The curtain rises on the Democratic convention

August 18, 2020 7:00 am
DNC on Sunday, August 16. Photo courtesy of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee (“DNCC”).

DNC stage in Milwaukee on Sunday, August 16. Photo courtesy of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee (“DNCC”), all rights reserved.

Since Milwaukee had the very bad luck to be chosen to host the Coronavirus Democratic Convention, which has been moved almost entirely online, hometown press and politicians are boosting the idea that maybe Wisconsin will get a second chance in another four years. But it seems just as likely that there won’t be any more in-person political conventions at all.

These events are a lot of fun for journalists, lobbyists, delegates and politicos, but they outlived their usefulness around 1976, when they dispensed with the drama of actually selecting the nominee and became weeklong made-for-TV pageants.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I haven’t missed one since 1996. The quadrennial summertime politicopaloozas are a blast — big, fat parties our democracy could easily do without. The disappointment for regular attendees is palpable, as captured in this tweet by John Nichols of the Nation and the Cap Times, who drove down to Milwaukee for the DNC kickoff in search of something to cover:

For most voters, though, the Democrats’ virtual “convention across America” doesn’t look all that different from the made-for-TV convention spectacles of other years (minus the energy of the crowd).

On Day One, the video presentations themselves were par for the course. The slight delay in the Zoom panels was a little awkward, but the production quality on the various uplifting and tear-jerking videos was still high. And, let’s face it, the Dems have a pretty compelling story to tell this year.

As Julian Castro, the former HUD secretary and candidate for president in the 2020 primary, put it during Monday’s Hispanic Caucus meeting, the Latino community in America is in a “state of emergency.” The same could be said for every community in the United States.

As Castro’s brother, Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) added, Latino voters are ready to “say goodbye to an era that’s been a nightmare for us.”


But can the Dems pull it off?

Like every convention, this one needs to bring together a fractious coalition. And while most delegates are not in Milwaukee to argue in person, you can see them airing their differences during virtual caucus meetings in the live chat. On Monday, as politicians and party organizers were giving their testimonials to Joe Biden and talking about the urgent need to expand healthcare and take better care of essential workers, delegates were still bickering about the platform in an endlessly scrolling stream of comments down the right side of the screen. In a typical comment, one convention-watcher wrote in the chat “I can’t believe we’re talking about fighting for health care for all when the party refused to add it as a plank in the platform.”

In Wisconsin, the swingiest of swing states, Biden was up by five points in the most recent Marquette University Law School poll — down one point from his lead in June. A lot will depend on turnout, and on Democrats’ ability to motivate the rural and suburban voters who are turning away from Trump to come out. Not to mention the younger activists who see Biden and Harris as too far right.

The task for the week is not just to persuade but to motivate.


Knowing that Hilllary Clinton’s failure to come to Wisconsin or put significant organizing muscle here in the closing days of the 2016 election is a sore point, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are here this week, to thumb their noses at the Biden campaign for not showing up. 

Trump held an in-person rally in Oshkosh Monday afternoon. Pence will be parachuting into Janesville on Wednesday from an alternate universe in which social distancing is for sissies and America is doing great. He plans to give a speech bragging about the Trump administration’s nonexistent economic revival, especially in manufacturing.

Democrats put out an ad attacking Trump for his irresponsible rally on Monday, and pointing out that Trump’s Tulsa rally led to a spike in COVID cases.

Clearly, from a public health perspective, the Dems are right.

But will the convention give them a bump? The first night was long on tales of death and illness from COVID-19, interspersed with moody musical interludes. It was not exactly an inspiring start.

The overproduced, plastic quality was familiar from conventions of the past, but it was exacerbated by the lack of a live crowd with real, human energy, not to mention feisty speeches and live bands. My kids rolled their eyes at the predictability of the dull, recorded speeches. But when an appearance by the bereaved relatives of George Floyd was followed by a smooth jazz music video, they recoiled. Sometimes phoniness is downright offensive. It’s too soon to turn horror into a brand. The same goes for all those photo montages of people who have died of COVID-19 and their sad relatives. It was like something out of the Hunger Games, the whole soft-focus, mediated presentation clashing with the in-your-face reality of death. Anger would be a more appropriate (and energetic) political response than the packaged nostalgia of some of those segments. It made me worry that the whole spectacle could leave people feeling too overwhelmed and depressed to get out and vote.

Michelle Obama wrapped things up with a deeply relatable (but downbeat) speech. “It’s a hard time, and everyone’s feeling it in different ways,” she began. “And I know a lot of folks are reluctant to tune into a political convention right now or to politics in general.” She went on to describe the total disaster of the Trump administration, especially the lack of empathy Trump has normalized, making a mockery of the values parents try to teach their children. “They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value,” Obama said.

Summing up what is wrong not just politically, but morally, with the tone the Trump administration has set for the nation, Obama described children watching “people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else.”

It was better than the earlier part of Monday’s DNC program. But it wasn’t exactly a pep rally.

Stay tuned.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.