I’ve attended the last four Democratic conventions, and most of my memories of those milestone events involve crowds.
They were everywhere. In the airports of hosting cities. In taxi lines and at the entrances of everything from ticketed events to hotel lobbies packed with people on the lookout for someone they’ve always wanted to meet. Packed busses and trolleys transport crowds to an even bigger crowd in the arena.
This is not a grievance. It’s a fact of national political conventions. No matter where you are trying to go, you can count on not getting there as quickly as you had hoped. When you’re packing for such a trip, it helps to bring your patience and your stage smile. The only welcome grouch at this four-day party has a furry green body, no evidence of a nose and sleeps in a trash can, hence freeing up one of the coveted hotel rooms.
At conventions, you make friends of strangers and sometimes wonder what has possessed the friends you’ve known for years. The excitement and fervor are infectious. It is also mighty distracting. Many speeches are delivered on the convention stage before prime time, and most of the people giving them are ignored by everyone but loved ones and people paid to hang on their every word.
I should pause here to mention that, with each convention, I learn anew that I’m not the extrovert I want to be. So, my view here is definitely influenced by past experiences of trying to hear a single thought in my head that was nowhere to be found in a packed convention hall.
Roll call, the nominating process in which each state and U.S. territory declares its votes, is an hour or so of prolonged screaming. This rises and falls throughout the arena like a wave — but not really, because delegations are called in alphabetical order, and seating is not alphabetical. Delegates stand when their states are called. In our patch of the arena, someone inevitably leads the crowd in the cheer of “O-H” — pause — “I-O,” as if every single one of us graduated from (the) Ohio State, which is never true. (Go, Flashes!) Also, I’ve never found spelling to be a roar of conquest.
This time, roll call at the Democratic National Convention was different, because everything is different in the time of COVID-19. This is usually our lament, but not in this instance. Without the constant interruptions of applause and chants, we got to hear and see representatives of every state and U.S. territory.
The other candidate in this election is the Democratic Party, and what an introduction. The 30-minute roll call video, most of it recorded but some of it live, was a collage of the party in all of its diversity and complexity. It was a showcase for the biggest version of America, a kaleidoscope of skin colors, accents and regional pride. (Who knew that Rhode Island was the “calamari comeback state”?)
Except for the handful of elected officials who robbed constituents of their one and only moment on national television, the roll call was full of people whose unfamiliarity made them immediately recognizable.
As is the case with all of the convention speakers, there were no interruptions for applause lines, no prolonged pauses because yet another delegation had erupted into cheers. A crowd is a wonderful amplifier of a skilled orator (see Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC keynote), but no matter how powerful their message, softer voices can get lost. Humility is seldom rewarded in a parade of celebrity.
One day, we will likely return to raucous rallies and thundering conventions. This is not the time for that, by necessity, for sure, but also because of the mountainous suffering in our country. We need the reassurance of hope, not the adrenaline rush of bluster.
To see the faces of America, to hear the beating of its collective heart and understand what it is asking of you now — that’s how a candidate reaches voters in 2020.
When you prove to voters that you know them, they’ll believe help is on the way.