The Cold Banality of the Democratic National Convention Lineup

Ain’t no party like a Klobuchar party ’cause a Klobuchar party don’t ZZZZZZZ… (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The 2020 Democratic National Convention: Feel the excitement?

Not quite. The four-day celebration of the best the Democratic Party has to offer and John Kasich has its schedule set—and if you’re like me, you’re less than impressed.

Day 1 features Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama as their top-billed speakers. Other than that, though, the list doesn’t exactly overwhelm. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Catherine Cortez Masto, fresh off not earning vice presidential nominations, are evidently set to inspire conventioneers with their newfound status. Ditto for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Sen. Doug Jones is there because…he has an election to try to win? Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has seen his star rise despite his state’s dilatory early response to news of positive COVID-19 tests and allegations of corruption will…call Donald Trump names?

In all, the speakers here seem to evoke an air of temporary/contextual relevance because they were once considered candidates for president or vice president or for their handling of the coronavirus. Bernie’s and Michelle Obama’s legacies seem pretty secure, but the others? Aside from Reps. Jim Clyburn and Gwen Moore, their records and future party standing are questionable. Clyburn’s and Moore’s inclusion itself speaks to the Democratic Party’s preoccupation with identity politics but only to the extent it reinforces “old guard” politics.

Day 2 features Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is headlined by Dr. Jill Biden. Lisa Blunt Rochester is…from Delaware (not to downplay her significance as both the first woman and first African-American to represent her state in Congress, but she’s definitely not a household name)? Sally Yates is presumably there because of her defiance to the Bad Orange Man?

After that, it’s a trio of white dudes who definitely represent establishment Democrats. Chuck Schumer and John Kerry, one might imagine, will be on hand to deliver plenty of bland generalities. And then there’s Bill Clinton. If his association with Jeffrey Epstein and the “Lolita Express” aren’t problematic enough, there’s a good chance he’ll say something cringe-worthy just the same.

Day 3 has, um, Billie Eilish for the young folks? Seriously, though, she’s slated to perform. Newly-minted vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and Barack Obama are the top political stars of the evening. As a whole, this day belongs to the ladies—and that’s pretty cool. Unfortunately, two of those women are Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, of whom to say they are removed from the concerns of everyday Americans would be an understatement.

Other than that? Meh. Gabby Giffords will be bringing her party loyalty and her obvious standing to talk about gun control to the table. Elizabeth Warren, the picture of party unity that she is, also will be delivering remarks. Michelle Lujan Grisham has…grit? And I don’t know what business Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin has speaking at this convention. This man made a late bid to postpone his state’s primaries, was rebuffed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and didn’t intervene in the same way Republican governor Mike DeWine did in Ohio to push back elections due to concerns about coronavirus infections at polling places. Even if spikes following the Wisconsin primaries can’t be definitively linked to in-person voting, failing to act to reduce or eliminate this risk is to be decried, not celebrated with a speaking slot.

The final day of the convention belongs, of course, to Joseph Robinette Biden. Andrew Yang is speaking—or he isn’t—or maybe he is again? We’ve got not one, but two Tammies—Tammy Baldwin (surprisingly progressive for Biden) and Tammy Duckworth.

Aside from these speakers, I could take or leave the rest of the program. With no disrespect meant to The Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks), OK, were party supporters clamoring for you to be here? Chris Coons once more fulfills the obligatory Delawarean portion of the program and that’s about it. Sen. Cory Booker, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are present as not-too-old, not-too-young faces of the Democratic Party. Also, Pete Buttigieg is slated to gnaw on some cheese. Just saying—the guy looks like a rat.

This is what awaits viewers for the virtual Democratic National Convention, for the most part. As noted, John Kasich, who is still a member of the opposition party, should be speaking, though I didn’t see him listed on the official convention website schedule. All in all, with the Democratic Party speakers thus enumerated, there’s not a lot to excite prospective younger voters. A number of these political figures are either older, fairly obscure outside of political circles, or both, when not additionally owning problematic legacies (hello, Amy Klobuchar, Bill Clinton).

