed in exactly these terms (this is an existential threat, etc.) but Trump himself has somehow been downgraded to what the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah, on Twitter, called a lazy and incompetent employee.

Somehow—is it the pandemic? Is it all this in the aggregate?—the threat is much greater than him. He’s dwarfed, in some sense, by the mess he’s made.

Jordan: I mean, being a lazy narcissist is a very, very good way to do immense damage to a country. It’s infinitely easier to destroy institutions than build them up, and sometimes you can do it through sheer neglect.

Lili: Right! That’s a lesson we’ve learned the hard way. But what I’m getting at is a change in register that might be working better than I’d have guessed. It has historically been easy for Trump’s opponents to fall into a positional trap that frames him as an awesome Big Bad. I felt tonight that the messaging threaded a needle: It condemned the enormity of the damage without simultaneously elevating him.

Jordan: Right. He showed up in clips as a sort of vicious buffoon.

Lili: Exactly. (It seemed to rankle, too, if his all-caps tweeting during Obama’s speech is any indication. Though of course he might have done that anyway.)

Jordan: I mean, Obama rankles him. You can tell because he still hasn’t come up with a nickname for him.

Lili: Let’s move on to the speakers. I was charmed by the image Nancy Pelosi cut as a sort of high priestess of San Francisco (which is full of ashy air right now, just by the way). But I found her remarks to be pretty generic boilerplate? I feel like she chooses bad framings for her disses. Like, why would you choose “disrespect” as the vehicle for your Trump critique? She said, “I’ve seen firsthand Donald Trump’s disrespect for facts, for working families, and for women in particular—disrespect written into his policies toward our health and our rights, not just his conduct.” And I mean, sure, but we’re so far beyond respect that this barely registers to me.

Jordan: It felt a little Godfather to me, which I liked. (“What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”) But honestly, it’s Nancy Pelosi. She has never been a great orator and doesn’t have to be, because she rules her caucus with an iron fist and knows how to pass bills, which is the much more important set of skills for a House speaker (title aside). I also enjoyed the montage that tried to turn her into an action hero.

Lili: That was an EPIC intro, yeah.

Jordan: Right? Also, it’s nice to watch the party openly celebrate this woman whom Republicans spent years basically portraying as the Wicked Witch of the West Coast Liberal Elite.

Lili: And yeah, it wasn’t great oratory but it was fine! Just no big feelings.

SPEAKING OF WHICH: What did you think of Clinton?

Jordan: Man. She’s just had all of the fight drained out of her, huh? I mean, I can’t say I blame her.

Lili: I can’t either. But yeah. Watching her made me feel something like a reflected emptiness that would be angry if it could feel anything at all? She has the right to present any way she chooses. She’s probably one of the most policed and overanalyzed women in the world. But it read to me like she had, to a significant (and justified) extent, checked out.

Jordan: There was one line that stood out to me, mostly because it was a very wry, very Hillary jab: “Remember back in 2016 when Trump asked, ‘What do you have to lose?’ Well, now we know: our health care, our jobs, our loved ones, our leadership in the world, and even our post office.” Which, you know, she did try to warn everyone.

Lili: She did. And it was interesting to watch her work in that “it is what it is” Trump quote (that Michelle Obama also used), which expresses total indifference, into a paragraph that restated one of her earliest political catchphrases, which was actually about communal care: “Throughout this crisis, Americans have kept going—checking on neighbors, showing up to jobs at grocery stores and nursing homes. Because it still takes a village.” That felt less like a resurrection of her brand and more like something sadder—a goodbye.

Jordan: You know who isn’t going anywhere, though?

Lili: ELIZABETH WARREN.

Jordan: I swear I’ve heard that story about her Aunt Bee coming to the rescue 632 times by now, but if her next quest is to be the senator who brings affordable child care and pre-K to the U.S., Bod bless.

Lili: God, yes. I thought that choice of the empty child care center was genius. And she did what she does best—talking about child care and making the point, repeatedly and well, that child care is central to the economy. She’s been beating that drum for so long, and the pandemic has driven the obvious truth of that home—literally—in a pretty devastating way. She looked upbeat and vibrant in hilarious contrast with the depressing emptiness of her surroundings, but someone pointed out that the blocks behind her spelled out BLM.

Jordan: It was spunky. Just like her speech.

One more thing I want to say about Warren: One of the biggest questions in Democratic politics right now is what role she would play within the party. It seems unlikely that she’ll actually get a Cabinet spot, and she doesn’t lead any committees in the Senate. But I thought tonight was a brief reminder that this woman is just ready to fight, and can make her influence felt even without a lot of formal power.

And now we’re back to Obama.

Lili: There was a debate raging in our Slack over whether this was the greatest speech Obama ever gave. The consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t, but it’s so much better than what we’re used to that it’s hard to make finer distinctions. What did you think of it?

