America isn’t as bad as Americans say it is.
The message? That while the cameras have been focused for nearly four years on the aggrieved clown posse at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the America where most of the citizens are good, empathetic, and justice-seeking people never went away. The idea unexpectedly hit its emotional peak on Tuesday night, 48 hours before Joe Biden formally accepted the Democratic nomination for president.
The roll call that gave the 77-year-old former vice president the formal nod was, unexpectedly, reinvented as a masterpiece of visual art.
For a nation that’s spent much of 2020 in quarantine, Tuesday’s travelogue of 50 states (and seven other jurisdictions) opened up a spacious, diverse America with pride, possibility, and a not fully quenched thirst for justice that played out on fruited plains, majestic purple mountains, and shining seasides.
This American odyssey began in the footsteps of the recently departed civil rights hero John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and didn’t end until it reached a platform at Biden’s beloved Amtrak station in Wilmington. In between, the roll call of the states walked the fine line between our yearning for the pre-pandemic normalcy that was epitomized by that steaming pile of fried squid on a Narragansett Bay beach and reminders that our national journey is far from finished.
More than any political convention in my lifetime, the 2020 virtual DNC hung on a theme that could be summed up in one word: Empathy. The empathy and ability to relate to everyday folks that have defined Biden’s 50 years in the public eye, the empathy that is so lacking in a president unable to acknowledge the enormity of 170,000 coronavirus dead, the empathy that was beamed into your living room Tuesday night from a windswept Montana prairie and a Mississippi HBCU.
On Thursday night, Biden placed the exclamation point on that message as he accepted the nomination without fanfare, speaking before a row of American flags at a mostly empty Chase Center in Wilmington. In a speech that aimed for a lofty tone in a national moment like no other, Biden began by quoting the 1960s civil rights leader Ella Baker, “Give people light and they will find the way.”
“I will draw on the best of us, not the worst us,” Biden promised. “I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.” He pledged to undo the damage of the Trump years by representing all Americans — even the ones who don’t vote for him, and not just members of his own party or political base. Calling this “a moment that calls for faith and light and love,” the newly minted nominee offered a lyrical response to Tuesday’s coast-to-coast call, that in a time of darkness “we’re so much bigger than that, so much better than that.”
The former vice president also swept broadly across the policy challenges facing America, but defined his mission to reverse Trumpism less by the things he would do than by the things he wouldn’t do — cut Americans’ Social Security checks, cozy up to foreign dictators, or ignore science on the pandemic.
Biden’s speech capped an uneven final night of the DNC that careened wildly from attempted comedy from ex-candidate Andrew Yang and host Julia Louis-Dreyfus to a poignant endorsement from Brayden Harrington — a 13-year-old boy who, like Biden, stutters. Biden’s more than three-decade quest for the Democratic nomination ended not with a cheering throng or a balloon drop but with a fireworks show, lighting the darkness over the Christina River.
The political parties alternate every four years which one goes first, and in 2020 the Democrats have made the most out of their opportunity to define the November election. By keeping the message skewed largely toward the positive, Team Biden set up an epic contrast with the Republican virtual confab in the upcoming week.
That event, which launches Monday, is sure to be a festival of angry white grievance, with speakers like the gun-grabbing St. Louis couple that confronted Black marchers, and with nightly doses of Trump himself. Democrats at the DNC mostly succeeded in avoiding the 2016 mistake of attacking Trump backers as “deplorable,” with speakers like Barack Obama instead offering pity that Trump wasn’t up to the job — knowing full well that pity is the thing that really makes him go bananas.
That the Democrats made the most of eight hours does not mean — as I stressed previously — that the DNC was perfect. Far from it. The oldest major-party nominee in American history gave ample airtime to the nostalgia of Democratic Boomers while shoehorning in young voices like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Even without the cocktail parties that would have littered Milwaukee, lobbyists somehow got an end to fossil-fuel subsidies removed from the platform. Progressives can’t let their guard down, ever.
And the tough choices around dealing with 30 million unemployed Americans and COVID-19 will likely remain under wraps until a would-be Biden presidency begins. Democrats are trying to keep it simple for now — to convince voters that better decisions will be made by a president with empathy than by a raging narcissist. If America is as good as the Democrats say it is, even Rhode Island’s squid could probably get that one right.