More critically, the attention to policy specifics, as it has been with Joe Biden the 2020 presidential candidate, will likely be sparing. In a political environment inextricably linked to the ongoing pandemic and impacted by the moment’s (overdue) push for economic, environmental, racial, and social justice, Americans hungry for substantive change want to know what the Democratic Party will do for them should the Democrats take the White House. The standard platitudes aren’t cutting it.


I refer to the “cold banality” of the Democratic National Convention in the title of this piece because, in addition to this event being a boring four-day celebration of Democrats not being Donald Trump, it largely freezes out progressives.

Bernie Sanders has been afforded a prominent role in the proceedings, though he has largely (and dubiously) tried to paint Joe Biden and his campaign as embracing a progressive platform. Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren will be also be delivering remarks, though on the latter count, it’s tough to know what exactly Warren’s commitment is to the progressive cause in the United States. She notably backed off her prior support for Medicare for All and took super PAC money during her own presidential campaign, trying to justify it by claiming everyone else was doing so and that she needed to follow suit. That doesn’t make you sound very principled, Ms. Warren.

And what about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? This is where it gets juicy, as they say. AOC’s entire involvement with the convention is reportedly limited to a one-minute prerecorded message. That’s it. Sixty seconds for one of the party’s rising stars and biggest fundraisers. If this sounds stupidly self-defeating, one has only to remember this is the Democrats we’re talking about here, masters of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

This goes beyond mere strategic miscues, however. The DNC knows what it’s doing, and Ocasio-Cortez’s effective snub is another potshot at progressives seeking authentic leadership from the Democratic Party. Furthermore, with 2024 chatter already underway, the party establishment is probably desperate to blunt any momentum she might have for a presidential bid. They don’t want her pulling a Barack Obama and using her speech at the convention as a springboard to a viable candidacy. If that were to happen, they might—gasp!—actually have to commit to policies that help everyday Americans.

The old guard of the Democratic Party knows its days are numbered. Progressives haven’t won a ton of primary challenges, but little by little, they’re scoring impressive victories and elevating recognition of outspoken leftists to the national consciousness. Policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are resonating with the general public. Heck, a significant percentage of Democratic voters say they have a positive view of socialism. Dreaded socialism. When people are finally beginning to sour on almighty capitalism, you know a real sea change is in our midst.

It is because of this percolating progressive energy within Democratic ranks that, while it’s still frustrating that the progressive movement isn’t further along by now, leftists in the U.S. and abroad can take heart knowing that there is strength in grassroots organizing and people-powered solutions to society’s ills. The Democratic National Convention, in all its pomp and circumstance, already felt somewhat irrelevant given the fragmentation of the global media landscape in the social media age. With a global pandemic and economic, political, and social unrest altering the political calculus in 2020 even more, it seems especially so now.

2020 Has Been a Disaster for National Progressive Politics (and Pretty Much Everything Else)

Joe Biden is the Democratic Party presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders gave up the fight and endorsed him, and Elizabeth Warren has evidently abandoned her principles to try to become Biden’s VP pick. So yeah, a great time for progressives on the national stage. (Photo Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Speaking as a progressive, the fight for economic, political, and social justice is such that, despite any setbacks, there are always more battles to fight. In other words, there is always work to be done and voices to be amplified. But damn if it doesn’t get disheartening sometimes.

Of course, as the death count related to COVID-19 in the United States makes its inexorable climb toward 100,000-plus, the immediate health and safety of all Americans is of paramount importance. Still, taking a snapshot of progressive politics at this moment in time, it’s worth noting that, at the national level, progressive leadership and power doesn’t seem all that it’s cracked up to be or could be.

Let’s start with the Senate. Who are your progressive leaders and how do you feel about them lately? Bernie Sanders, who has missed at least one key vote in recent memory, is reportedly asking some delegates to sign agreements barring them from attacking other candidates or leaders, getting involved in social media confrontations, or doing interviews with reporters without approval. If true, it’s a disappointing development from a man who suspended his presidential bid with a whimper and gave up the fight with so much at stake and with so little conceded from Joe Biden’s camp.

