the glory of the rollcall

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When I turned on the Democratic National Convention on Monday night, it felt like an assault of awkwardness. Zoom makes everyone look like they’re in the uncanny valley, and it doesn’t help that so many white politicians have the polished look of characters from The Sims. It felt stilted, a simulacrum of political energy, and, at least until Michelle Obama’s speech, flat.

I know many people were moved by Michelle Obama’s speech — she is an amazing orator; she radiates authenticity, compassion, and an intolerance for bullshit. But even as I recognized the power of her message, I was distracted by the reminder that much of her enduring popularity stems from the fact that her power is “soft” (accumulated through media, through story, through celebrity) instead of “hard” (accumulated by seeking office). Put differently, her rejection of “politics” is what sustains her mass palatability.

There have been petitions and pundits calling for Michelle Obama to run for office, but in addition to her (I think very real) distaste for the political apparatus, I also think she knows that she can do more by continuing to cultivate and consolidate that “soft” power and, as The 19th’s Errin Haines put it, the “Becoming” vote.

I get it. But it still rankles me that there are so few ways that a woman can be popular and powerful — that somehow, when and if she attempts to seek the sort of power that men have traditionally held, her once acceptable and praiseworthy attributes morph into shrillness, stubbornness, unruliness. A powerful speech becomes a lecture. A refusal to compromise becomes bitchiness. Focusing on policy makes you too serious. You can watch this discourse accumulating in real time around AOC.

Just to be clear: Michelle Obama doesn’t rankle me. The persistence of this sexist bullshit — perpetuated by both men and women — does.

That was my attitude when I begrudgingly turned on the convention on Tuesday night. But then the roll-call started, with people from every state and territory, pledging their delegates.

At first, I just loved seeing places — I love places! I miss places! — but then something curious happened: I realized I felt…..good?

Part of it was the absurd hilarity of it all, what my partner referred to on Twitter as “a fantastic reminder that the best part of America is how each state is indescribably, endearingly weird in its own basically illegible to outsiders way.” See: the calamari man that looked like he was in Mortal Kombat, the wind distorting the sound on a cattle ranch in Montana, a middle aged guy in the middle of a field in Kansas.

But it was more than that. It was the prominent, ubiquitous presence of Native and Indigenous people — an under-represented, under-appreciated, and solidly Democratic voting bloc in rural states. It was the mix of union members and immigrants, the land acknowledgements, the persistent evocation of Black Lives Matter and racial injustice, and the presence of parents of those killed in hate crimes and mass shootings. It was the assertion that US territories and Washington D.C. are American citizens, too — even if those in the territories (unjustly) do not get to vote for the president — and the underlining of the importance of tribal sovereignty. It was a Black man who co-owns a B&B with his husband in Maine and a meatpacking worker decrying working conditions in Nebraska. It was people wearing actually masks and maintaining social distancing and taking COVID seriously, no matter how dorky it looked. And it was the reminder that the Democratic Party is wildly diverse, in nearly every sense of the word.

That diversity is at once the glory of the Democratic Party — but also often framed as its foundational weakness. “Dems in Disarray” is a longtime refrain of the political press, a reference to the lack of cohesive identity or strategy that’s a symptom of a party currently composed of a coalition of union members, Black people, Indigenous people, old hippies, young hippies, students, progressives, centrists, suburban resistance moms, what I’ve heard referred to as a “gravel road Democrats” here in Montana, people whose ideal candidate is Amy Klobuchar and others’ whose ideal is AOC, members of the religious left, one-time “compassionate conservatives” who’ve abandoned the Republican party, plus all sorts of intersections of those identities and more.

Back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Ronald Reagan used the rhetoric of the “big tent” to describe his understanding of what was then the Republican Party: there was room for everyone who considered themselves conservative in that tent, and even if they disagreed with each other on various policy or ideological points, they could swallow those disagreements and unite towards common goals. (In Reagan’s case: union-busting, trickle-down economics, cutting taxes, fending off Russia, etc.)

The Democrats, by contrast, had a similarly big tent, but they were constantly throwing people outside of it, or beating each other up within it. And a lot of that, if you read political theory, has to do with the fact that some people are attracted to the party because of their ideology (as progressives), some people are attracted to it because of their vocation (as laborers united against exploitation) and some people aren’t even really attracted to it, per se, but the other possible political homes are unwelcoming or, you know, don’t think of them as people who deserve human rights. It’s harder to swallow your “difference” when your difference is a profound part of your identity, not just your attitude towards the national deficit.

Since Reagan, however, the Republican Tent has shrunk. As former GOP strategist Stuart Stevens recently pointed out, the party chose to ignore the recommendations of the “autopsy” that was performed after the 2014 election (expanding its appeal to non-white voters) and instead opted to double down on white nationalism and white grievance. There are certainly some people who aren’t white who support Trump; the campaign is always keen to put them behind the president at his rallies. But recent polling from Pew underlines what’s become readily apparent over the last four years: he does very well with white older men, but that’s about it. Older white men, some of their wives and other older women, Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens and Ted Cruz — that’s the tent, and Cruz has his foot out the door.

Think about what a truly representative GOP roll-call would look like. It wouldn’t be that dissimilar to the profile of Republicans in power, ready to seize it, or otherwise celebritized by the right: there’d be white supremacists and QAnon believers, white evangelicals who’ve convinced themselves Trump is a “flawed instrument,” CEOs ostensibly offended by Trump’s stupidity but beguiled by their tax breaks, white men pissed off about “cancel culture,” Herman Cain if he hadn’t contracted COVID at a Trump rally and died, Dinesh D’Souza pedaling Kamala Harris birtherism, the Covington teen and the St. Louis couple that brandished guns at BLM protesters (both of whom are speaking at the GOP convention), the pastor from my story about Troy, New York who describes himself as a bigot and a racist, the bikers who showed up en masse in Bethel, Ohio, Alex Jones, COVID deniers, climate change deniers, “vaccine skeptics,” anti-maskers, charlatans like this guy, people still very mad about Colin Kaepernick, a handful of the remaining Chamber of Commerce Republicans, and a bunch of exhausted Republican governors who really wish Jeb would’ve just gotten the nomination.

I’m not trying to be cheeky. But what I felt when I watched the DNC roll-call was hope and eagerness for change. What I see with the GOP is fear of everything — from the gay Black B&B owner to land acknowledgements — represented there.

The Democratic Party is deeply flawed, and like so many others in this big unruly tent, I will continue to criticize and interrogate it. I will also continue to push it to be better, to have more moral clarity, and to refuse the status quo. But when I looked at the other members of the tent on display Tuesday night, I felt real solidarity for the first time in years. The Dems might always be in disarray: sloppy, unwieldy, corny, off message. But the alternative — and the homogeneity, compromise, and willful blindness that accompanies it — doesn’t feel like the future. It feels, overwhelmingly, irrefutably, like the past we’ve already left behind.


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