Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during the virtual Democratic National Convention (Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The vacuity of the Democratic National Convention

Biden’s cheerleaders prove there’s nothing to get excited about

As a Brit, watching political battles across the pond can be difficult. While we’re used to awkward BBC interviews, naff graphics and fidgeting at podiums during election campaigns, the glitz and glamour of American campaigning can often jar.

The 2020 Democratic National Convention has all the usual bells and whistles to make us squirm. They’ve drafted in four female celebrities – Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington and Julia Louis-Dreyfus – to host proceedings. They’ve filmed a diverse mix of smiling cheerleaders from across the states repeating positive mantras about Joe Biden. And they’ve organised choirs of bright-faced youngsters to sing the national anthem in the colours of the party. It’s American as apple-pie and just as sugary sweet.

But while the fakery of the showbiz attitude to American politics is usually understandable, this year it has been rendered almost ironic by the fact that the man all this fuss is for is Biden – a candidate who truly excites no one. Barack Obama managed to galvanise a sense of momentum and activism, Hillary Clinton tried to weaponise a tumultuous mix of identity politics – all Sleepy Joe has is the “I’m not Trump” card.

This depressing line from the Democrats – the ‘Not-Him-Party’ – was most evident in the much-lauded speech by former First Lady Michelle Obama. Beaming in for a 18-minute speech, Obama’s plea to the American people to vote for Biden revealed just how desperate the Democrats’ campaign has become. Despite having written a best-selling book about how brilliant she is and how successful she was regardless of her husband, Obama seemed keen to play the “you know I hate politics” line – a patronising tactic hoping to resonate with non-voters. What so many Democrat campaigners don’t seem to realise is that those who choose not to vote aren’t refusing because things have gotten too mean, but because many are struggling to pick between more of the same from President Tweety and more of the same from the Uncle-In-Chief.

The only candidate the Democrats have managed to conjure up is an older, less-media-friendly version of the Clintons

In fact, parts of Obama’s speech were unwittingly funny. Asserting that the presidency “requires clear-headed judgment” and “a mastery of complex and competing issues” is rather awkward given the running jokes about Biden’s gaffe-prone public appearances. Some bits were less amusing. Obama asserted that “Biden has served this nation his entire life without ever losing sight of who he is”, failing to mention that much of his political career has included decisions on law and order which have helped shape the problems with racism in America today. His involvement in Clinton’s 1990s Crime Bill has led to the mass incarceration of black Americans – an idea he is clearly still fond of, having chosen Kamala Harris as his running mate (the so-called “top cop” fond of locking up as many poor black people as possible). Trump’s comments on race are well-known and rightly criticised, but unlike Biden, he does not have a history of enacting policy which has impoverished and incarcerated black Americans for decades.

But perhaps the most depressing message from Obama, and indeed the entire Democrat strategy it seems, is the idea that Biden is the least worst option. “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can”, Obama warned viewers. The problem is, for many Americans things have been pretty bad for a long, long time. Part of the reason why Trump won in 2016 was down to his promise to Rust-belters to change their wage packet, while the Democrats labelled them “deplorables”.

It doesn’t matter that Trump has failed to make any real progress, because the Democrats haven’t changed the record – he can continue to rightly lambast his opponents as out-of-touch liberals. Rather than providing an alternative to a megalomaniac millionaire who has no interest in lifting the prospects and living standards of working-class Americans, the Democrats seem to be simply repeating their mistakes. Clinton’s campaign centred around a similar threat, that voters who didn’t choose her were doing the bad, nasty, immoral thing. Despite the fact that Trump’s presidency has been so poor, the only candidate the Democrats have managed to conjure up is an older, less-media-friendly version of the Clintons. How depressing.

Many Democrat campaigners have taken a short-sighted view of this election – their only focus is to defeat the bogey man they have tried to create in Trump. But for many voters who have seen Republican and Democrat presidents come and go, and whose lives have changed little as a consequence of either, listening to Obama or Jill Biden emote about how they “care about this nation” just isn’t going to cut it. Real change will only come with a better choice.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover