The first night of the Democratic National Convention was not reflective of the revolutionary calls for structural change seen in last year’s Democratic debates, or the demands for radical change to American life that have emerged from ongoing anti-racist unrest. Instead, it was a moderate affair.
From policing to the Electoral College, systems under a microscope for the last several years eluded the toughest critiques last night. Instead, the event struck a markedly different tone, making the argument that the system isn’t broken, even though it feels like it.
The message was telegraphed by most of the night’s speakers, including Republican John Kasich, who said, “I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat. They believe [Biden] may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that.”
Even Sen. Bernie Sanders’s remarks focused on how “Joe will move us forward” through a bevy of popular Democratic reforms rather than his old calls for revolution. But the theme of moderation was most notable in statements made by the presumptive nominee himself and one of his most important surrogates, former first lady Michelle Obama.
In a discussion early in the night with activists, politicians, and attorneys about how best to resolve racial inequality in American policing, Biden made a statement that absolved many officers of systematic complicity — and that made plain his stance on the issue in just a few words.
“Most cops are good,” Biden said. “But the fact is that the bad ones have to be identified, and prosecuted, and out, period.” The former vice president’s answer offered a surprisingly individualistic analysis in a year when the phrase “systemic racism” has become common parlance. Biden’s response framed police brutality as a problem of human resources rather than communal resources. It’s a position at odds with many of the activists at the forefront of the anti-racism protests, who note — as Vox’s Sean Illing explains — racism is endemic to policing:
No matter how you look at it, the American criminal justice system is riddled with biases. As the Washington Post’s Radley Balko cataloged, we know that black people are nearly twice as likely to be pulled over and more likely to be searched once they’re stopped even though they’re less likely to have contraband; and that unarmed black people are more than three times as likely to be shot by police as unarmed whites.
Likewise, former first lady Michelle Obama’s keynote eschewed systemic critiques for individual ones.
In her speech, she suggested President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory was the result of apathetic voters instead of an unfair electoral system. “Four years ago, too many people chose to believe that their votes didn’t matter,” Obama said. “Maybe they were fed up. Maybe they thought the outcome wouldn’t be close. Maybe the barriers felt too steep. Whatever the reason, in the end, those choices sent someone to the Oval Office who lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.”
In a bit of self-contradiction, the former first lady went on to lament that more citizens didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton while also acknowledging that more citizens voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump.
Absent from her speech were calls — or acknowledgments of a movement — to abolish the current electoral system, a goal of many progressives given it is an anti-democratic system that has allowed two of the last five presidents to win elections without the popular vote. Nor were there critiques that called the Electoral College racist — an argument made by Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar who contends that former bias favoring slave states and the current bias favoring rural white states makes the Electoral College a monument to white supremacy. There were, however, calls for more enthusiastic voting on the scale of 2008 and 2012.
When summarizing the current state of the union, Obama described America as infuriating, disappointing, and “underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character.”
“Underperforming” certainly pales in comparison to the assessments of much journalistic analysis grappling with the country’s current challenges. Recent months have seen the New York Times investigating “The Unique U.S. Failure to Control the Virus” and the Atlantic magazine lamenting “How Did it Come to This.” These pieces and others frame the current system as collapsing, a view perhaps most unsparingly articulated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George Packer, who proclaimed in June: “We Are Living in a Failed State.”
This type of language is foreign to the Biden-Obama wing of the party, which has for years honed an optimistic, big-tent message, and Monday’s remarks squarely focused on enlisting Democrats — and Republicans — to participate in a system that the Democratic Party’s leaders see as underperforming but not fundamentally broken.
It is ultimately a vision that was accepted by Democratic voters, who rejected progressive critiques like that of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who argued in the primary elections that “the system is rigged.” And up by double digits in many polls — and seeking to expand their appeal in all directions, including Republican ones — the message that Democrats signaled last night they will be moving forward with is repair rather than revolution.
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