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The 2020 Democratic Convention Could Be a Tech Debacle or an Ambitious Feat

This year’s Democratic National Convention will be a far cry from the four-day parties and gaudy spectacles of the past.

A City of Milwaukee worker puts up a road closed sign outside the Wisconsin Center ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 17, 2020.

What do you suppose the Democrats will be talking about at their “convention” this week?

The U.S. crossed the threshold of 170,000 COVID deaths last night; with more than 5.4 million infections, our country is the most virus-riddled nation on the face of the Earth. In response, the president of the United States has begun pushing “an extract from the oleander plant as a dietary supplement to cure COVID-19, despite lack of proof that it works,” according to Axios.

Donald Trump apparently got the oleander idea from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson, and from Mike Lindell, the guy who founded and who has a financial stake in the company that makes the supplement. Oleander in the wild is deadly; a single leaf can kill a child. In my mind’s eye, I see Trump supporters plucking oleander plants to make tea, because I remember all the calls to poison control centers that came in after Trump publicly mused about the possibility of using disinfectant inside of one’s body to kill COVID.

On Saturday, scientists declared that the Greenland ice sheet has “passed the point of no return,” meaning that if we stopped climate disruption on a dime tomorrow, that ice sheet will still disappear into the oceans, causing them to rise. Our planet is still very sick, and the fact that we got sick as well has not changed the dire ecological circumstances one bit.

When presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden tapped California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate last week, the eruption of racist “birther” nonsense from the White House was as immediate as it was predictable. The ongoing anti-racism uprising across the country has found no purchase in the overmind at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the astonishment of precisely none.

The COVID-19 calamity has not broken the United States. It has revealed what was broken already, and what has been broken for a long time. Our for-profit medical industry — amazing, that word, and where it appears in our system; the prison “industry,” for example — has been deliberately stripped for parts and strains to contain a pandemic that may last or linger for years.

With more than 30 million people out of work, and with a Republican senate stalling aid to the people because they cannot reach a caucus consensus on ordering breakfast, mighty capitalism thrums like a crystal goblet on the sonic edge of shattering. That this is fundamentally a good thing in the long run does not mitigate the complexities that await when the Wall Street bull finally crumbles. Only leadership can mitigate that, and leadership has been in short supply for a very long time.

Speaking of leadership, Trump was asked during a Saturday press conference why he is not negotiating a new COVID stimulus/relief package with Speaker Pelosi and the House Democrats. “The country is doing very well right now,” he replied. “We can live very happily with it or without it.”

And there you have it.

There is no dearth of hugely important topics for Democratic political heavyweights to take on. If the words “United States Postal Service” are not on the lips of every speaker until the balloons drop in Biden’s basement, however, the party will live to regret it on election night, and every night after. The postal service is being deliberately sabotaged from within by a Trump crony who is heavily invested in USPS competitors in the private sector. As the pandemic rages, the USPS is democracy’s lifeline in November, and Trump is trashing it in broad daylight because he fears losing.

“The president’s apparatchiks are now sealing up mailboxes and hauling others away,” writes Jack Holmes for Esquire. “They’re removing mail sorting machines from United States Postal Service facilities. They are destroying a core public service of this country — an agency pioneered by Benjamin Franklin and expressly laid out in the Constitution — in order to stop people from voting by mail. In the short term, they will cut some citizens off from a service they depend on, and deal serious damage to American companies. They will do this in order to attack the voting rights of American citizens.”

I am confident that at least some of the convention speakers will address these towering issues with the vigor they require. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will speak tonight, as will New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state was among the hardest hit by the pandemic last spring.

Sanders is expected to give his full-throated support to Biden, as he has done since his campaign ended. His progressive voice will be most welcome on a night that features a long slate of “centrist” and conservative Democratic speakers: Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, and John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio.

Capping this evening’s program will be an address by former First Lady Michelle Obama, and if her speech tonight is anything like the one she gave at the 2016 convention, it is likely to be well received by the many voters — including many Black women voters, who are the backbone of the Democratic party base — who are eager to hear her now endorse a ticket with the country’s first Black woman vice presidential nominee.

The speakers for the rest of the week will likewise reflect the center-right tilt of the Biden/Harris ticket. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former acting US Attorney General Sally Yates will speak Tuesday, but so will John Kerry, Chuck Schumer and Bill Clinton. Sen. Elizabeth Warren will speak Wednesday, but so will Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama. Andrew Yang and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms will speak Thursday, but so will Pete Buttigieg, Chris Coons and, finally, Joe Biden.

Tilt or not, the Democrats better have their technological shit together for this thing, or it will be a national four-day humiliation that could let Trump back into the race at a moment when his numbers are cratering across the board. During this convention, according to The Washington Post, “a behind-the-scenes crew of about 400 with operation centers in New York, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Wilmington, Del., plans to broadcast to the nation hundreds of live video feeds from living rooms, national monuments and stages around the country.”

That is an enormous undertaking. If the Democrats have bitten off more tech than they can chew, if the feeds fail or slur due to bad connections, or if some outside agency lays siege to the process (which I am personally certain is thoroughly inevitable), folks watching at home will flip back to Netflix while pondering, again, how it is that the party manages to trip over itself at nearly every critical opportunity. If they get the tech right, this may be a finely tuned event. If they screw it up, it could become a race-altering debacle.

Historically, party conventions have been little more than television shows, gaudy infomercials to highlight party stars and stalwarts while reminding everyone how awful the other guys are. It’s been a four-day party in the bars and hotels in the past, but that’s all over for now.

This year, we will instead have a national Zoom meeting in a moment of massive and intersecting crises, a necessarily somber affair that hopefully reflects and acknowledges the fear, rage and dismay that is loose upon the land. As ever, we shall see.