Joe Biden’s powerful speech accepting the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination capped four days during which the Democratic National Convention made an admirable and tragic argument for a Joe Biden presidency. It had the benefit of coming across as truly specific to this particular candidate while also ringing 100 percent true to this moment: Joe Biden is the empathy candidate, and he is running for president in a moment when America is in desperate need of empathy.
This was not always the case for Biden’s candidacy. For most of this yearslong election season, Biden has appeared to function as a kind of embodiment of the “generic Dem” ticket. I have argued since January that he seemed likely to “float” to victory without ever having to make a positive case for himself. Back then, that was true: Biden’s campaign was searching for a story to pin his aspirations to that amounted to something more than “remember Obama? I was with him,” but they never quite found it. To most of the American public, Biden was a sack of vaguely positive signifiers that added up to enough support for him to win the top place on the ticket. He benefited as much from anti-Trump energies—particularly among moderates—as he did from Obama’s popularity. He even stayed above the fray as Donald Trump, whose peculiar expertise lies in recognizing vague trends of this kind, singled Biden out as the most dangerous to his campaign and, in an extraordinary own goal, got himself impeached trying to pressure a foreign government leader to announce an investigation into the opponent he least wanted to face. That dirty effort failed, and it is to Biden’s credit that he handled it with such extraordinary restraint.
But even after all that, Biden’s campaign still had no clear narrative. The ambient misery much of the country has languished under for the past four years has felt hard to even remember, much less itemize, which likely motived the Biden campaign’s attempt to argue that we could “get back to normal” if their candidate was elected. But then the pandemic came, and Trump refused to acknowledge the scope of the American tragedy under him while singing his own praises in increasingly strident tones—sometimes in screaming all-caps tweets. Meanwhile, desperate Americans have scrambled to Scotch-tape together individual solutions to a nationwide catastrophe. Trump cheers the stock market while Americans mourn loved ones who died alone in hospitals and try to keep other vulnerable people from falling sick. Those lucky enough to still have jobs are sinking under the double weight of work and full-time parenting while their kids’ schools go online. Millions of others can’t make their rent or mortgage payments because there is no money; most Americans did not have more than $400 in emergency funds even before all this, and now millions have lost their jobs and their health care. Businesses across this country are dying and cannot even make a plan for how to try to survive this because there is no end in sight to Trump’s contemptible half-measures, which keep the economy cycling through indecisive semi-closures that stop and start and keep the virus circulating.
So many Americans are exhausted, impoverished, and trying their best to stay afloat while the problems Trump cannot see, let alone address, keep compounding. Hope is scarce. And so: While Trump exerts his politics of personal grievance, Biden emerged as the candidate who can see and share the public’s grief.
No one expected much of this Democratic National Convention. Even at the best of times, these party conventions tend to be self-congratulatory and windy affairs with plenty of grandstanding and little substance. But the fact that this DNC was virtual—mediated through screens, since people couldn’t gather into the same cavernous room—ended up being an unexpectedly powerful asset. Instead of watching people walk up and down to podiums to dull applause, the convention felt intimate. There was little by way of polished staging—Zoom interactions are by their nature awkward, and that awkwardness added some intimacy and authenticity to an occasion that tends to feel overproduced and canned. Even the surroundings were informative, sometimes sweetly so. The roll call that showed people in each of the 57 states and territories standing in environments they thought best represented their region was immensely moving—not because it was emotional but because, despite its unavoidable procedural dullness, it told us something about our fellow Americans, and where they live, what they value, and what they want us to see. And it was fun: a heaping tray of calamari! A man standing at an enormous distance in a field! In this sense, it was more of a convention than any in-person convention could possibly be, because we brought our homes into the story.
