The Tensions Inside the Democrats’ New Big Tent

The opening night of the DNC showcased Republicans and socialists and dire warnings about Trump. Whatever happened to inspiring voters?

In this screenshot from the livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, actress and activist Eva Longoria introduces former first lady Michelle Obama to address the virtual convention on August 17, 2020. Photo: Handout/DNCC via Getty Images

The 2020 Democratic National Convention that got underway Monday night featured socialists and Republicans, former Donald Trump voters and Black Lives Matter activists, small-business people and CEOs. There was one of the chief architects of the Green New Deal—and a recovering climate skeptic. There were speeches delivered on a lectern and speeches recorded in living rooms. The vision for the Democratic Party under Joe Biden’s leadership offered at Monday night’s kickoff of the 2020 DNC was, for better or worse, one of far-reaching ideological inclusivity.

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Rep. Susan Molinari, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and Quibi CEO and one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman weighed in from the GOP side of the aisle. All of their speeches, to some degree, explained their switch to support a Democrat in 2020; all cited their abhorrence of our 45th president. “The stakes in this election are greater than any in modern times,” said Kasich. “We’re being taken down the wrong road by a president who has pitted one against the other.”

In picking Kasich to deliver that message, the Democratic Party gave a megaphone to someone who, while not as blustery as Trump, still has a radically different vision for what the country’s path to recovery looks like than do many of the Democratic Party’s most compelling organizers. Earlier on Monday, Kasich complained to BuzzFeed News about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “outsized publicity” and derided the Democratic Party’s “extreme” factions who tend to “define their party.” It’s ironic that Kasich delivered those remarks at a convention where Biden, the exact antithesis of extremity, is the party nominee. And it’s perhaps even more ironic that Kasich, the guy whose version of the Republican Party helped birth Trumpism and who as governor signed one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bans and enacted drastic cuts to public school funding, should chastise the Democratic Party’s progressive wing as extreme. No wonder 38% of Democrats responded to a CBS poll saying they’d like to hear Kasich speak, compared with 63% for Ocasio-Cortez and 68% for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who spoke later on Monday night.

But of course, every convention is more about politics than policy, and Democrats are hoping Kasich, who trounced Trump in the 2016 Republican primary in his home state, can sway some Ohio voters to vote for Biden. (Trump won the 2016 general election there by eight percentage points.) And Kasich did grow up in Pennsylvania, another swing state that Trump won in the 2016 general election (though Kasich’s standing there is shakier: He came in third in the state’s 2016 primary, behind Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz). Maybe the DNC is right and Kasich and the Republicans can help convince disaffected and moderate Republicans to take a chance on Biden. If that’s the case, it was a relatively painless sacrifice having to watch as a group of Republicans went on about how, in Whitman’s words, Trump “has no clue how to run a business” or how, as Molinari said, Biden is simply “a really good man.”

It wasn’t until the last 20 minutes of the evening, when Sanders and former first lady Michelle Obama spoke, that we really saw the power of Democratic Party leaders on full display. Sanders’ speech was remarkably substantive; he talked about how Biden would transition the U.S. to 100% clean electricity over the next 15 years, how he would lower the eligibility age of Medicare from 65 to 60, and how he would end the use of private prisons. It was a rare moment of pragmatic, solutions-oriented policy discussion, and it offered a brief window of clarity into what Biden could offer this country beyond ending the Trump era.

And then there was Michelle Obama. The former first lady’s impassioned keynote address was equal parts pragmatic and poetic, laying out in simple yet effective language why Biden is the man for the hour: “Right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another,” she said. “They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value. … They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protestors for a photo-op.”

Obama was also strikingly blunt, acknowledging that, as a Black woman, her message “won’t be heard by some people” — presumably some of the very same people the Republicans were being featured to reach. It was a painfully honest moment from one of the most admired women in the world.

The theme for this week’s convention is “Uniting America,” an ambition that’s both milquetoast and unlikely: Americans are much more polarized now than in decades past. If Democrats are to recapture the White House, they may well need big-tent politics to do so. But there’s a fine line between showcasing unity and descending into vapidity, between a party that says it stands for everyone and one that, at its convention, inspires no one. Michelle Obama walked that tightrope masterfully. Democrats have everything riding on the hope that Biden can do the same in the months ahead.

Writer and editor. Previously at Medium, Pacific Standard, Wired

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