For a while now, the modern Democratic Party, captured by big business and cowed by the Right, has tended to emphasize the symbolic and rhetorical, the great speeches and history-making milestones that the West Wing mistaught a generation was the essence of politics. And the Democratic National Convention is its four-yearly apotheosis, a purely symbolic and rhetorical affair briefly ensconcing American liberals in an imagined version of what their country could one day look like, but — as their party continually insists the other 361 days of the year — never will.
So given that much of what Democrats now offer their most die-hard supporters is pure symbolism, what does this year’s DNC tell us about the party? Namely, that the party is no longer even delivering on that paltry front either.
The DNC is taking place in the midst of what may be the largest protest movement in US history, driven by rage at police brutality and mass incarceration, and demands for racial justice. Naturally, the DNC’s speaking roster this year is stacked with the very people who created that system and turned it on poor, predominantly non-white Americans.
This goes from the very top on down. Nominee Joe Biden is one of the leading architects of this racist system, through the anti-drug-and-crime measures he pushed for in the 1980s and 90s. So committed is Biden to this vision, he’s pledged to put more police in the streets and continues to defend the crime bill others have had the sense to disavow, both in the middle of the current protests. At his right hand will be running mate Kamala Harris, a former tough-on-crime prosecutor with a penchant for keeping innocent people in jail and resisting court orders for decarceration.
Looking over the speaker list, it doesn’t get much better from there. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have prominent speaking roles: the former won the presidency in part by executing a lobotomized black man and campaigning as tough on crime in front of an audience of black prisoners at a white supremacist monument; the latter was a crucial evangelist for those policies during her husband’s administration, as in the racist “superpredator” speech that became notorious in 2016. By my count, ten DNC speakers voted for or supported the 1994 crime bill Biden wrote and Clinton signed, in addition to, unfortunately, Bernie Sanders.
Then there are those like former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who presided over the discriminatory stop-and-frisk police program and defended it in startlingly racist terms, and Amy Klobuchar, another former prosecutor who for years boasted about putting an innocent black teenager in jail for life. Special mention goes to New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who recently rolled back his state’s bail reform laws and dragged his feet on releasing inmates.
Speaking of Cuomo, the decision to elevate him stands uneasily with the Democrats’ attempt to brand themselves as the party of science and pandemic-handling competence. Besides fighting to keep more people in the petri dishes known as jails during a pandemic, Cuomo’s leadership during this crisis has been disastrous across the board: he slashed Medicaid, even rejecting $6 billion of aid conditioned on not cutting it; pushed through an austerity budget while protecting the superrich from taxes; insulated corporate donors from liability over COVID-19 deaths, with language later literally copied and pasted by Senate Republicans; and forced nursing homes to take in infected patients, leading to thousands of deaths that, for a time, outstripped every state’s total death toll. After presiding over what was, for a good while, one of the worst outbreaks in the world, Cuomo is now pushing to reopen schools, despite risks and warnings.
He’ll be in good company, however. Biden and his team, of course, repeatedly misinformed voters that it was safe to participate in in-person voting during the primaries and refused to call on Wisconsin to delay its election. Hoping to wrap up the contest as quickly as possible, Biden’s insistence led to dozens of infections and at least one death.
Meanwhile, Congressional party leaders, in the form of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, will have prominent roles, despite squandering Democratic leverage in Congress to preside over a grossly inadequate and unequal pandemic response — and then the agreement to take a month-long break as millions stared down hunger and homelessness with no government help.
After spending an entire primary contest attacking Sanders for not being a Democrat, the party has now given prominent speaking roles to five Republicans. Three were just added today. One is Christine Whitman, who as New Jersey governor raided state pension funds to pay for massive tax cuts, claimed black men play a game called “jewels in the crown,” competing over “how many children you can sire out of wedlock,” and was once photographed smiling with police as she frisked a black man.
Whitman’s decimation of state environmental protection efforts made her a perfect fit as George W. Bush’s EPA administrator, where she presided over what one activist called “an almost daily drumbeat of fundamental weakening changes in landmark environmental programs,” including abandoning a rule to reduce arsenic in drinking water.
Another is former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who poured nearly $180 million of her own wealth into a run for California governor, promising to eliminate the capital gains tax and throw 33,000 state employees out of work. Then there’s former New York representative Susan Molinari, who signed onto Newt Gingrich’s “Contract for America,” then, like the Democratic nominee, voted for two of its key planks: the near-disastrous balanced budget constitutional amendment, and what has come to be euphemistically known as “welfare reform,” all before more recently becoming Google’s top lobbyist (Molinari and the latter Whitman were both also Mitt Romney backers in 2012).
