the body politic

Sixty Seconds to Self-Sabotage

The DNC’s choice of who to feature speaks volumes about the party’s inability to see its own future.

Photo-Illustration: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Getty Images

When the Democratic National Committee released its schedule for its big socially distanced convention this week, we learned that New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, inarguably among the party’s most dynamic figures, would have just 60 seconds to address the nation. Ocasio-Cortez responded by tweeting out a poem by Benjamin E. Mays, the same one that the late Elijah Cummings had read in his first address to the House of Representatives in 1996:

I only have a minute. 

Sixty seconds in it. 

Forced upon me, I did not choose it, 

But I know that I must use it. 

Give account if I abuse it. 

Suffer, if I lose it. 

Only a tiny little minute, 

But eternity is in it.

Ocasio-Cortez’s tweeted poem reunited her with a verse-loving second-grade teacher, and outlets covered her curtailed speaking spot as a “snub” by her party.

But the relegation of Ocasio-Cortez, who electrifies multiple parts of a Democratic base, to one meager minute, a segment that — unlike speeches by some other presenters — will be prerecorded, isn’t just a snub. The failure of a major political party to showcase one of its most talented politicians, a young person whose communicative reach and facility positions her to be among its leaders deep into our future, is self-sabotage. The error was underlined on Sunday when the convention announced that its Tuesday keynote slot — usually reserved to spotlight young politicians imagined to be the party’s up-and-coming leaders — would this year be an address offered by 17 people described as “rising stars”: 16 young lawmakers whose major star-making distinction seems to be that they lent their support to Joseph Robinette Biden early, and also Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate (who herself did not endorse Biden until May).

Abrams — who was tapped to deliver the party’s response to the 2019 State of the Union (a usually thankless job that she aced); who, in her bid to become the first Black woman ever to be elected governor, increased youth turnout in her state by 139 percent; and who, since her contested loss, has launched a massive multistate initiative to battle voter suppression, among the greatest threats currently facing democracy (and Democrats) — is most assuredly already a star. In fact, she shines brightly enough that Biden’s team whispered about him hitching his then-floundering primary campaign to her last year. That, at 46, Abrams is being seated at the kids’ table is insulting, shortsighted folly.

But at least she and Ocasio-Cortez have prime-time speaking gigs, while many of their peers — the energetic new thinkers and voices of America’s liberal and left politics, many of them from diverse backgrounds, with perspectives and experiences fresh to the party — have not been given featured berths at all.

Where will Julián Castro be this week? What about Katie Porter? Pramila Jayapal? Lauren Underwood? Anna Eskamani? Jennifer Carroll Foy? How about Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes or Pennsylvania lieutenant governor John Fetterman? Some of these people will be speaking to afternoon caucus meetings and doing small-potatoes participation that gives the DNC plausible deniability against accusations that they excluded them, but why the hell isn’t, for example, Massachusetts representative Ayanna Pressley being put in front of a big national audience, perhaps as the Tuesday keynote speaker? She is one of the party’s best orators, a genuine rising star (albeit one who endorsed Elizabeth Warren over Biden, which I guess was determinative). If Abrams had been (correctly) given her own slot, and a full chance to bring her fight against suppression to the national audience, Pressley could have blown the roof off of whatever room she’d be speaking from, and the convention would have held a lot more promise — not just for entertainment, but for inspiration, vision, and a view of a path forward — than it currently does.

Why will this convention not show off more of the historic number of women who enabled their party to retake the House in 2018? Most of them won’t be prominently featured, but former Ohio Republican governor John Kasich, who ran for governor as a tea partier and signed 11 laws (comprising 21 restrictions) on abortion, including a 20-week ban and the prohibition of rape crisis centers advising survivors about the option of abortion, will be. He also worked to rob Ohio’s public workers of the right to bargain collectively (voters later overturned this measure). Not only is Kasich getting a plum spot on Monday, he’s used his time in the Democratic sun to diss Ocasio-Cortez, telling BuzzFeed that just because she “gets outsized publicity doesn’t mean she represents the Democratic Party. She’s just a part, just some member of it.” So John Kasich, Republican, feels that Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat, gets outsized attention, even as he — along with his fellow Republicans Susan Molinari (Remember her? No? Weird) and former Hewlett-Packard and eBay CEO Meg Whitman — will get more featured airtime than her at her party’s convention.

But this convention seems driven to thumb its nose not only at individual politicians, but at the social movements that have transformed civic participation and changed public opinion across the nation during the course of the Trump administration.

Remember those women who retook the House in 2018? A bunch of them were first-time candidates who were open about how their entrance into politics was grounded in their fury about the ubiquity and pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the Me Too movement. But the party that profited from their electoral success has offered prime speaking spots to two multiply-accused harassers: former president Bill Clinton and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

That Bloomberg’s presidential campaign met its lethal end at the hands of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren — who in a February primary debate detailed his history of workplace harassment, redlining, and support of stop-and-frisk policing, all in her allotted 60 seconds (she only had a minute; an eternity was in it) — makes his featured presence an insult to Warren, and the many Democrats who were far more inspired by her campaign than by his. And listen, I get it, and assume everyone else does too: Bloomberg is speaking to the Democratic convention because the Democrats need his money (he shifted $18 million from his campaign to the Democratic National Committee in March). But if organizers had been paying attention these past two years, they might have learned that that’s actually part of the structural thing about harassment and those who get away with it: too often, you need their money.

