This past week, the former vice-president laid out a forceful case for the importance of empathy and character in high office, his ability to reverse the manifold failures of Donald Trump’s regime, and the threat that a second Trump term would pose to American democracy. Did he – and his fellow Democrats at the convention who echoed his points – do so successfully? In today’s tribal and polarized America, there’s no easy way to answer that question.
Both Biden’s speech and the convention as a whole clearly were pitched toward moderate Democrats and even some Republicans, particularly in swing states. From the perspective of those viewers, Biden and his party performed brilliantly.
Compared to past conventions, Biden’s address accepting the presidential nomination was comparatively short, at around 25 minutes. The absence of cheering crowds, on account of the pandemic, meant that some of his best lines didn’t have quite the emotional resonance they otherwise would have. But Biden’s delivery was fluid and heartfelt. His speech occasionally soared, particularly with its evocation of his personal tragedies and invocation of poet Seamus Heaney’s call “to make hope and history rhyme”.
The rest of the convention went off without hitches or glitches. Other leading Democrats also spoke effectively, with the addresses of both Obamas seemingly destined to enter the annals of great rhetoric. Overall, the convention broadcast a strong message that Democrats are firmly grounded in American traditions and values yet also prepared to responsibly undertake ambitious change. They can be trusted to end the coronavirus’s ongoing scourge, revive prosperity and distribute its benefits more widely, repair the frayed social welfare safety net, bring about both greater racial justice and greater social unity, and restore America’s respected place in the world.
The Biden endorsements that came from left-leaning figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were strong and unambiguous. Warren implored Democrats to end “this dark chapter in our nation’s history” and Sanders urged his supporters to elect Biden for the sake of democracy, the economy and the planet. The urgency of defeating Trump has united the Democrats, both in the upper reaches of the party as well at the grassroots, more than anything else in decades.
But what difference will this convention really make? It may give Biden a temporary bump in the polls, but viewership for Biden’s speech at the virtual convention was down 21% from Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, so the bump presumably will be correspondingly modest. And few Democrats, after the 2016 debacle, take comfort in polls that show Biden with a substantial but not insurmountable lead.
Orienting the convention toward moderation was a huge gamble, the success of which can’t be assessed until we know the election’s outcome.
If Biden loses, expect brutal hindsight recriminations from progressives. They will argue that the convention should have gone low, not high. They’ll say the Democrats should have waged culture- and class-warfare against Trump, just as Trump surely will be unrestrained in stoking rage and hatred against Democrats at the upcoming Republican national convention. They’re complaining that progressive young firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, often hailed as the future of the party, got only 60 seconds of speaking time at the convention – far less than the time allotted to old white men (and sometime Republicans) like Michael Bloomberg and John Kasich. There’s no way to know how many progressive bitter-enders won’t vote for Biden, but some of them clearly may use the convention as their excuse.
The implicit theory that there are Trump-leaning voters in the swing states whose minds can be changed by a moderate-friendly Democratic convention may also be faulty. Political scientists, always striving to have their discipline displace economics as the truly dismal science, have concluded that our voting behaviors increasingly have become determined by our affinities and preferences. A person’s race, religion, gender, neighborhood, and even choice of grocery store and entertainment – all of these multiple identities now reinforce a person’s partisan identity. And when we are in the grip of our political identities, we discount factual evidence contradicting our beliefs. Learning more about our political opponents doesn’t make us more sympathetic toward them; instead we dislike them with even greater intensity.
It might appear that Biden’s cogent convention speech laid waste to the Republican claim, on which they have invested millions of dollars in campaign advertising, that he’s a dotard in the final stages of senility. But Republican partisans will go on believing that about him despite any evidence to the contrary. Trump will caricature the Democrats’ moderate convention as a wild, far-left celebration of Antifa, the Green New Deal, and urban rioting – and his followers will believe that too.
If Trump wins, the 2020 Democratic convention may eventually be seen as the last gasp of a politics rooted in this country’s founding beliefs in rationality, persuasion, and democratic norms. But the successor of this politics may be taking shape in the form of the QAnon movement.
The convoluted and quasi-religious QAnon conspiracy theory, for which no evidence has been shown to exist, claims that President Trump is fighting to save the world from control by an elite Democratic cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles. Two years ago, this movement was found mainly in the darker reaches of the internet. Now the Texas Republican party has adopted the motto “We Are the Storm,” apparently referring to the QAnon belief that Trump will soon stage a military countercoup against the “deep state” that will lead to the arrest and execution of his political opponents. Trump has recently embraced the QAnon movement, and it is supported at least in part by more than 70 Republicans running for Congress this year.
American democracy has had a good run. Many of its best qualities were on display at the recent Democratic convention and in Joe Biden’s speech. Here’s hoping we’ll have more conventions like that in the future.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington DC as well as the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party