Jordan: I would not rank it that highly in the Obama canon, but I thought it was interesting, aside from the Flight 93–ness of it. There was a Politico article a long while back that mentioned how Obama has basically realized he’s no longer in touch with the youths. Which is a little sad for him, because he obviously won the presidency on this wave of millennial enthusiasm. And now he’s looked at by the new generation as this sort of vestige of an older, failed style of compromising politics.

Lili: Yeah. He was operating at a lower energy—not just calm and almost conversational but sad—while also being, as you’ve pointed out, unusually intense. He wasn’t just signaling support to Black Lives Matter protesters by tying their lineage to John Lewis’. He’s done a version of that before. I thought his most interesting rhetorical gesture was sort of boomeranging cynicism against itself and reframing voting (because it’s under attack, because they don’t want you to) as not just protest but outright rebellion.

Jordan: And I think he was actually getting at something kind of subtle but important. Which is that, while a lot of young Americans are extremely politically involved right now, there’s a strain of these protest movements that’s nearly ready to give up on electoralism as an actual strategy to achieve their ends, in part because they see guys like Biden winning. And he basically said, buck up. There was that line about the civil rights generation: “If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work and could not work, it was those Americans, our ancestors.”

Lili: Yeah. I don’t know if that works on “the youths” anymore—or if young people or the left are even the disaffected populations he has in mind. But it seemed smart. It also felt, in its own way, like a goodbye. I don’t know if I’m reading that right, or if I’m just seeing goodbyes everywhere, but there was a baton-passing quality to his story about John Lewis marching to jail while he was born. I think it felt that way to me because he was also (like Clinton) riffing on the theme that launched him to national prominence. “These shouldn’t be Republican principles or Democratic principles. They’re American principles,” he said tonight. Which was obviously the theme of his 2004 DNC speech, where he said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.”

Jordan: Right. It’s kind of sad that Obama’s still out here, a decade and a half later, trying to make the case that there really are basic, sacred American values. But that’s where we are.

And that brings us to the headliner … Kamala.

Lili: Yes it does.

Jordan: Can I tell a story, briefly?

Lili: Please.

Jordan: Years ago, I saw Sonic Youth and Wilco play a concert together. And Sonic Youth, who were noisy and overwhelming and basically just rocked the fuck out of whatever stage they got on, opened. And then Jeff Tweedy came out afterward, looked around kind of nervously, and said, “Whose idea was it to put us on after Sonic Youth?” And the whole set felt extremely low energy afterward.

I think you see where I’m going with this …

Lili: Jordan. Are you suggesting that there was something anticlimactic about Kamala Harris’ ambitiously staged but peculiarly shot speech?

Jordan: Everyone involved in writing and choreographing that speech should be fired.

Lili: I agree. I wanted it to be awesome. I wanted to feel things. Harris is a vivid, dynamic speaker! What happened? Why did it feel so dull?

I do think part of it might have had to do with the way she was shot—I kept wanting to connect with her, but she was so frequently shot in profile, or in these full-body shots from far away that emphasized the emptiness of that room and made it look like she was addressing somebody else.

Jordan: It felt like they tried to write and produce a traditional convention speech, which has flags and a big stage, lots of applause lines, and pauses for audience reactions … with basically no audience. So it sounded like we were basically watching someone rehearse in an empty room.

Lili: Yes!! It was WEIRD and came off stilted?

It was such a contrast with the introductory montage, which all conformed to what I guess we’ve come to recognize as something like Zoom intimacy—it was warm and lively and did a nice job giving a sense of her as a person.

Jordan: And the speech itself … was just generic. I remember two things. Her stepkids called her “Mamala,” and the thing about there not being a vaccine for racism.

Lili: I kept waiting for the Trump evisceration—at which she excels—and it never came (save for a reference to her ability to recognize a predator and a couple of references to him costing lives). Why did the candidate known for her prosecutorial ability opt not to build a case? It felt like the whole night had been building up to that, what with the policy failures and the demonstration of the human cost.

Jordan: It felt like they were giving her the traditional female politician treatment, by trying to emphasize that she’s a stepmom and having her talk at length about family. Let Kamala be Kamala.

Lili: Couldn’t agree more. I recognize that she’s from Oakland so maybe I know more about her, but it seems to me like the softer sides of her biography are pretty well-known? And the introduction did a lot to reestablish them. The lineage of women she sketched out at the beginning was powerful—especially the bit about her mother—but after that it felt like she was pulling punches in a way that made what she did say (even about important things like structural racism) unmemorable—and she is NOT unmemorable!

Oh well.

Jordan: At least we can look forward to her debate with Pence.

Lili: Yes we can.

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