Elizabeth Warren? After a disappointing campaign that ultimately saw her fail to catch on with progressives and party loyalists alike and only manage a third-place finish in her home state, her progressive credentials are in question now more than ever. Her attacks on Bernie, her reversal on super PAC funding, and her self-identification alongside Amy Klobuchar from primary season notwithstanding, her apparent abandonment of Medicare for All, a central tenet of the progressive movement in the U.S., invites charges of selling out for a chance to be Biden’s vice president—an unlikely eventuality to begin with given Joe’s ties to the banking industry.

Kamala Harris? Kirsten Gillibrand? Cory Booker? Like Sanders and Warren, they’re all carrying water for Biden despite a credible sexual assault allegation against him and other claims of unwanted touching or close physical proximity. Poor Ed Markey might not survive a primary challenge from Joe Kennedy III, the Pete Buttigieg of the Senate Democratic races—and no, that “Mayo Pete” comparison is not a compliment. Jeff Merkley. Mazie Hirono. Sherrod Brown. They’re not exactly household names outside of progressive circles and none are younger than 60.

In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, we thankfully have members who are making a name for themselves as progressives on the national stage—and younger ones at that. The problem here is that these reps are seemingly having their influence circumscribed at every possible turn (or at least the attempt is there) by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other dyed-in-the-wool establishment Democrats.

Faced with an unprecedented economic and health crisis, Pelosi and Co. have largely capitulated to moneyed interests, offering little in the way of substantive relief to everyday Americans beyond the minimum standards Republicans have proposed. All the while, Pelosi, like her other moderate colleagues, has endorsed Biden’s presidential bid and has allowed herself to get dragged down in the mud with Donald Trump, making references to his weight and other performative gestures which neither do anything to help people in need nor do they help rally support for the party cause outside of loyalists (and also risk alienating people who don’t take kindly to body shaming regardless of the source).

To recap then, we have a promising group of younger progressives in the House amid Democratic Party control, but old-guard leadership is evidently determined to thwart them as part of a last-gasp effort to flex its might. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell is majority leader, Chuck Schumer is the party’s face, and even the members with the best voting records have made questionable alliances/decisions of late. In addition, as alluded to, the most progressive options of the 2020 presidential campaign saw their hopes dashed in dramatic fashion following Super Tuesday.

All of this on top of a coronavirus crisis that has seen tens of thousands of Americans die, millions of people file for unemployment and/or lose health insurance, and the world’s richest individuals get even richer as a direct result of the global pandemic has made the first half of 2020 so far a little frustrating, to put it mildly. What’s more, it doesn’t appear things will improve over the rest of the year or anytime soon for that matter.

Small businesses will continue struggling to survive in the absence of needed aid from the federal government. Another wave of COVID-19 infections is probable if not certain. And while Biden is enjoying a national polling lead in some cases of eight or more percentage points, that he’s not doing better given the depths of Trump’s inadequacies and that he continues to lag behind in the enthusiasm department is deeply troubling with November fast approaching. In short, 2020 has sucked royally—and for progressives in particular, there is every reason to worry the worst is yet to come.


Lest I relegate myself purely to the realms of doom and gloom, it’s not all bad for the progressive movement in the United States of America. If the popularity of figures like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, it’s that there is a real appetite for new leadership within a growing subset of the left-leaning electorate. As ignominious as the end to Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign was, too, exit poll after exit poll showed that despite primary voters’ preference for Joe Biden to take on Donald Trump, on issues like Medicare for All, they favored the progressive position over the standard alternative. So many voters are desperate for real change.

As the late great philosopher Tom Petty once said, however, the waiting is the hardest part. Whilst progressives helped organize a campaign for Bernie that was poised to go the distance—and there’s much to discuss in the postmortem period of analysis about why it didn’t but there’s not enough space in this article or perhaps one article in it of itself to do that—the Biden campaign struggled to raise finances, limped out of the gates in early contests, and didn’t even have a presence in a number of bygone primary states.

