The Battle for the Soul of America

Karine Schomer
Aug 24, 2020 · 9 min read

How the Democratic Convention Reframed the Stakes of the 2020 Election

Vice President Joe Biden’s address to the DNC, August 20, 2020. Image by Gaje Kidmore/Flikr.

At first there was something unreal about watching the unprecedented virtual convention unroll, without the high-density crowds milling about, the roars of applause, the grandstanding speeches, the show-biz fanfare.

How could an American political convention succeed in stirring the hearts and minds of voters, and create commitment to the party’s vision, without the familiar large-scale theatricals we have become used to as part of our political culture?

But stir and create commitment it did. Superbly. Day by day, theme by theme, step by step, frame by frame, image by image, story by story, speech by speech.

What was lost by not having high-touch schmoozing and cheering on the crowded convention floor was more than made up for by the intimate sense of connection the virtual format gave each of us individual viewers.

Not just connection with so many of the articulate and principled political leaders of the Democratic party, but also with a wide, infinitely varied and moving array of ordinary people, from all regions and walks of life, sharing their sorrows, their aspirations, their actions, their grit.

Like so many in this country (not just Democratic Party faithful and predictable progressives), I have been shaken to the core by the horrors of what the Trump presidency and its takeover of the Republican Party have done to the nation. We’ve been exhausted by the ordeal, infuriated by the corruption, the venality, the ugliness, the cynicism, the chaos, the divisiveness, and the sheer destructiveness which the last three-and-a-half years have brought us. And, at a deep patriotic level, we’ve been ashamed to be Americans.

The Democratic Convention this past week came as a beacon of sanity, normality, competence, kindness, common sense, decency, inclusiveness, idealism — and the American can-do belief in working together to fix problems to make a better future. The best of our positive American values instead of our darkest negative impulses.

It was an appeal not to our hatreds and divisions, but to that dream expressed in so many of the memorable phrases of yearning that have come down to us as part of our political patrimony: creating a more perfect union, building the beloved community, malice toward none and charity toward all, the arc of moral history bending toward justice, uniting to banish fear, hope and possibility as the features that should define America. And, of course, Black Lives Matter, the renewed clarion call to face and overcome the racism which has been the worst of our national transgressions.

For four evenings in a row, we were inspired to throw off our cynicism and despair, to hope again, to believe that we can do and be better than what we have become under the pall of the profoundly sick and poisonous Trump presidency.

There were so many high points, it’s hard to know where to start.

. . . Michelle Obama’s show-stealing address on the first day: “Trump is clearly in over his head. . . whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy.”

. . . Kristin Urquiza, the woman from San Francisco who had lost her father to COVID-19 after he heeded Trump’s call to ignore using masks: “My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump.”

. . . The spectacular ‘Roll Call Across America’, virtually showcasing the geographical and human diversity of the 50 states and the union territories (and perhaps forever replacing the bombastic in-person roll calls of traditional conventions).

. . . The stern warning voices of former Secretary of State John Kerry (“Trump breaks up with our allies and writes love letters to dictators”) and former President Bill Clinton (“At a time like this, the Oval Office should be a command center. Instead, it’s a storm center. There’s only chaos. Just one thing never changes — Trump’s determination to deny responsibility and shift the blame. The buck never stops there.”)

. . . The so-called ‘Ladies’ Night at the DNC’ that celebrated the theme of female leadership in the 100th anniversary year since women in the U.S. gained the vote. It allowed viewers to hear from a galaxy of formidable Democratic women — Stacey Abrams of Georgia , House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former First Lady and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Arizona’s Gabby Giffords, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden— followed by Senator Kamala Harris’s acceptance speech as the country’s first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ticket, talking eloquently about both her political beliefs and her personal history.

. . . The unexpectedly emotional and existentially laden address by former President Barack Obama, shedding his usual cool restraint and, instead, forcefully indicting his successor’s total failure to live up to the responsibilities of a U.S. President (“He’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves”), and warning us “Don’t let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy.”

The last day’s stellar line-up of speakers, performers, video tributes and personal endorsements leading up to Vice President Biden’s acceptance speech included important context-setting remarks by presidential historian Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s straight-to-the-point case against Trump’s record: (“I’m urging you to vote against him because he’s done a bad job”).

But most deeply affecting of all were the narrations of Joe Biden’s life story, his triumph over deep personal loss, his unceasing devotion to making government truly serve the people, his prodigious capacity for work, his understanding of the art of government, his ability to reach out to opponents and get things done, and his immense reservoir of empathy.

Nowhere better demonstrated than in the story of 13-year old Brayden Harrington, who suffered from stuttering, and whom Biden took the trouble to help by telling him his own story and giving him confidence.

Then came Joe Biden’s long awaited acceptance speech, leading up to which Trump’s twitter taunts had set up such exceedingly low standards (‘Sleepy Joe’, ‘cognitive decline’, ‘mentally shot’, ‘low energy’, etc.) that a simply adequate speech would have done the trick. Even Democrats were uneasy about whether this was going to be a ‘home run’ or a ‘pass’.

