The DNC is the closest America has come to collective mourning
The Democrats who spoke at the National Convention on Monday night were fond of the word "crisis."
"Our nation is in crisis," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
"We are facing the worst public health crisis in 100 years," added Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"We've come together in the face of crisis," applauded Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Michelle Obama, in her acclaimed speech, went with an understatement instead: "It's a hard time," she said.
The overall tone was leagues from where it was during the celebratory 2016 convention, which culminated with former President Bill Clinton hugging a balloon. How could it not be? At least 170,000 Americans are dead, the consequences of a monumental failure in leadership. But while it may be politically strategic for the Democrats to gesture at, well, everything, when making the case for why President Trump should not have four more years in office, their convention's funereal tone by consequence also marks the first genuine moment of collective mourning among Americans since the pandemic began.
The Trump administration has taken great pains to downplay the coronavirus outbreak from the beginning. The president has insisted repeatedly that the disease will simply go away; it wasn't until nearly 100,000 Americans had died in late May that Trump finally ordered flags to half-staff in memory of those lost. The fact that we're now rushing toward nearly a quarter of a million dead at an alarming speed hasn't changed the messaging: This week, when the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was pressed if he would suggest that 170,000 Americans dead is a "success story," he answered "yes" without hesitation.
That is to say, there have not been the tear-choked speeches from the Oval Office, or the uplifting messages of hope delivered from the National Cathedral, that one might expect given everything that's going on. Further, the president's press conferences have no deep, heartfelt emotion in them (Trump brags he hasn't cried since he was a baby), but come across as combative and unfocused. The first night of the Democratic National Convention, by contrast, felt like the missing piece in our national grieving process, a validation of our fear and sorrow, and most importantly, shared. People are supposed to process collective trauma together — the only thing is, it's usually not a political party's presidential nominating convention that has to do the emotional heavy-lifting.
As a result, the displays during the convention have been hit or miss. Among the first night's successes, though, was the appearance of the brothers of George Floyd — the Minnesota man whose death at the hands of police sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests (which are notably also a form of collective mourning). "Breonna Taylor should be alive today. Eric Garner should be alive today. Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, they should all be alive today," Philonise Floyd said, offering his own moving tribute to the dead. Likewise, Kristin Urquiza, a self-described "normal person" whose father died of COVID-19, spoke one of the most devastating lines of the night: "My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump — and for that he paid with his life."
Such testimonials were powerful not only because of their content, but because political parties have lots of practice orchestrating these kinds of intimate and empathetic speeches. Democrats and Republicans alike have long relied on speakers with stirring stories that will move their convention audiences. Think, for example, of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a U.S. army captain killed in Iraq, who spoke out about Trump's Islamophobia during the DNC's 2016 convention, or Jamiel Shaw, the father of a Los Angeles teen who was killed by a gang member who was in the country illegally, who spoke at the Republican convention the same year.
But as the DNC found on Monday, guiding the most significant example of collective mourning to date could at times be overwhelming, and veer at worst toward a kind of recreational grieving. For example, while the moment of silence for victims of police brutality would have been poignant in a crowded room, without the live audience the DNC struggled to figure out how to pair a visual, opting to toggle between Zoom windows of people with their heads lowered in displays of somber reflection. It was a bizarre choice, only highlighting the self-aware performance of the participants being recorded by their laptops while looking sad and serious, however authentic those emotions might have really been.
One of the most ill-advised moments came in the form of a tribute video for the COVID-19 victims. Rather than identify the people by their names, the video adopted the rather alienating, though distinctly American, tradition of identifying them by only their jobs ("police officer," "PR executive," "photographer," "golf course ranger"), as if that was their primary worth. The photographs of the victims then zoomed out to make a photo mosaic of a masked person's face (a fellow victim? A health care worker?) with the words "in memoriam" overlaid. Huh? While such a tribute might be expected at something like the Oscars — which honors the recently departed legends of the industry during the awards ceremony — such a display felt out of place and pandering during what is, lest we forget, a political convention.
At least someone is trying, though. The Republican National Convention, after all, does not seem inclined to take up the task of leading Americans in mourning next week, having instead assigned speaking spots to the couple in St. Louis who waved guns at protesters, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who's taken a nationally criticized "hands off" approach to dealing with the pandemic.
The Democratic National Convention might not feel celebratory this year, but it offers Americans something far more important: a moment to reflect. We need it.