And yet he still romped in the South and managed numerous upset wins following his dominant showing in South Carolina. Whether Elizabeth Warren’s presence in the race long after it was clear her electoral chances were dead on arrival hurt Bernie is yet a subject of debate in leftist circles (among Sanders supporters, I feel like this may be overblown), but regardless, the two best candidates to ever be in striking distance of the overall polling lead came up well short of winning the nomination despite being better-funded and better-organized than the campaign that actually has Biden on a path to win the Democratic Party nomination and maybe even defeat Trump in November. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and increasingly so as real life proves candidates like Sanders, Warren, and even Andrew Yang on the topic of universal basic income right.

The news is better further down ballots, where there are real electoral successes to be found. AOC’s meteoric rise to prominence aside, though, primary challenges ending in progressive wins are fewer and farther between than eager leftists sifting through voting results would obviously like to see. The Democratic Party establishment has been more than hostile toward primary challenges from the left. (If you’re Ed Markey and facing a challenge from the right in the form of a corporate-funded candidate with the Kennedy name, that’s apparently fine.) Though this doesn’t mean that challengers’ efforts aren’t worthy if not necessary to compel Democratic incumbents to actually try to earn their votes, it’s nonetheless deflating when effort and good intent alone can’t overcome voter aversion to change and a party apparatus specifically constructed to quell dissent.

Inherently, these circumstances promote tension, for while progressives ideally would like to think about how to organize over the long term, the realities of the short term compel action even at the expense of immediate political capital. Regardless of the “color” of one’s district, someone should be running to represent policy goals like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, cancellation of student debt, universal basic income, and other progressive priorities. No one wants to be running without a genuine chance at winning when the optics surrounding a landslide loss loom large. The need for involvement at the lower levels of government because of the magnitude of suffering for millions of Americans creates urgency, and progressive groups across key voting blocs are often fighting one another for relevance when cooperation should be the order of the day.

For me, what is especially challenging about all of this is how, despite progressives’ collective efforts since the 2016 election, we yet find ourselves in a precarious position. After Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democrats haven’t learned their lesson, that much more determined to return to the days before President Trump no matter what in coalescing behind a candidate in Biden who generates even less enthusiasm than the woman who just lost.

Regarding COVID-19, America lags behind the rest of the world in curbing the spread of infection despite its wealth of resources, and at a time when we should be rethinking the role of capitalism in how our society functions (or doesn’t), some people seem only that much more willing to sacrifice others on capitalism’s altar so they can get a haircut or prevent a decline in stock prices. If there is a lesson to be learned herein, it’s sadly that 90,000 deaths is not enough to spur a movement of sufficient size toward fundamental change. A few months into widespread quarantines across the country, many of us are restless to the point of advocating for armed rebellion. What happens when the ravages of climate changes really start hitting home? If current developments are any indication, it, um, won’t go well.

In belaboring progressives’ struggles within the Democratic Party, I don’t mean to paper over the differences between the Dems and the death cult that is the Republican Party. For example, Joe Biden deserves your vote more than Donald Trump—full stop. I also don’t mean to insist that leaving the Democratic Party altogether is necessarily the correct tactic. The #DemExit movement is fraught with its own difficulties and potential shortcomings, though I also don’t blame progressives for wanting to move on after the litany of abuses they’ve suffered in such a short time, only wanting to do their part to make the Democratic Party better.

Though I think progressives might do well to place a greater emphasis on winning and grassroots organizing at the lower levels of government and though I have reservations about watching the Democratic Party burn to the ground, politics is ultimately a two-way street. Democratic leadership would do well not to take progressive votes for granted and offer at least some meaningful concessions to the left rather than mere table scraps. 2020 has been a disaster for progressive politics on the national stage thus far, but it doesn’t have to end that way—and the Democrats would be all the stronger by recognizing it.