There’s also Bloomberg, who even after officially becoming an independent governed in a way indistinguishable from a garden-variety Republican, and former Ohio governor John Kasich, a hard-right Republican who successfully pretended to be an unassuming nice guy during the 2016 GOP primary.
Kasich’s virulent war on abortion rights in his state — which involved signing one of the country’s strictest bills, banning abortions as early as twelve weeks in with no exceptions for rape or incest — is particularly out of step with a party closely intertwined with abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice, and one that has increasingly lasered in on abortion rights as an issue that distinguishes it from the GOP. But given Biden’s own antiabortion history and the checkered record of the party’s 2016 ticket, everyone involved here has had practice squaring this circle.
The party of #MeToo will have several widely alleged sexual predators headlining its flagship event. There is, of course, Biden himself, who was credibly accused of sexually assaulting a staffer this year, as well as violating women’s personal boundaries with unwanted touching and hair sniffing (his running mate said, at the time, she “believed” the latter accusers, but has not said the same about the former).
Beyond this, several different women have accused Bill Clinton of rape and sexual assault, and he has also come under fire for his friendship with the late billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, recently making headlines when unsealed court records showed one of Epstein’s victims had placed Clinton on the billionaire’s private island, where underage orgies regularly took place.
Hillary Clinton has not only been accused of complicity in her husband’s alleged crimes, but reportedly protected her 2008 campaign’s faith adviser after he was accused of sexual harassment. And like fellow speakers Barack and Michelle Obama, Clinton was good friends with convicted serial rapist Harvey Weinstein. Then there’s Bloomberg, again, who led a culture of misogyny at his company.
Indeed, for all the party’s rebranding as socially progressive or “woke,” its speaking line-up is full of officials who came around on such issues only belatedly. Schumer, Kasich, Jim Clyburn, Molinari, and Biden all voted for the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed by Bill Clinton. Whitmer rejected a needle exchange program in New Jersey to stop the spread of HIV. Barack Obama firmly opposed marriage equality, despite activist pressure, throughout his first term as president. Cuomo only passed marriage equality, despite its popularity in New York, after its achievement in several other states made it embarrassing, and he continued to support anti-gay politicians in the state as recently as 2018. As California attorney general, Kamala Harris refused to let transgender inmates get gender reassignment surgery. One could go on.
Even as the party increasingly highlights mere diversity and representation as solutions to the ills plaguing the United States, and contrasts itself to the naked racism of Trump’s GOP, this year’s DNC fails to deliver on this front too. Despite the complaints of both elected officials and advocacy groups, there will only be three Latino speakers and no Muslim speakers, two groups that have been particularly targeted by Trump.
The party actually added four Republicans after these criticisms were first made, especially galling given their records. Bloomberg spied on law-abiding New York Muslims while mayor. Molinari pushed for extreme deportation powers as a solution to overcrowded New York prisons. Whitman pledged to “prosecute illegal aliens and criminal aliens around the state,” to crack down on sanctuary cities, and bar the undocumented from state colleges, all after firing her undocumented housekeeper of nine years right before running (“I felt like she was throwing me away like a piece of garbage,” said the housekeeper). It might be important to note that both Latinos and Muslims overwhelmingly supported Sanders in the primary, and that Biden has struggled with the former in particular.
And finally, even as Democrats continue selling themselves as the party of the people, the 2020 DNC speakers’ roster is one overwhelmingly made up of the superrich. Of the thirty-five scheduled speakers (not counting “the Biden family”), at least twenty-three are worth more than a million dollars, with nineteen worth more than $4 million, and thirteen worth upwards of $10 million. That includes the nominee himself, with the Bidens having made $15 million off book deals and speaking fees in 2017–18 alone, as well as the billionaires Bloomberg and Whitman, and multimillionaires like the Obamas, Clintons, Kasich, and Pelosi.
Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the thirty-year-old progressive insurgent popular among both Democrats and young people, is being given only sixty seconds to speak, in a prerecorded message. This, despite polling showing Democrats are more excited to hear her speak than to hear Kasich and the Clintons.
So there you have it: twenty-three millionaires, two right-wing billionaires, two alleged sexual predators, five Republicans, one governor who oversaw what was the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak, a full slate of officials who created and wielded the US system of mass incarceration against their own people, and no Muslims.
This is the modern Democratic Party under Joe Biden, a party dominated by figures who have spent their entire careers opposing what they claim to fight for now, and more concerned with building a coalition with well-off conservatives than its own young, progressive, and increasingly diverse voting base.
The Democratic Party has been implacably opposed to its own alleged values in practice for years. But with Biden’s ascension, they can barely be bothered to still do the symbolic gesturing part either.