Delegates cheer as former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks last Monday at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

Political conventions have become political theater. There was a time when this was not so, such as the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., when African-Americans in the Mississippi delegation demanded to be counted and Fannie Lou Hamer famously declared, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But for the most part, since the 1960s, conventions have been carefully orchestrated affairs designed more for propaganda and emotional effect than to foster an actual democratic process. In recent years, presumptive nominees have emerged well before the conventions, enabling the messaging and visuals to be scripted down to the tiniest details. But Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unpredictable candidacy disrupted that trend this year to some extent. Consequently, the convention that just wrapped up in Philadelphia was far messier than establishment Democratic Party members wanted to project to the world. Today, the Democratic Party’s biggest assets appear to be its star figures, and they were trotted out night after night to wow audiences, but more importantly, to provide a veneer of party unity. The GOP comes nowhere close to having the type of highly admired celebrity politicians, such as Michelle and Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Sanders, that the Democrats do. In fact, the party nominee, Hillary Clinton, may have been the least liked of the lot. One after another, these beloved figures stepped onto the vast podium at the Wells Fargo Center, under the bright lights and red, white and blue balloons, and delivered powerful, promise-filled speeches that moved some audience members to tears. The speeches were often bookended by tightly edited videos set to emotionally evocative music. Clear themes emerged from the videos and star-studded speeches. Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was countered with “America is already great. America is already strong,” as Obama said. The first lady also mentioned this, saying, “[D]on’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth.” Clinton echoed the sentiment in her acceptance speech, saying, “America is great—because America is good.” The idea of family values—for years a central Republican theme—was also co-opted by Democrats, who suggested that the next president ought to be, more than anything else, a role model for American children. Trump is clearly the opposite of that—a point even his fans might concede. Michelle Obama was among the first to articulate this at the convention, saying, “This election and every election is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” In fact, she used the word “children” 10 times in her speech. The main message was this: Trump is clearly a hugely inappropriate role model for children, while Clinton, recast as a lifelong children’s advocate, is an outstanding role model for the nation’s youngest generation. Even Sanders closed his speech on the first night of the convention by noting that Clinton is “a fierce advocate for the rights of children.” It was a repetitive theme at the DNC, usually followed by some mention of her job, very early in her career, with the Children’s Defense Fund or her role in setting up the Children’s Health Insurance Program. No mention was made, however, of how children in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria fared under Clinton’s foreign policy while she was secretary of state. A huge task for DNC speakers was to convince audiences to simply like Clinton as a person. She is widely seen as dishonest, particularly in light of the ongoing controversy over her use of a private email server while conducting State Department business during her tenure as secretary of state. The fact that the Democratic nominee appears to be reviled by almost as many Americans as Trump, as polls show, was a major obstacle at the Democratic convention. It fell naturally to former President Clinton to humanize his wife, and he did so by glossing over her past, and in some cases by saying the exact opposite of the truth, as my interview with media critic Jeff Cohen revealed. But others also worked hard to paint a rosy picture of her, with President Obama referring to her in flattering terms: “For four years, I had a front-row seat to her intelligence, her judgment and her discipline. I came to realize that her unbelievable work ethic wasn’t for praise, it wasn’t for attention, that she was in this for everyone who needs a champion.” The most important task of Democrats at this convention was to respond to the contingent of highly vocal Sanders delegates present, who composed 46 percent of the total number of delegates in attendance and whose main issue was—and is—economic justice for ordinary Americans. Still, one speaker after another attempted to convince the disunited gathering that the Democratic Party is not in fact beholden to big business. To that end, former President Clinton, who gutted crucial welfare programs during his tenure at the White House, said, “We believe that ‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’ ” Michelle Obama, who hit two key party themes—family values and economic equity—in a single sentence, said, “I want a president with a record of public service, someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves; we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed.” Even Sanders made the claim that Clinton, and by extension, the party, “understands that if someone in America works 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty.”
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