Why This Election's DNC Roll Call Was Especially Important

As the coronavirus has swept across the USA, many public events have been canceled or postponed, while others have gone digital. Such was the case for the DNC convention this year, which was broadcast as a live televised program instead of the usual stadium-style rally event that conventions are known for. That the live program replaced the in-person rally was unusual in many respects, and the results were largely positive relative to the generally low-quality programming of American political life. The convention program was not by any means perfect. The format was a hodgepodge of speeches, live musical performances, photomontages, and documentary short films, all of which were hosted by a moderator to give the various vignettes some semblance of cohesion. The style of the vignettes themselves varied greatly as well. The worst seemingly took inspiration from daytime TV infomercials, viagra commercials, office pep talks from Klobuchar-style middle managers, and regional news station weather forecasts. The best vignettes produced some of the most iconic imagery to come out of the 2020 election season so far: John Legend backed by a gospel choir, a child with a stutter giving a speech to the nation, and a roll call vote that moved from state to state portraying regular citizens across the country casting votes for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

In fact, it was this roll call vote that overshadowed all other interesting moments in the convention, stealing the show even next to Joe Biden’s speech. Instead of the usual stadium cheering and flag-waving as each state announces their votes, the DNC treated the viewers to a magnificent tour of America. From the windswept plains to the coastline of Alaska, from the heart of Guam to the desert of New Mexico, the roll call heavily emphasized native voices, giving the native peoples and locals of each region a platform to briefly remind the rest of the country who lives here in the USA. For the first time in many Americans’ lives, they saw people from the US Virgin Islands, native Hawaiians, brown and black people from Virginia and Maryland, and a vast swath of other people who are not well represented in popular culture, each of whom advocated for the cause which most affects their lives and the state or territory for which they were speaking. Americans who watched this could see and hear how diverse our country is instead of having to imagine this diversity in an abstract way. Through the images of the vast diversity of Americans who live in each state across the nation, the DNC effectively communicated the central message of the convention: the Democratic Party is inclusive and will represent all Americans.

It was telling, then, that several major news media stations chose to cut away from the roll call to do commentary or an ad break. ABC opted to cutaway to Lester Holt’s inane platitudes and stilted conversation with his cohost. Whether they realized it or not, producers who chose not to broadcast the roll call in full severely undercut the DNC convention. Far from the sideshow it has been in years past, the roll call this year was, perhaps inadvertently, the centerpiece of the second evening of the convention, and several news stations flubbed it. 

The roll call was important in the history of political programming for a few reasons. First, it proved that remote conventions are not only possible but also better than in-person conventions in many ways. If the DNC’s goal is to demonstrate the diversity and inclusiveness of the party, then taking the viewer to the various places where Americans live is far better than bringing delegates to a stadium where their voices are out of context and drowned out by stadium acoustics. Second, it showed that live audiences are truly superfluous and distracting. This was true of the entire convention in general, and has been a running theme of this election cycle: the pandemic has forced debates, speeches, rallies, and now conventions to be conducted without live audiences, and the results are phenomenal. Live audiences produce a sort of laugh track that prompts viewers to react in inauthentic ways to the content. They force performers to react in real-time to an audience that is present, which means performers are not always able to tailor their performances to remote viewers watching from home. Live audiences are expensive and require microphones and PA systems, concession stands and bathrooms, and all sorts of other services that are unrelated to the spectacle at hand, and which, more importantly, tie a production like the DNC convention to one venue. By broadcasting the convention and doing away with the live audience, the DNC was suddenly free to take the viewer on a trip across this country and show us who we are living with.

The roll call also did something very well that few other parts of the convention managed to do at all, namely to give progressive politics a fair hearing within the democratic party. Each state and territory cast votes for two people: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. The fact that so many states cast so many votes for Bernie, with some states casting more votes for him than Joe, demonstrated to all viewers just how popular Sanders’ progressive politics are within the party right now. This was a subtlety that was perhaps lost on some viewers, but not all. It is hard for liberals to dismiss Sanders as a fringe candidate when so many of their own strongholds cast votes for a candidate that the party establishment unilaterally determined to be their enemy from within. 

The first inkling of the popularity of progressive politics to be displayed was of course Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 60-second stump speech nominating Bernie Sanders, which came just before the roll call. In 60 seconds, she effectively laid out the major themes of progressive politics today, reminding Americans that, though the left clearly suffered setbacks this year electorally, they are by no means defeated. Her speech was as close to a strong policy-driven discussion as anyone in the convention ever came, and as the roll call progressed, and more and more states cast votes for Bernie Sanders, it became increasingly clear that AOC’s speech was meant more as a promise of policy initiatives to come than a eulogy for times past. A strong proportion of the country agrees with the Left, as the roll call demonstrated, and while the Democrats play to the center, the Left will continue to organize.

If there is one final takeaway from the convention (other than the fact the Biden is able to give an effective speech and knows who Kierkegaard was) it is that, in the current political moment, it is in the Democratic Party’s interest to move to capture the center of American politics. The party has based its entire strategy and worldview on the notion that the best way to win elections is to expand the party’s base and attempt to represent all voters in the electorate. This is directly opposed to the Trumpian strategy of divide and conquer. But while the Democrat’s populist liberal strategy is noble and good, it also leaves the party with a weak platform full of empty promises that will be unable to satisfy all of the people who vote for Biden. The party is not so concerned with this issue at the moment, since many voters are not really interested in voting for Biden so much as they are interested in voting against Trump, but a year or two from now, this lack of strong policy positions could leave a huge opening for social democrats to fill on the left flank of the Democratic Party. Biden is sure to please very few people completely, and he will argue that this is ok because, like Obama, he is a candidate of compromise. Because Trump has set the bar so low, this return to Obama era politics might actually be effective, especially if Biden does not have to contend with a GOP led House and Senate (i.e. not much compromising with the right-wing needed). But such a dynamic would put pressure on centrist liberals and center-right Democrats to compromise with the Left. What the roll call and the DNC convention in general demonstrated is that the Left is where most of the popular ideas are currently coming from, and as diverse as the Democratic party is, the party base will have to contend with the Left in the coming decade whether they like it or not.

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