A son paralyzed after being shot at school. A mother separated from her husband, a military veteran. A small business owner struggling after big banks denied her store a loan to help endure the pandemic.
At his inauguration, President Donald Trump had spoken of “American carnage.” On the third night of their convention, Democrats made the case that he’d achieved it.
It was in many ways an emotional sledgehammer of an evening, meant to illustrate with brutal clarity the myriad ways that Trump’s promise of greatness has failed to deliver—with a particular focus on stories of women, more than 45 in all, a century after the ratification of the 19th Amendment that guaranteed their right to vote.
“These women and the generations that followed worked to make democracy and opportunity real in the lives of all of us who followed,” said vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris of California, noting that the work of suffragists is not yet complete. “As Americans, we all stand on their shoulders.”
Harris’ historic speech, which made her the first Black woman and the first woman of South Asian descent to join a national ticket, crystallized the mood of the evening: that while the promise of America is evident in the work of doctors and nurses, postal workers and protesters, “that country feels distant,” now more than ever.
“This virus, it has no eyes, and yet it knows exactly how we see each other and how we treat each other,” Harris said. “And let us be clear: there is no vaccine for racism.”
While other moments over the course of the first two nights of the all-digital convention have highlighted former Vice President Joe Biden’s empathy for friends and strangers, as well as issues of particular importance to women, the penultimate night’s programming was in many ways the emotional crescendo of the convention.
Polished video packages on domestic violence and Biden’s work fighting it, on the suffrage movement and the Republican efforts to weaken voting access, on the historic importance of a woman on the national ticket and Harris’ ability to meet it, all brought home the message delivered by speaker Ruth Glenn, an anti-violence activist: “We need leaders who believe that women’s lives are worth fighting for.”
In another video, former Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona compared her personal recovery from an attempt on her life when she was shot in the head in a 2011 mass shooting to the recovery that America faces after the coronavirus pandemic has abated.
“I’ve known the darkest of days, days of pain and uncertain recovery. But confronted by despair I’ve summoned hope,” said Giffords, whose husband, former astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, is running for U.S. Senate in Arizona. “Confronted by paralysis and aphasia, I’ve responded with grit and determination. I put one foot in front of the other. I’ve found one word and then I found another.”
“My recovery is a daily fight,” Giffords said, “but fighting makes me stronger.”
The goal, broadly, seemed to be to hammer home one particular point: that there was no room for error, that this is no time for apathy, that there will be no excuse for not voting. At one point, the party’s 2016 nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, remarked about the regularity with which people would come up to her to say they’d forgotten to vote or thought Trump’s presidency would not have been quite so bad. At another, former President Barack Obama put the stakes of the election on a plane well above any particular policy dispute.
“Do not let them take away your power,” Obama said, addressing young voters in a speech strategically placed at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. “Don’t let them take away your democracy.”
Political conventions are traditionally uplifting affairs, imagined as a coronation and designed to present an affirmative case for a nominee. To a degree, Wednesday night was that, with speakers peppering their speeches with examples of legislative pursuits that Biden had done to address the horrors that they were describing: gun task forces and domestic violence laws, climate change legislation and advocacy on behalf of immigrant communities.
But while some of the programming had a commercial, “girlbossy” feel—the package introducing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as an ass-kicking feminist in heels and Wayfarers was a notable example—the tenor of the night was frequently emotional, even dark. At one point, Harris unmistakably called Trump a predator.
"I know a predator when I see one,” she declared.
For the Biden campaign, the purpose was to shine the spotlight on Trump himself. As an aide to the campaign explained it: “The challenger to an incumbent president always wants it to be a referendum.”
To lay out that referendum, Wednesday offered a sharp and jaded portrait of the current political landscape.
“So to all the young people: Don’t give up on America,” Clinton said. “Despite our flaws and problems, we have come so far. And we can still be a more just and equal country, full of opportunities previous generations could never have imagined.”
Indeed, even the musical guests on Wednesday night seemed nearly crushed under the weight of the evening.
“You don’t need me to tell you everything is a mess,” said five-time Grammy winner Billie Eilish, who told viewers that “the only way to be certain of the future is to make it ourselves.”