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The Democrats Choose Politics Over Ideological Purity

On the first night of its convention, the party showed it will invite anyone under its big tent in order to defeat Trump.

YouTube/2020 Democratic National Convention

The Danes have a word, popular these days as a design concept, called “hygge.” Loosely translated as “cozy,” it conjures up sweaters, slippers, a roaring fireplace, woolen lap rugs draped on furniture, and a general feeling of unaffected well-being.

Monday night, in the midst of a pandemic, the Democrats pulled off the first hygge political convention in history. 

There were a few try-too-hard visual missteps: Former Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich stood at a crossroads to illustrate that America is at a, you guessed it, crossroads. And Bernie Sanders may have taken hygge to Nordic extremes by speaking in front of cords of fireplace-ready wood as he gave a full-throated endorsement of Joe Biden. 

But for the most part, there was an ease, a comfort, and a rare sense of authenticity to this convention of shut-ins. By not even trying to deliver thundering convention oratory to a silent audience of bookcases and living room plants, the Democrats achieved an easy twenty-first-century conversational tone. 

More than anything, the successful opening night of the convention was a tribute to planning.  While Donald Trump’s campaign has hopscotched from Charlotte to Jacksonville to the White House lawn in search of a friendly venue in which the president could deliver a super-spreader acceptance speech, the Democrats listened to science from the beginning. And those extra months of preparation made all the difference. 

Beyond showcasing Michelle Obama—and her rare ability to make a powerful political argument without appearing political—Monday night was designed to make the case for a big-tent Democratic Party. At a time when Trump’s ego-mad theory of politics demands that Republican politicians show obsequious devotion or be banished forever from his gold-plated realm, the Democrats smartly adhered to the politics of inclusion, believing that victory in a year of Republican voter suppression requires the broadest possible Biden coalition. Monday night’s political message was designed to appeal to three groups of voters who underperformed for Hillary Clinton in 2016: Black voters who felt uninspired by that year’s all-white ticket; wavering Republicans who couldn’t shake their allegiance to the GOP even with Trump on the ballot; and left-wingers who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a centrist, flawed Democrat like Hillary.

Opening the convention with an homage to Black Lives Matter and the victims of police shootings made obvious sense for the party of diversity during this summer of protest. Philonise Floyd, conjuring up his lost brother George, provided a moving moment as he called for “a moment of silence to honor George and the many other souls we lost to hate and injustice.”

As genuine as these tributes were and as heartrending as the continuing grief remains, a convention (whether real or virtual) is designed with one overriding goal—to win votes on Election Day. And Democratic convention planners were keenly aware that a major reason why Hillary Clinton lost was flagging Black turnout in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. 

Political turncoats have delivered some of the most powerful testimonials at national conventions. In 2004, Georgia Senator Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat, eviscerated John Kerry at the GOP Convention in New York. Kasich, who opposed Trump for the nomination in 2016, took a quieter route in endorsing Biden. 

In a recorded speech delivered outdoors, Kasich said, “I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat. They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that because I know the measure of the man.”

As Kasich said those words, there were Democrats who heard the shark-in-the-water theme from Jaws. Before Kasich spoke, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “It’s important to remember that Kasich is an anti-choice extremist.” Even though he never mentioned the issue, Kasich was indeed the rare anti-abortion speaker at a Democratic convention in this century. As long ago as 1992, Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Bob Casey (the father of the state’s current Democratic senator) was barred from speaking at Bill Clinton’s convention because he opposed Roe v. Wade.

What Ocasio-Cortez and other leftwing critics of Kasich forget is that the Democrats are trying to win an election rather than enact political purity. Kasich offered a permission slip to wavering suburban Republicans disgusted with Trump’s loud-mouthed antics and blustering incompetence. These may well have been the same Republicans who nodded in recognition when Kristin Urquiza talked movingly about her rightwing father who died of Covid-19. And about how “his only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump—and for that he paid with his life.”

Trump’s “authoritarianism” was the centerpiece of Sanders’s speech to his supporters, urging them to recognize that this election is a “fight for democracy and decency and against greed, oligarchy, and bigotry.” The runner-up for both the 2016 and 2020 nominations offered Biden an unstinting endorsement, aware that leftwing defections in 2016 to Jill Stein helped put Trump in the White House. 

The definition of a big-tent campaign is one that stretches from Bernie Sanders on the left to John Kasich on the right. Both former presidential contenders freely admitted policy differences with Biden. As Kasich rightly put it, “Yes, there are areas where Joe and I absolutely disagree, but that’s okay because that’s America.”

Kasich and Sanders served together in the House in the 1990s. And despite the ideological gulf between a free-market conservative from Ohio and a socialist from Vermont, they both shared an antipathy to corporate welfare and crony capitalism. Now with their presidential dreams behind them, they came together in support of Joe Biden in a shared quest to save American democracy in the age of Donald Trump. 

In the days ahead, there will be an irresistible urge to check the polls to see how the Democratic convention is playing with the voters. 

Resist the temptation, even if you have to wear a blindfold when you turn on your computer. Polling in the midst of back-to-back conventions is noisy, filled with short-lived jumps and bumps. A prudent response would be to ignore all polls (no matter what they say) until early September when both conventions are behind us and the presidential race stabilizes. 

What matters the most right now is that the Democrats appear to have mastered the art of creating a compelling convention in the midst of a pandemic. And, whatever the polls ultimately reveal, that is an impressive achievement.