If these proceedings restored to us a sense of how big this country is, how fascinating and odd and beautiful in all its variety, the convention did something I think many people watching needed too: It took cathartic stock of the past four years. It let everyone pause to assimilate everything that happened, together—to acknowledge the harms and mourn them with what felt to me like a communal observance of largely invisible shared struggles. It reminded us of tragedies we have pushed to the back in order to make space for fresh ones: the Parkland shooting. Teens who have been paralyzed by bullets. Teens who have grown up in schools that subject them to active shooter drills where they have to pretend that someone has come to kill them and think about what they might do to survive. The Muslim ban. The caging of children while they call for their fathers—in that expectant tone toddlers have that indicates they haven’t quite understood and still expect them to come. It reminded us of Charlottesville. And while immigrants here in California continue to work in American fields unprotected in the smoke-poisoned air, harvesting American crops so that Americans can eat, getting COVID-19 at much higher rates than the rest of the population while the president calls them trash and animals and murderers, the Democratic convention gave us no permission to despise them. A woman who works and pays her taxes spoke proudly about how she crossed the border, carrying her child above her head through a river, to get her ailing daughter help, saying what all of us recognize is true: Who wouldn’t do this to save their child’s life? A little girl whose father—a veteran—voted for Trump carefully read a letter about why he wouldn’t do so again: She lost her mother in 2018 because Trump deported her. Gabrielle Giffords showed how hard she’d worked to get better after being shot for being a Democratic public servant, Ady Barkan spoke through a machine to inform the American public of what can happen to a person through no fault of their own—driving home the extraordinary awfulness that 10 million Americans have lost their health insurance in the middle of a pandemic.
None of this is new, of course. But there’s something about public testimony that drives home the truth of things. It did something to me to see so many ordinary Americans appear in squares on screens to tell their stories. It became possible to acknowledge, collectively, that yes, it really is this bad. The grief we all keep at bay in order to try to function is justified, and awesome, and real. And throughout all four nights, we were reminded of Joe Biden’s own tragic story: the loss of his wife and baby daughter and then the loss of his son Beau. The emotional argument was that Biden has functioned through grief and can help us function through it too—not by ignoring the things we grieve but by carrying the people we’ve lost in our hearts and seeking purpose.
I would normally lift an eyebrow at a politician saying that he sought the presidency because he’d found his purpose by channeling his grief into helping people. It sounds, oh, convenient. But the sheer number of people who told stories about Biden calling them or writing to them or reaching out to them—and who keep offering testimonies of this kind on social media—had the effect of lifting my other eyebrow in astonishment at the fact that this extraordinary claim has a shocking amount of evidence to back it. Biden has many flaws, but he really does care a great deal about other people. There’s no getting around it.
As interesting as the case the convention made is the case it didn’t: The argument for Biden is not that he is brilliant, or a businessman, or a policy wonk. The case it made was that he is humble—and that he listens. If the melody of this convention was that Biden cares, the harmony was that he attends: that he reads the train magazine no one reads. That he watched Amy Klobuchar’s speech on C-SPAN even when there was no one in the room listening. Even Barack Obama’s extremely warm endorsement harped on Biden’s humility, sharing Biden’s lecture to his son that “no one’s better than you, but you’re better than nobody.”
It is unusual, though not unprecedented, for a male candidate to be positioned as the “empathy candidate” (even Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign could be described that way). It says something about the depth of American grief and desperation that people are responding so powerfully to that pitch. But let’s remember: The current president’s campaign guru was just arrested for allegedly defrauding Republicans who thought he would actually build a wall with money they donated (instead one guy bought a yacht). And the current president still insists that everything is terrific and anyone who claims otherwise must be doing so out of hatred of him. When the president can only understand people talking about their hardships as a malicious personal insult to his own person, the bar for compassion is on the floor. Biden doesn’t just meet our shredded expectations; he raises that bar to the ceiling. If there are supertasters, Biden has been pretty persuasively presented as a superfeeler—as a person people can look to for solace as well as for solutions. “Help” might be the intermediate term between those spiritual and material needs, and Thursday night, Biden clinched the nomination by powerfully and compassionately offering it.
For more of Slate’s political coverage, subscribe to the Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts or listen below.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus