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The Democratic Convention Was Senior Week

The party rolled out its old warhorses—while the next generation had to make its own noise.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Democratic National Convention began with an emphasis on outsiders—specifically, the much-derided, much-lampooned, mostly young Bernie Sanders dissidents protesting in the arena and on the streets. It ended with Hillary Clinton, the ultimate insider, giving a nomination address that matched the progressive platform her party (thanks to Sanders and his supporters) had ultimately approved. Uniting those two poles—the young and old, the boldly visionary and the cautiously centrist—is the central challenge of the American left, beyond this election. But by and large, the Democrats missed their chance this week to build that bridge, to fully invite the next generation in.

Many of the central themes of Sanders’s year of stump speeches—expanding Social Security, rejecting trade deals that hurt workers, providing debt-free college, reclaiming our democracy from big money—resounded throughout Clinton’s speech. While she identified the critical issues of social and economic justice and even decried systemic racism, she also acknowledged working-class anxieties, while telling Americans that they shouldn’t actually have to go to college in order to get a good job. And she told the nation that we could accomplish these goals if we work with common purpose. “Americans don’t say ‘I alone can fix it,’” Clinton said, referring to a line from Donald Trump from last week’s nomination speech. “They say, ‘We’ll fix it together!’”

But who will be the stalwarts who help press this agenda forward? Who are the rising stars who will galvanize the public to make change happen? If it takes a village to bring about transformation, then who are those villagers?

By and large, you didn’t see those people on the convention stage—or anywhere near prime time. The good news is that two rock stars did emerge on the final night of the convention. The bad news is that one of them is the Muslim father of a slain Marine, the other an African-American preacher and rabble-rouser, and neither of them is likely to have a future in elected politics.

What that half-hour or so of convention coverage showed to those who watched the sermon of Reverend William Barber II and the quiet-yet-determined outrage of Khizr Khan—was the best of America, and the rising left: multicultural, emotional, vehement, and striving for excellence. Khan taught a lesson in the power of our diversity, the courage of standing up to bigotry. A Muslim man pulling out the Constitution to call bullshit on Donald Trump told the story Democrats were trying to tell the entire week about the GOP nominee’s extremism—but mostly failing and falling flat—in one unforgettable gesture.

And Reverend Barber, the North Carolina NAACP leader, did what Reverend Barber does: Use scripture to take the moral high ground for the most expansive liberal views—and get the hall (and TV audience) rocking in response. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he thundered: “What I am interested in seeing you doing as a nation, the Lord says, is pay people what they deserve, share your food with the hungry. Do this and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach.” Since 2013, Barber has led the Moral Mondays protest movement in North Carolina, a non-violent resistance to the conservative takeover of the state—and an exemplar of what the Democratic future should look like, fully intersectional and rooted in demanding that the country live up (all the way up) to its professed ideals.

Among the prominent Democrats on stage, only Barber reached out to “the Jewish child and the Palestinian child,” and “those who have no faith but they love this nation.” Only Barber exhorted the crowd to “fight for peace.” It was as liberal a speech as we’ve ever seen at a convention, and significantly, it was cast not in the terms of liberalism and conservatism, but right and wrong. As Clinton did later, Barber admonished the audience that “the watchword of this democracy and the watchword of faith is ‘we’… we must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.”

Looking around the Wells Fargo Center night after night, I could see those fresh shock troops Barber was calling to action—the young activists who’ve been derided all week as “childish,” but who are the future of the liberal movement. Hillary Clinton agreed on Thursday, speaking directly to them: “I’ve heard you, and your cause is our cause. Our country needs your ideas, energy, and passion.”

But the shock troops were only occasionally addressed during the four days in Philadelphia, and their presence wasn’t reflected on the stage. They were intentionally drowned out when they tried to make their voices heard, and pushed to the back of delegation seating.

Nominating conventions are supposed to provide a platform for new leaders to introduce themselves to the nation. But the Democrats had a problem: Too many commitments to too many familiar faces, leaders of the past and present, to fit anyone else in. And of the eight major figures with the choicest prime-time speaking slots—Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Tim Kaine, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton—one is retired, two are about to retire, one wants no part of politics, and three of the other four are eligible for Social Security.

On top of that, the House Democratic Leader is 76 and her second-in-command is 77. The Senate Democratic Leader is retiring and his replacement is a spry 65. I’d go on to list the ages of other Democratic members of Congress and governors and state legislators, but the truth is there aren’t many. The bench has been decimated by two washout midterm elections in row.

There’s a torch that will very soon need to be passed to a new generation of leadership—a liberal generation, one to fulfill Clinton and Barber’s best hopes. But those leaders didn’t get a showcase in Philadelphia. Almost every speaker under age 50 gave remarks when delegates were networking and glad-handing rather than paying attention to the stage (Senators Cory Booker and Chris Murphy were rare exceptions). And way too much time was spent on a parade of celebrities, when the party should have been highlighting their future.

That leadership gap, of course, is a problem inside the party. But Reverend Barber, while exhorting a political candidate on Thursday night, is an activist, concerned with the nation’s moral soul. And we have a proliferation of leaders on the outside, even if some of them made their way into the convention with “No TPP” signs and Bernie Sanders T-shirts. In fact, you could say that Barber was aiming his words at them, the chanters and the idealists and those who engaged in the fight for America for the first time. Reverend Barber wanted to shock their hearts, to exhort them to continue to fight for democracy—whether at the ballot box or in the streets.

Everyone wants to know what the “Bernie-or-bust” types will do in November. I want to know what they’ll do in ten years. Will the Sanders movement have been a lark, a passing fad, or will it spawn a lifetime commitment to social and economic justice? Will the young Sanders folks’ frustration lead to alienation, or will they hear Reverend Barber saying, “We can’t give up on this democracy, not now, not ever”?

If they join forces to vanquish Donald Trump, and become those fresh shock troops, the Democratic Party’s future is bright. But if they don’t channel their passion into running for local office, and stay outside the party system, agitating to hold Clinton accountable to her words on Thursday night—maybe, ultimately, that’s OK too. They will still be in the arena, fighting for their vision of this democracy. Social movements lead, and politicians get in front and claim that’s where they were headed all along. You can be stronger together, or stronger apart. As long as you keep up the fight.