His history with New York City’s police department, highlighted by Warren, also makes Bloomberg’s presence a terrible rebuke to the Democratic base at the end of a summer that has been alight with Black Lives Matter protests against police violence, an eruption that has been accompanied, according to many polls, by a massive shift in public opinion. Here is this guy, speaking to the convention, while Jamaal Bowman, who just won his upset primary in New York’s 16th Congressional District over 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel, will not be. Bowman, a former middle-school principal who has described his own experiences of being harassed and beaten by police growing up in Bloomberg’s New York, actually won his long-shot primary; Bloomberg flamed out of the one he poured a billion dollars into. Only one of them gets to address the nation this week at the Democrats’ big party.

It’s not that there’s no one progressive on the lineup. Both Bernie Sanders and Warren have been offered prime-time spots, but between Bloomberg and Meg Whitman, there are as many billionaires speaking as there are Bernies and Warrens. There is a sense that by having Sanders and Warren there, and throwing a minute to AOC, the convention has done its job featuring progressives.

As for the kids, the DNC has tapped former South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg — whose youthful fervor for generational change gave way, over the course of his primary journey, to a waxy simulacrum of the generation that preceded him — to give a featured address. Again, it’s as if the elder Democrats believe that by putting Pete up there, alongside their big weapon, Kamala Harris — who, at 55, brings youth to a presidential ticket and is the first Black woman in history to be nominated for the vice-presidency on a major party ticket — and of course with the 16 Rising Stars Who Endorsed Joe Biden Plus Stacey Abrams, they’ve done what they have to to acknowledge that another generation exists.

But there is no view of how empty this showing is, given all the dynamic figures and ideas that are missing, and the marginal, supporting roles that so many of the progressives and young people who have been invited have been asked to play. It’s one thing to try to open up a big tent. It’s another to actually let people on the left, and in the next generation, into that tent in some meaningful way. Instead, Democrats are treating progressives and young people as cater waiters, there to serve hors d’oeuvres to the Republicans, billionaires, and former officeholders who are the real guests.

The party has clearly taken from the presidential primary result a message that what America and its left-of-center base want is … Joe Biden. And to some extent, fair enough. It is true that when it came to the presidential contest, voters passed by the young, the progressive, the new, and made a beeline for a candidate redolent of America’s past: the past of the party, a past administration, a past approach to bipartisan comity.

But I fear that Biden and his cohort have overinterpreted this result, have mistaken his victory as actual enthusiasm for centrist white patriarchy, and not as a temporary (if worryingly familiar) concession to the old in order to win an extraordinary presidential contest.

Just as many centrists like to warn progressives that they cannot extrapolate too much about the nation’s leftist appetites from select victories like Ocasio-Cortez’s, I would argue that it’s a grave error to extract so much about the desires of a Democratic base from Biden’s victory.

The party isn’t the presidency, and in the same span in which Biden won the nomination, others of his vintage and politics have fallen at the hands of a changing, rising tide of young, creative, and often very progressive candidates, not just in New York, where, yes, Ocasio-Cortez beat Crowley and Bowman beat Engel, but also in St. Louis, where BLM activist Cori Bush just beat ten-term incumbent Democrat William Lacy Clay on her second try in as many years; or in Illinois, where Marie Newman, also on her second try, this year knocked out eight-term incumbent Dan Lipinski; and in Texas, where a 27-year-old immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros outraised, and came within four points of unseating, longtime Democratic incumbent Henry Cuellar.

If I were Cuellar, I’d be looking at Bush and Newman for a preview of what could happen in 2022, and if I were the Democratic National Committee, I’d be looking at that, too. But what’s clear from this week’s lineup is that the DNC isn’t looking toward the future, but straight at the past, putting together a celebration of what Matt Yglesias has called the Nostalgiacrats.

It has been bracing to watch this convention come together while reading former New York journalist Kurt Andersen’s new book, Evil Geniuses, which tracks the decades-long right-wing strategizing to take control of courts, the economy, and electoral politics, relying in large part on nostalgia for America’s past. The nostalgia thing, Andersen argues in the book, is at odds with what Andersen calls America’s “factory setting”: the valuation and pursuit of the new, laid out early by Alexis de Tocqueville, who described the New World, in which “the idea of novelty is indissolubly connected with the idea of amelioration,” or as Andersen paraphrases, “new equals improved, progress apparently built in.”

What Democrats — or more broadly, an American left — have in front of them is a wave of new (or in some cases newly revivified) ideas, from the Green New Deal to Medicare for All, from a wealth tax and baby bonds to defunding the police and making college and day care free, abolishing ICE, decriminalizing border crossings, reforming the courts, abolishing the filibuster, and reimagining care work as part of the federal infrastructure.

But the big voices pushing for new solutions aren’t being elevated by the party they’re actually trying to push into a future they want to make more just, more inclusive, and more functional than America’s unequal past and present.

And while it’s not likely the DNC will be must-see TV in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, with the least popular and most horrifying president of my lifetime, it could have been compelling, could have been different, could have offered promise — for something new, something changing, something different, something better.

Instead, Democrats have decided to host a convention that feels like the “This is fine” meme in which the Democrats are the dog, and the rooms they will be speaking from are on fire. That isn’t just going to make for boring and regressive programming, it’s going to contribute to the message that the political party many of us are forced to rely on to bring change and advocate for a finer future cannot begin to conceive of how to lay the groundwork for it, cannot begin to imagine, let alone enact, the kind of strategizing that their right-wing counterparts have been masterful at.

In fact, the DNC’s programming this week seems like it’s been designed by people who imagine their own power to be eternal. No one has yet informed them that they only have a minute.