I found all three speeches given on the first night of the Democratic National Convention—Michelle Obama’s, Elizabeth Warren’s, and Bernie Sanders’—moving, consoling and reinvigorating. For Sanders and Warren, both of whom dwell further left in the liberal territories than Hillary, it was a moment of publicly relinquishing something they publicly hoped for—of regrouping, reframing, reiterating, and redirecting. They’re not giving up pursuing what they (and I) believe matters; they both went through the list again, in case we’re inclined to remove it to the back burner: meaningful immigration reform, healthcare for all, corporate responsibility, overturning Citizens United, living minimum wage, a tax system that reduces income inequality, equal rights and protection for marginalized groups . . . . They kept their eyes on those prizes, and rose memorably above personality politics. They made it more possible for me to do the same from my own small corner of our embattled constitutional democracy.
I was especially impressed by what they didn’t say. Though they made some important points about Trump’s incompetence, ignorance, insularity, and egomania, they didn’t mention the fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC, committed multiple breaches of ethics to try to insure that Hillary won the primary. They didn’t yield to whatever temptation the moment offered to point to troubling evidence of election fraud and tampering. They chose to unify.
But neither speech was a mere capitulation, and in that, I am stirred to particular admiration for what they exhibited about leadership. Sanders’ concession was generous and gracious; I believe he has thought long and hard about supporting Hillary, and that it wasn’t an easy decision. He taught me something about what it means to compromise with integrity: he gave her every benefit of the many doubts he’s raised and shared about her political positions and uses of power. He will keep challenging her and the party. He’ll stay in the conversation. And he helped me want to do that, too, and to keep finding ways to have it that don’t degenerate into mere complaint.
I was moved in other ways by Michelle’s speech. She had a different kind of fine line to tread. She is acutely conscious of the hostilities that have met her husband’s administration at every turn, but she, too, spoke from a place beyond the pain and resentment and defensiveness she must often have felt. I was stopped, near the end of her speech by this: “We cannot afford to be tired, frustrated, or cynical. No, hear me – between now and November we need to do what we did eight years ago and four years ago . . . .”
A black woman saying to an audience so full of white men and women, “hear me” made me suddenly aware as if a bolt of electricity had shot through my body of how huge a thing it is for her to utter that little imperative with such command and confidence. “Hear me.” She has to know, whenever she rises to speak, that one constituency she represents are those who for generations remained painfully, humiliatingly unheard and invisible. To have mentioned that she wakes every morning in a house built by slaves testifies to that abiding awareness. “Hear me” seemed to me a moment almost as stirring as the moment Obama’s election was announced. That she was heard—and with enormous respect, attention, and gratitude—that her authority was recognized and honored with such applause, and that she could speak as a wife and mother about raising and protecting children as an essential focus for our collective efforts to live rightly—restored for me what had been waning. I have been getting tired, frustrated, and cynical about political process. But though I still believe it is a deeply flawed process, and that in other things than politics lies the salvation of the world, I feel summoned again to citizenship. I’m grateful to be an American insofar as it means working alongside these three and others—Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, Chris Hedges, Joanna Macy, Wendell Berry, Toni Morrison, Cornell West, Noam Chomsky, . . . and others in my personal hall of heroes—to work locally and think globally and listen hard to those who deserve at long last to be heard.