Instead, Biden delivered what was perhaps the best speech in his life, and one of the most inspiring and broadly embracing presidential addresses in the nation’s history.

“This is a life-changing election that is going to determine what America is going to look like for a long time.”

“If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness.”

“United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America. We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.”

“This campaign isn’t just about winning votes. It’s about winning the heart, and yes, the soul of America.”

“History has delivered us one of the most difficult moments America has ever faced. Four historic crises. All at the same time. A perfect storm.”

“America is at an inflection point. A time of real peril, but extraordinary possibilities. We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided. . . Or we can choose a different path, and together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite.”

“Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. That’s all on the ballot.”

“I see a different America. One that is generous and strong. Selfless and humble. It’s an America we can rebuild together.”

“We don’t need a tax code that rewards wealth more than it rewards work. I’m not looking to punish anyone. Far from it. But it’s long past time the wealthiest people and the biggest corporations in this country paid their fair share.”

“However it came to be, America is ready to, in John Lewis’ words, lay down “the heavy burdens of hate at last” and to do the hard work of rooting out our systemic racism.”

“America’s history tells us that it has been in our darkest moments that we’ve made our greatest progress. That we’ve found the light. And in this dark moment, I believe we are poised to make great progress again. That we can find the light once more.”

Commentators from a wide range of political perspectives were enthusiastic in their praise. It was a speech that “met the moment” (MSNBC). Even some of the Fox News pundits temporarily applauded it.

The Washington Post gave the following assessment:

“The former vice president delivered a sober, direct, large-hearted and aspirational speech in which nearly every word was an implied rebuke to President Trump’s paranoid style of politics. In 25 well-crafted minutes, Biden managed to capture the romance of decency.”

For those of you who may have missed it, it’s worth going back and hearing former Vice President Biden’s acceptance speech in its entirety.

The themes of Biden’s address and of the convention as a whole represented a full-throated affirmation of the warm-hearted, generous, positive, embracing, future looking values that are the bright, shining side of America’s national character. A categorical rejection of the dark, selfish, acquisitive and calloused side of our collective identity that has been so prevalent in recent times. The ‘City on a Hill’ community-affirming myth of America rather than the hyper-individualistic ‘El Dorado’ myth that has brought us so much grief.

It was a convention of ideas, ideals and values, not a wonky policy convention, though there were plenty of themes that came up which have prodigious policy implications. Some will criticize the convention for this reason (just as the 2016 convention was criticized for having gone the opposite way and being strong on programs but weak on inspiration.)

I think it’s what all of us who have been so discouraged by the trajectory of the country since the 2016 election needed to hear. It’s a vision of the future, of ‘Building Back Better’ after the perfect storm created or exacerbated by the Trump presidency has been competently dealt with.

My husband and I watched every minute of all four nights of the Democratic Convention last week, glued to its powerful proclamation of all the reasons that made him decide to become an American so many years ago, and why I have never been willing to give up on this often disappointing and exasperating country in which I was born.

We cried, we cheered. We were comforted, we were elated, we were inspired. American political conventions have much of the flavor and the power of traditional revival meetings. We were among those who were deeply revived by the experience of immersion in this cleansing ocean of grace.

I know the road to the November 3 election is going to be hard and ugly.

Every obstacle possible and every dirty trick in the book will be thrown by the Trump camp, and no doubt the Russians, against a successful outcome for Biden and the Democrats.

The Democratic Party unity and broad-tent themes of the convention, and the Biden-Harris campaign going forward, could yet be weakened — by internal ideological purists on the left, or by younger voters tragically uninspired to save their own future by the false notion that unless what is proposed is exactly what you want, it’s not worth the effort to support it.

But the momentum created by this high-toned and inspiring convention gives hope that, like at so many other major inflection points in our history, where the light and dark sides of our national soul have been most dramatically and acrimoniously pitted against each other, we will manage to pull back from the peril, undo the damage, get beyond the rancor, and create a next step in that elusive ‘more perfect union’ that the Founding Fathers dreamt of even as they could only go so far at their time.

In Jon Meacham’s words:

“In our finest hours. . . the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clinch our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than reject. In so doing, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.”

“The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Selves” (2018)— Presidential historian Jon Meacham

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Karine Schomer, PhD is a writer, speaker, scholar, and a political and social commentator. She writes on Medium at https://medium.com@schomer44. In her essays, she explores the worlds of society, politics, culture, history, language, world civilizations and life lessons. You can read her writer’s philosophy in The Idea Factory.

Political Engagement

Political commentary in support of a sane and progressive…

Karine Schomer

Written by

I explore the worlds of society, politics, culture, history, civilizations, language, life lessons— wherever curiosity takes me. karineschomer@cmct.net

Political Engagement

Political commentary in support of a sane and progressive vision for America and to encourage effective mobilization for political and social change.

Karine Schomer

Written by

I explore the worlds of society, politics, culture, history, civilizations, language, life lessons— wherever curiosity takes me. karineschomer@cmct.net

Political Engagement

Political commentary in support of a sane and progressive vision for America and to encourage effective mobilization for political and social change.

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