Democratic Convention: Same Old Thing

Joe Biden accepts the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination during a speech delivered for the largely virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, Wilmington, Delaware, , August 20, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A party that sees itself as a force for change nominates the embodiment of business-as-usual.


ou may not particularly like Joe Biden or the Democrats, but by a lot of measures, the first major-party convention held during the coronavirus pandemic worked. Technical snafus were relatively rare. Most of the speakers adjusted to the lack of an audience, keeping their remarks shorter than usual and deemphasizing the applause lines. There were a few fun moments, like Rhode Island’s prominent calamari platter, and a genuinely stirring moment when Braydon Harrington demonstrated his determination to overcome his stutter.

But the convention also inadvertently showcased the gap between what the Democratic Party likes to believe it is and what it actually is.

When Democrats get nostalgic about their past presidents, it is almost always for the younger, bold ones who represented a generational change, such as John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Democrats like to think of themselves as the daring party, the vanguard of a vast new revolution, one that is ready to transform the country today with a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and a new, diverse self-image for America. Democrats see themselves as woke, but in keeping with America’s traditions; innovative, but reliable; inclusive, but never divisive . . .

. . . and they’re nominating Joe Biden, one of the oldest members of the Washington establishment they could find, whose specialty is the usual everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spending bills put together by slapping backs behind closed doors on Capitol Hill and making sure every little interest group gets its carve-out.

This is the party that likes to see itself as a force for change, nominating just about the most business-as-usual figure imaginable.

A lot of this disparity centers on the primary voters’ choice to nominate Biden, but some of it rests at the feet of the DNC and convention organizers. If you closed your eyes and ignored the older faces, you might think you were watching a C-SPAN rerun of convention footage from the 1990s: Christie Todd Whitman, Susan Molinari, John Kasich, Chuck Hagel, Colin Powell, John Kerry . . . And the non-cameo modern leaders of the party beyond Biden are just plain old. Nancy Pelosi is 80. Bernie Sanders turns 79 next month. Jim Clyburn just turned 80. Chuck Schumer is “the young one” in Democratic leadership, and he turns 70 in November.

Democrats in the Baby Boomer generation were shaped by the protests against Vietnam and LBJ and Richard Nixon, and drugs and the counterculture, and still love to think of themselves as a rowdy and defiant band of youthful, idealistic, uncompromising rebels. But the Democrats in that age group have been running the show since Bill Clinton’s first term. Progressivism stopped being the counterculture a long time ago; now it’s the culture.

Who is left for Democrats to rebel against, beyond the president? The Democrats envision themselves as punching up against the convenient villains in Hollywood movies, the evil corporate executives, the powerful lobbyists, the greedy billionaires. But the odd catch is that none of those forces want to play along in that narrative.

Corporate America wants to be woke. The typical chief executive of a big American corporation these days is someone like former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, eager to explain his commitment to environmental sustainability, gay rights, and racial equality, his deep concern about “gun violence,” and his wish to create a society that welcomes immigrants, with no specification about legal status. Washington, D.C.’s “K Street” community of professional lobbyists made its peace with Democratic administrations and congressional majorities a long time ago. Two of the final Democratic presidential candidates were billionaires, and other billionaires describe themselves as “avowed socialists” without a trace of irony.

The United States is still bedeviled by powerful and malevolent figures, men such as Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein and Ed Buck and Eric Schneiderman. But cases like that raise a host of uncomfortable questions for the people who have been running the Democratic Party for decades. The Democrats’ collective willingness to stand up to abominable behavior is so conditional, they’re learned how to live with a governor who wore either blackface or a Klan hood in his younger years and a lieutenant governor accused of rape by two women.

There aren’t many openly hostile powerful forces left for Democrats to “punch up” in opposition, beyond President Trump — whose political capital is just about spent. Every once in a while they find a federal judge who strikes them as just too openly religious and declare, “the dogma lives loudly within you.”

By and large, the modern Democrats spend a lot more time punching down — against people who dare express bad thoughts on social media, against a baker who doesn’t want to bake a cake for a gay wedding, against gun owners and people who think local regulations on masks and public gatherings are turning into the public-health equivalent of the Transportation Security Agency’s “security theater.” The QAnon conspiracy theorists are wrong and deranged. But they’re not powerful.

Way back in 2012, Jake Tapper — then with ABC News, now with CNN — reviewed Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived television series The Newsroom. Tapper observed that the creator could conceive of only one kind of villain: “It’s all well and good to follow the Koch brothers’ money, but at a time when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it’s telling that [the protagonist Will] McAvoy and Sorkin aim their sights at conservatives seeking power — not moderates and liberals wielding it . . . McAvoy — and, by extension, Sorkin — preach political selflessness, but they practice pure partisanship; they extol the Fourth Estate’s democratic duty, but they believe that responsibility consists mostly of criticizing Republicans.”

Aaron Sorkin’s televised fiction is a pretty good indicator of the way many Democrats see themselves and the world — or how they want to see themselves and the world. This week’s convention showed that Democrats are still reading from a script where they’re the plucky underdog outsiders, the young rebels, the force of change coming to shake up the calcified ways of business in Washington.

Biden and the Democrats are offering an odd echo of Trump’s outsider themes from four years ago, pledging to “build back better!” — which does not sound all that different from “make America great again” — and to end the Trump administration’s corruption — which does not sound all that different from “drain the swamp.” Biden, the seven-term senator and two-term vice president, the multimillionaire with all the issues of his family cashing in on their connection to him, pledges he’ll be the one who can restore “fairness over privilege.”

The fight against the new order is coming . . . from the old order.

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