The brightest stars of the virtual Democratic National Convention look a lot like the party’s most loyal voters: women of color and young people. On Night 1, Michelle Obama stole the show, bringing a perfect measure of empathy, dynamism and disappointed dismissal of our failed president — and a gold VOTE necklace from ByChari, a small business owned by a Black woman, which immediately became the hottest accessory of election season.
On Night 2, the convention opened with a mashup of the Democratic Party’s young luminaries, a group of recently elected under-50s across the country, including the woman who should be governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was given a paltry 60 seconds to speak, but she made the most of them, highlighting the parts of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ platform that are most important to his (and Ocasio-Cortez’s) progressive constituency.
It’s been a strong, compelling two nights. But many of the most urgent and important voices in the party and even at the convention itself were constricted and muted.
It’s been a strong, compelling two nights. But many of the most urgent and important voices in the party and at the convention itself were constricted and muted. If Democrats want to move forward after this immediate emergency of an election, they need to radically reassess who holds the party’s power and who speaks on its platforms.
Importantly, nearly all of the Democrats who spoke emphasized and celebrated the democratic process. Their message wasn’t just that Democratic nominee Joe Biden should beat President Tweety McTreason — although they certainly believe he should — but that it’s a good thing when as many Americans as possible participate in the electoral process. They hammered Trump’s attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, rightly identifying them as voter suppression and an affront to the values Americans hold dearest. Longtime civil servants spoke out about the dangers Trump poses to national security. Every speaker put forward a vision of an America where patriotism isn’t performed by waving a flag but by casting a ballot.
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It was all a clear rebuke to a Republican Party motivated by power over all else, one willing to compromise a sacred American promise — the right of the people to choose their leaders in free and fair elections, the very core of the democratic experiment — in order to maintain control, preserve white male minority rule and continue enriching themselves at the expense of the public.
And yet, the Democratic Party got only halfway there. Because while Michelle Obama may be dynamic, she’s not an elected official, and she appears to have no desire to enter politics. While Ocasio-Cortez can light a rhetorical blaze in 60 seconds, her short appearance seconding Sanders’ nomination was the equivalent of party table scraps. Meanwhile, former Gov. John Kasich, a white, 68-year-old onetime Republican presidential candidate and avowed anti-abortion politician, spoke for much longer. Colin Powell, who enabled the disastrous war in Iraq, also enjoyed a speaking slot, as did Cindy McCain. The comparison couldn’t be more stark — or worrying.
It makes sense that Democrats want to reach progressives and moderates alike, and the message so far has been a unifying and fundamentally accurate one: This is an emergency, and whatever your personal politics, getting rid of Trump is a matter of the highest priority. A voter who switches from Trump to Biden is more valuable than a Democratic-leaning voter who decides not to stay home. A turnout voter adds to the Democratic side, but a switch voter adds to Biden and subtracts from the GOP ticket — which is likely how Democrats justify featuring a smattering of milquetoast Republicans at the DNC.
Certainly, Democrats have done the electoral math and realized that, as Hillary Clinton did, you can win by several million votes and still lose the election. And the emphasis on bipartisanship, collegiality and fundamental decency stands in sharp juxtaposition to the hyperpartisan, cruel and deceitful Trump administration.
The problem, though, is that the olive branch to moderates is coming at the expense of the people young Democratic voters believe in and are excited by.
The problem, though, is that the olive branch to moderates is coming at the expense of the people young Democratic voters believe in and are excited by. And that sets the party up for failure — not just in this election, but also in the long term. Ocasio-Cortez, for example, is a phenomenal and preternaturally gifted politician. But she is not treated, by the media or even by her own colleagues, as someone who should be offered a quick rise to power — as Joe Biden was when he joined the Senate at age 30.
Nor are many other young (and sometimes not-so-young), dynamic, hardworking women of Congress afforded their due: People like Reps. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, Katie Porter of California, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, all of whom do their homework, are tremendous leaders and can command a room. Where’s Julián Castro? What message does it send when the DNC simply refuses to feature the women and men who are clearly the future of the party?
The faces of young people, and especially young women and young people of color, all pop up on the screen during the DNC. One of the benefits of the digital format is that you can move between guests quickly, creating ample space for cameos. But there are notably few young electeds elevated to extended speaking roles. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was the youngest elected official to speak Monday night, and she’s 48. Almost every other politician who spoke was in their 60s and 70s. Tuesday may have featured Ocasio-Cortez (30), but everyone else who was given an extended platform qualified for AARP membership. Inviting millennial musicians like Maggie Rogers and Leon Bridges to perform doesn’t cut it.
It’s not that the older folks in the party have nothing to say or that they should be put out to pasture. But it sends a concerning message about the future of the party. Is Biden, a moderate for most of his career, the future of the party? At 77 years old, could he be? Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is happy to feature AOC as a symbolic gesture to its young, racially diverse, female base. But that same base is getting fed up with symbolism over substance. And frankly, we’re tired of this kind of short-term decision-making — of the general failure to prioritize getting the young, bright and talented into elected office and then the equally big failure of not pushing them toward the top of the ranks.
Yes, Democrats need to persuade voters for this election. But the party also needs to excite them and send the message that it’s thinking about its future. It’s clear that even the right now of a diverse, female-dominated party looks more like Michelle Obama and AOC than John Kasich or Bill Clinton. Embracing the future of the party is about age, but it’s also about dynamism, optimism and bringing fresh ideas to a stale, staid Capitol.
When young people watch the convention on television, do they see the Democrats not just as a party to vote for but also as a party that will support them? Do they see themselves not just talked about but also invited in and helped up the ladder? When the most anticipated speakers of each night are women who either aren’t in office or have faced nonstop impediments from within and without their own party, you are looking at a party that needs a serious reboot. When one of those women can literally barely get a word in edgewise because her time to speak is so brief, you are looking at a party on an treacherous path.
There is no equivalence between Democrats and Republicans. One embraces democracy, while the other enables autocracy. One cares about equality and justice, the other control and dominance. And one, at least policy-wise, cares more about creating a better, fairer and freer future than the other (admittedly a low bar). Now Democrats need to show it — in the voices they elevate and the people whom they grant real power.