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The DNC is a reminder that America is a big, diverse country, racked by disaster

This convention is making the same push for Joe Biden that the 2016 DNC made for Hillary Clinton. Honestly, it might work this time.

Democratic Party members applaud for Joe Biden after he was named the party’s 2020 nominee for president.
David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party sold itself as the real party of family values and patriotism.

It was an argument Democrats had been building toward throughout the Obama era, a muscular defense of the idea that the Democratic big tent reflected a core truth of America that the Republican party had abandoned. The country is only as strong as it is diverse, and it is only as good as it is willing to build systems that will embrace and care for absolutely everybody equitably, goes this argument. And, implicitly, it suggests that only the Democratic Party can practice that form of patriotism.

I would argue that the Democratic Party doesn’t go nearly far enough to realize those ideals. But it’s hard to contend that the party doesn’t do a better job of realizing them than the Republican Party. And regardless, in 2016, the argument was particularly potent because it was aimed directly at Donald Trump, a man who can be called many things but maybe not “an exemplar of family values.” The Democrats’ 2016 narrative was designed to draw a stark contrast between the selfish core of Trump’s appeal and the more community-minded approach of Hillary Clinton.

I thought that was notable at the time, when I wrote:

The argument Democrats are making isn’t that they’ve co-opted Republican space on so-called family values, but that the country’s definition of family values has largely shifted to meet progressives where they already are.

In a country where the majority of people support marriage equality, for instance, it’s ludicrous to suggest that adhering to ”true” family values means reversing the Supreme Court decisions making same-sex marriage legal in the United States. Even Donald Trump’s nomination acceptance speech left room for applause lines for LGBTQ citizens (though the party’s platform left no such room for LGBTQ rights).

But this idea was laced throughout the rest of the evening as well. Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders talked about making sure working-class people could make enough money to feed their families. A long succession of families who benefited from the DREAM Act talked about how it allowed them to stay together. And so on.

This appeal didn’t work. Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College, narrowly, and Donald Trump became president. So it was reasonable to expect the Democratic Party to abandon the “We’re the real patriots!” argument at its 2020 convention in favor of something that hedged the party’s bets a little more. Instead, the 2020 convention is doubling down on this strategy. The potency of the argument is enhanced by the aesthetics of the convention itself.

US Rep. Derrick Lente (D-NM) casts the New Mexico roll call vote.
DNCC via Getty Images

I do not need to tell you that the 2020 Democratic National Convention looks like no other political convention in history. The use of video chat software to capture images of people in their homes — applauding Joe Biden as he accepted the nomination or joining together to sing the national anthem or offering a keynote address delivered by more than a dozen people in tiny bits and pieces — has reminded me, for all the world, of the services my church has been streaming since Covid-19 forced it to shut its doors. (Here’s one where I, myself, am one of the readers. My church’s virtual services are not quite as elaborate as the DNC, but you can see where the comparison makes sense.)

Some of that aesthetic overlap is inevitable; there are only so many ways you can assemble a program out of video snippets others have submitted from their homes. The main difference stems from craft. The DNC has clearly been planned and put together by skillful editors and producers who have kept the pace brisk and completely rethought how a convention might work in this particular environment. (I am not kidding when I say it might be my favorite political convention ever, and I am a “Joe Biden, I guess” voter.) Having Kerry Washington or another celebrity pop up every so often to introduce the next segment or speaker is a huge improvement over people who don’t necessarily know how to be on camera.

But the hokey, homespun quality of segments like the 57-state and territory nominating procedure (a highlight of the convention so far) can’t really be crafted. It relies, almost entirely, on the idea that seeing normal people at this point in time, when we are meant to be avoiding normal people we don’t already live with, will carry with it an intrinsic power.

And, honestly, it does. I teared up seeing Kellen Returns From Scout announce the delegate counts from my home state of South Dakota, a place I’m not sure when I’ll see again. I loved seeing Rep. Barbara Lee and LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis announce the delegate count from my new home state of California as they stood on a beach in San Pedro, just down the freeway from where I sit right now. I was just as baffled by Rhode Island Rep. Joseph McNamara shouting out calamari as everybody else.

