Party nominating conventions tend to move in multiple directions at once — trying to shore up their base, reach out to undecided voters, sell the top-ticket nominees while promoting up-and-comers, etc. This year’s Democratic National Convention, despite its unusual circumstances and format, was no exception. But perhaps more so than other modern conventions, this one was pulled together by one very consistent theme: empathy.
Empathy was an interesting choice for a theme. Joe Biden was not nominated because of it. If anything, Democrats picked him over the course of 2019 and early 2020 because of one basic trait they believed he had that other candidates did not: electability.
More so than in other years, Democrats were open to nominating a presidential candidate they didn’t always agree with if he could guarantee them a win. At least so far, Biden seems to be delivering on that promise.
But the party’s decisionmaking on a nominee was basically over by March. And this was, of course, the same time that the political environment changed dramatically as the coronavirus began its spread in North America and Americans’ lives were turned upside-down.
In addition to the many emotions Americans were already experiencing came sadness — the mourning of dying friends and relatives, the regrets of seeing children taken away from their school friends and classrooms, the loss of jobs, the inability to socialize with friends and family and co-workers and even strangers except through sterile videoconferencing, and more.
There was already plenty of material on which to mount a strong campaign against the incumbent president before the virus hit, but in this new environment, someone who could express empathy could be a real asset.
This is a quality that comes very easily to Joe Biden. It was on display at a February CNN Town Hall in which he spoke with a pastor whose wife had been murdered in the 2015 Charleston church shooting. Biden invoked the loss of his son Beau and spoke of the words and religious teachings that have helped him through trying times.
It was arguably one of his strongest public appearances throughout the Democratic nomination cycle. Other candidates debated better, gave more organized and stirring speeches, had stronger policy proposals, raised more money, and more, but no one could touch Biden when it came to connecting with people who’ve experienced loss.
Democrats smartly built their online convention around this theme. It gave them a way to highlight other qualities of their party. Some within the party have worried that an over-reliance on “identity politics” (usually defined in politics as advancing the needs of women, people of color and other marginalized groups at the expense of working class white men) cost Democrats precious votes in 2016, and they were wary of highlighting the party’s diversity for the sake of diversity.
The empathy framework offered a solution to this. Viewers could see an undocumented immigrant and her daughters struggling to make ends meet and asking for a leader who saw them as human beings.
They could see the families of victims of police brutality as people who are just trying to make their way and who needlessly lost someone near to them. They could identify with a child dealing with a stutter, or veterans struggling with injuries, or small businesspeople trying to hold together their stores, or school kids who lost their friends to gun violence. And it gave them a way to invoke faith and religious commitment.
Empathy also gave the unsuccessful presidential candidates, showed in a video chat hosted by Cory Booker on Thursday night, something to agree upon even though they still disagreed on many things.
They shared stories about Joe Biden’s empathy at different moments during the campaign. As a result of all this, the convention wasn’t just a parade of different facets of the party; it was unified behind a common theme that showed the party at its best.
If empathy comes naturally to Biden, it also has a long history as a theme within the party itself. As Bill Clinton said in his 1993 inaugural address, “But for fate, we, the fortunate and the unfortunate, might have been each other.”
In his 1984 convention address, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo famously stated that Democrats “must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another, that the problems of a retired school teacher in Duluth are our problems; that the future of the child in Buffalo is our future; that the struggle of a disabled man in Boston to survive and live decently is our struggle; that the hunger of a woman in Little Rock is our hunger; that the failure anywhere to provide what reasonably we might, to avoid pain, is our failure.”
Not only does this theme helpfully unite a disparate political party and tie it in with its long history, but it also conveniently juxtaposes it from the Republicans. If empathy is a Democratic tradition, the Republican counterpart is usually rugged individualism, an idea that anyone can make it if the government just leaves them alone.
This is also an attractive ideal, but perhaps amidst a pandemic and Great Depression-level unemployment, Democrats are pursuing the more popular theme.
Additionally, if empathy offers a distinction from Republicans, it offers an even stronger one from President Trump himself, who seems utterly incapable of this emotion.
Few of Trump’s supporters from 2016 likely thought that he truly understood their pain. But Democrats seem to be gambling that more Americans now than then are seeking a leader capable of that. It doesn’t seem like a bad bet.
Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.
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