The second night of the Democratic National Convention started out with a series of letdowns: Alleged serial abuser Bill Clinton got a slot that should have gone to revered climate activist (and election-stealing victim!) Al Gore. Then, the party wasted one of its most charismatic and morally centered talents, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, by limiting her to a 60-second slot meant for someone supporting the nomination of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a less-than-rousing speaker even in front of the warmest crowds, delivered a flat video address to a blurry Statue of Liberty.
But then, as if to prove that an at-home convention didn’t have to be a dutiful slog, the roll call began! In a series of messages—some live, some prerecorded, but all charming—delegates took viewers to their home states and territories, where they said nice things about Biden, shared struggles from their lives, and/or sold us on the places they live. There was no cheering crowd, no ecstatic Macarena. And yet, undoubtedly, these video messages were way, way better than the real thing would have been.
Are you aware of how majestic this country is? Have you ever fully comprehended the vast diversity of architecture, geology, and fashion choices this great nation holds? If not, I suggest you watch the roll call from beginning to end. You’ve got the Pueblo of Sandia in New Mexico, with state Rep. Derrick Lente holding forth in a golden-hour windstorm. You’ve got Rep. Barbara Lee positively kvelling over vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris in front of the breathtaking California coastline. You’ve got Maine state Rep. Craig Hickman, a Black gay man who owns a farm and bed-and-breakfast, bragging about his life. “My American dream? I’m living it!” he exclaimed. You sure are, Rep. Hickman! And I am jealous.
At a time when most of us have barely left our houses in months, a whirlwind trip around the ol’ amber waves of grain was a bit of escapism that feels increasingly hard to come by, especially because the main topic of this convention is an authoritarian racist who’s recently killed tens of thousands of Americans. And as a break from a set of speeches still too often reserved for the establishment and the wealthy (tell me, again, why Mike Bloomberg was invited to speak?), the self-produced roll call clips were delightfully homespun. In Kansas, farmer Mike Pringle was filmed in a full-body shot from what looked like a wobbly camera placed in the grass. In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser was barely audible over the drone of cicadas. Whoever shot state Rep. Claire Cronin in Massachusetts filmed her too close, too bright, and out of focus, allowing us to focus our attention on her brilliant accent. Ohio, which featured also-ran Rep. Tim Ryan and IBEW organizer Josh Abernathy bro-ing out in front of a wind turbine, offered all the production value of a used-car dealership commercial.
In normal years, the roll call segment of the convention would feature delegates giving their spiels from the floor of an arena, sometimes in region- or culture-specific garb, but otherwise subsumed into the homogenizing patriotic hum of the event. Not so in a pandemic! This year, we got to see more than just who these people are. We got to see where they live and what murals make the best backdrops there. The popular narrative of the Democratic Party is centered in cities and blue states; a different image was conjured by the young woman talking about rural broadband access in front of a group of unbothered cows in an idyllic Montana meadow. When state stereotypes were confirmed, they were confirmed with flair: Vermont, the home state of white guys with ponytails, was repped by Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a white guy with a suitably lustrous ponytail. State Rep. Joseph McNamara praised the “calamari comeback state of Rhode Island” alongside a vaguely threatening looking masked chef holding a plate of squid prepared in the state’s signature style—studded, as it were, with cherry peppers. This land was made for him and me.
There was also an equalizing force at work in the virtual format. People who normally wouldn’t have been invited to the convention got to appear in these videos, some standing behind the delegates like members of a masked indie band. A kid jumped for joy in the background in Oregon; in New Jersey, some randos wandered through the frame. The U.S. island territories, which normally get the shit end of U.S. policy—and, not coincidentally, have no voting representation in Congress—came out ahead for once, juxtaposing their turquoise waters with the broadcast from an Arkansas parking lot.
But also, that Arkansas parking lot was full of great-looking food trucks and a very cool-seeming chef! I can’t be the only one who came away from the roll call ready to book a flight to, at the very least, Boise (the park situation looks great!), the Northern Mariana Islands (such flora!), and West Virginia (cool mosaic!). Biden may have gotten the delegates’ votes, but the locales on view got something much more valuable: a free ad for the tourism bureau. If only we weren’t in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic that our current president has mismanaged such that no one can travel anywhere or have fun in a new place. Still, this roll call made me feel more patriotic than I have in years, and judging by the genuine applause from random observers’ Zooms that capped it off, we were all in it together. God bless these United States!