As I continued watching, I was perplexed, and I am now deeply concerned, by the way the TV reporters and pundits at the scene belabored the event’s limitations: no crowd, no cheers and applause. In their description and judgment the drama of the campaign was undermined by the limitations demanded by Covid-19. I believe the pundits fundamentally misperceived and misreported the situation. The debut of Biden – Harris was even stronger than it would have been if it had occurred in front of a big cheering crowd. The quiet cool (in Marshall McCluhan’s sense) atmosphere provided the context to bring their audience into their shared mutual respect, empathy, concern and commitments. Joe and Kamala revealed the developing trust and intimacy of their relationship, and invited observers to join them in getting us out of the mess we are in.
Both Biden’s and Harris’s speeches were excellent in form and substance. They focused on the pressing issues, presenting a refreshing alternative to our hellish realities, and they expressed the sincerity and depth of the commitments they were making together.
Biden underscored that this is an election like no other. The fate of the republic is in the balance. He praised Harris’s record and her biography. “Different from mine in many particulars, not so different in the essentials.” He recognized the significance of a Vice President (and perhaps President) Harris:
“this morning, all across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities, but today, today just maybe, they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way, as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents.”
He promised that we would have her back when she faces Trump’s racism, just as she has ours, and we would fix the mess Trump and Pence have created at home and abroad. He eviscerated the Trump-Pence regime, as he promised real leadership with a plan to respond to the virus, for schools, for frontline workers. He ridiculed Trump for his executive order that proposes to address the crisis in unemployment by defunding Social Security, and for his response to the climate crisis that Trump doesn’t even acknowledge.
As Biden continued speaking, he became more and more animated, culminating with his response to the racism in Charlottesville, noting that it was the third anniversary of that appalling event, reporting that it was that day that he decided he had to run.
Biden embodied in his words and vividly expressed why he chose the first African-American, Asian-American woman, Kamala Harris, as his running mate.
“The question is for all Americans to answer, who are we as a nation? What do we stand for? And most importantly, what do we want to be? Someone who knows that the future of this country is limited only by the barriers we place on our own imaginations because there’s nothing Americans cannot achieve when we put our minds to it, and we do it together.”
Biden’s closed with his warm embrace of Harris and her family, and his poignant remembrance of Kamala’s relationship with his son Beau, who tragically died of cancer at the age of forty seven.
As Harris thanked Biden, she acknowledged the heroic women who have preceded her and whose efforts made this moment possible. She underscored that the election is a moment of moral reckoning, echoing Biden, focusing on “racism and systemic injustice that has brought a new coalition of conscience to the streets of our country, demanding change.”
Kamala thanked Joe for inviting her into the extended Biden family and recalled vividly her close relationship with Beau Biden. He was “the kind of guy who inspired people to be a better version of themselves… He was really the best of us.” She asked Beau: where did you get that? Answer: his dad. “Their relationship was the most beautiful display of the love between a father and a son.” Joe Biden’s empathy, his compassion, his sense of duty to care for others is why she is so proud to be on this ticket.
On her relationship between work and family: she asserted “Mamala” is the title that means the most to her. Her parents came from India and Jamaica to America in search of a world class education. What brought them together was the struggle for social justice. She was there in her stroller as they marched in the streets of Oakland in the sixties. She maintained that it is up to us, that every generation must keep on marching, linking this with her account of her political career, as prosecutor, Attorney General, and Senator in California, and now as candidate for Vice President of the United States. Harris for the people.
The speech could have been presented to a large crowd with applause and cheers at the appropriate moments. When Kamala spoke of Beau no doubt the cameras would have shown close ups of the tears among those in the audience, just when I, along with many others I’m sure, privately wept in the intimacy of our socially distanced homes. But the immediacy and poignancy of the moment was more powerful with the privacy of the experience. I believe that was the secret, under acknowledged power of the entire event.
We’re overdosed by Trumpian spectacle. It’s exhausting as we bounce from one outrage to the next: outrageous racist tweets, attacks on American cities and peaceful protestors, ridiculous press conferences on the virus that question public health facts and officials, along with attacks on “Democrat” leaders and nasty women, postponing the election, undermining the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, claiming massive fraud before the first vote is even cast, in fact, ominously threatening the viability of American democracy. In different ways, we face a very real danger that there won’t be a peaceful transition of power.
In this context, a powerful, subdued, serious political campaign, as revealed in the Biden – Harris joint appearance, is a relief that brought in a committed public: a decency and normality we can believe in, with the real possibility of major social change. That it was a great success is revealed by the record-breaking campaign contributions in the hours following the joint appearance. I believe its calm, seductive power will be repeated this week during the nominating convention. I expect this power will intensify in the days leading up to the election, and I believe that this kind of power is a key to opposing the new authoritarianism in the U.S. and beyond.
One thing that is clear from the many contributors of Democracy Seminar is that the defense of democracy in the many places where it is threatened will require not only ideas, symbols, rhetorics and performances that can capture the minds of citizens, but also their hearts. Joe and Kamala captured mine.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. He is also the Founder and Publisher of Public Seminar.