That sense of intimacy was heightened by the DNC’s willingness to admit the obvious: that it was making its case to a nation in pain. Many of those who spoke acknowledged the depth of America’s losses—of jobs, of health, of hope, of global standing, of lives. Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, spoke of the meaning of his brother’s legacy. But he did not take refuge in easy optimism. He added: “George should be alive today. Breonna Taylor should be alive today. Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today. Eric Garner should be alive today. Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland—they should all be alive today.” Floyd then led viewers in a moment of silence to honor them “and the many other souls we lost to hate and injustice.”
In a world full of noise, few things are as powerful as quietness. After Floyd spoke, the DNC screen showed people in their homes, united in the absence of sound, their eyes closed, their heads bowed—individual acts of contemplation and mourning made communal. That moment of eloquent silence set the stage for a later appearance by Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, who joined a virtual roundtable with Biden. It set the stage for parents of children murdered by gun violence to share their pain in public. It set the stage for last night’s video tribute to John Lewis. It set the stage for Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to COVID-19, to tell the convention’s audience, “The coronavirus has made it clear that there are two Americas: the America that Donald Trump lives in and the America that my father died in.”
The Democrats understood the power of providing a place to grieve when there have been so few other places to do so. They also understood that mourning itself, written into the pageantry of a party convention, could serve as a rebuke to a president who seems constitutionally incapable of empathy. Biden has often talked publicly about the pain of loss—of his wife and baby daughter, and of his older son, Beau—and how the hurt resolves into an ongoing ache. Barack Obama, as he warned that Trump’s reelection could lead to the death of American democracy, seemed to fight back tears during his address. Michelle Obama offered a similarly dire assessment. Throughout the week, leader after leader eschewed platitudes for pain. They talked bluntly about the death toll. The numbers they cited sometimes varied—140,000, 150,000, 165,000. In the variations, the writer William Saletan pointed out, you could determine when the speakers had prerecorded their message. Like the rings of a tree that is being felled in real time.
Political conventions traditionally talk in soaring terms about inclusion, about “the people,” about political parties as agents of collective interest. In practice, they are run by a narrow group, some members elected, some not, that makes decisions about the most intimate elements of people’s lives: their health, their economic mobility, their place in American society. The term smoke-filled room comes from political conventions—specifically, one that took place 100 years ago, the Republican National Convention of 1920. The decision makers of that event—after several ballots and, presumably, several cigars—ended up nominating, as a compromise, Warren G. Harding of Ohio, whom historians consistently rank among the worst-performing of the U.S. presidents.
One hundred years later, the Democrats tried their best to bridge the distance between the public and the politicians who claim to work on their behalf. They succeeded, in part, by offering an event that, instead of ignoring people’s pain, acknowledged it. Shared it. Embraced it. Even the awkwardness struck a mournful note. After Harris delivered her acceptance speech, Biden came out to greet her. Normally they would clasp hands and beam as the crowd cheered and the balloons dropped. The running mates, indeed, seemed to want to hug each other. But they could not. This limitation, too, was intensely relatable. The show’s cameras briefly panned to the room in which Harris had delivered her speech: a sea of empty chairs, spaced out, lit in a ghostly gray. The negative spaces of all that might have been. Monday’s “In Memoriam” segment was accompanied by “I Remember Everything,” a song from John Prine, who died of COVID-19 in April. Got no future in my happiness, the song’s lyrics went, Though regrets are very few. / Sometimes a little tenderness / Was the best that I could do.”