The segment worked because it was quirky and real and inherently American in a way that skirted the territory that Christopher Guest explores in mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, without ever quite crossing over into that territory. But it also worked because it was a reminder of just how big America is and how many different people live here and how radically our life experiences differ. It even featured an unintentional reminder of our ongoing military presence in territories that receive no federal representation when two uniformed personnel turned up in the background of American Samoa’s announcement. Tuesday night’s roll call captured America in all its messy contradictions in a way conventions rarely allow for, and it captured those contradictions in a way that made them feel intrinsic to the American project, mostly for good and sometimes for ill.

But what truly made the roll call segment so powerful — and what has boosted the entire convention — is the necessity of its existence and a sense of having to make slightly sweeter lemons out of the sourest lemons you can imagine. Every single shot, every single frame of this convention is a reminder that the world has been changed utterly by a disease that has run rampant in the United States when the rest of the world has gotten it under control, thanks to an administration that doesn’t seem to care about a death count that climbs alarmingly quickly toward 200,000.

We can talk about the individual aesthetic choices of the 2020 DNC’s filmmaking because it is the rare live event where those aesthetics have had to be carefully considered and thought out. But everything about them is overwhelmed by the reason they have to exist. To watch this convention is to confront, on live television, everything that has changed and to long for a world that existed just six months ago.

Virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention
Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden put on masks after Joe Biden received the nomination.
David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

My best friend lives in Denver. I live in Los Angeles. Flying between the two cities is cheap and easy, given how many planes make that short trip every day, and driving is a manageable trip, too, albeit a more laborious one. I don’t know when I’ll see her again because I don’t know when I’ll feel safe leaving my house and hitting the road again.

Even beyond a simple trip like that, I don’t know when I’ll travel again. I love to travel, and I’ve always meant to visit the eight states I’ve never visited, clustered in New England and the Deep South (and, okay, Alaska, which will be tricky). My imagination of what the United States even is has largely shrunk to the confines of my apartment and neighborhood, with occasional trips to the store, the park, and the farmers market creating a break in the monotony. I haven’t left Los Angeles County since early February.

The Democratic Party’s choice to stand its ground with the argument that it best represents America’s ideals, its patriotism, and its values might seem self-defeating. After all, it’s an argument that seems to have not worked particularly well in 2016. But the choice to double down has an unlikely ally in the aesthetics of the virtual convention itself, a convention carried to you from a nation of smaller countries, contained almost entirely in living rooms. Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats don’t even have to make the argument that it doesn’t have to be this way or that it didn’t used to be this way because just seeing him awkwardly pretend to be surprised to receive the nomination in a Delaware library is a reminder that something, somewhere is broken.

And, look, I am uniquely susceptible to an argument that the real America is one that makes room for everybody and tries to take care of those who have the least power instead of giving all the agency and authority to those who already have the most. I’m a trans woman, living in a big, diverse city. If ever there were a message tailor-made to appeal to me, it’s this one. I have immense doubts about the Democratic Party’s ability to deliver on that argument, but on paper, I love it.

There are plenty of people who disagree — both on the idea that America is for and should care about everyone in it and on the fact that I exist. The logical extension of the DNC’s argument is that we should also make room for the people who would rather I not be a part of the American experiment because, in theory, the tent should be big enough to encompass everyone, the disadvantaged and the powerful.

These inherent contradictions have a tendency to shatter coalitions, and that tension has been evident at the convention, where the party’s increasing leftward movement has mostly been minimized in favor of boosting Republican speakers in the hope of appealing to moderates and right-leaning voters who maybe just can’t stomach Trump anymore. (The party’s platform itself is the most progressive of my lifetime, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues.)

But these are practical concerns — important and difficult but maybe not what we should be arguing over at a moment when setting lofty ideals is more appropriate. I want to have those arguments, in person with my best friend, whose politics differ in hundreds of tiny little ways from mine. But first, I want to leave my apartment. I want to get in my car. I want to drive through Nevada and Utah into the growing twilight. I want to stay at some shitbag hotel. I want to pull into Denver as a late summer rain starts to spatter my windshield. I want to give her a hug that never ends. I want more than what I’ve been given, and the Democratic Party is betting you do too.

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