Similar sentiments were expressed the next night after Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination. Standing on the linoleum tile and under the harsh fluorescent light of a public high school library, Joe and Jill were showered with a few bucks’ worth of paper streamers. A Fox News headline crowed, “Republicans mock ‘awkward’ moment Biden officially nominated for president,” while ABC praised this same moment as “slightly awkward, but jubilant.”
Predictably, this consensus breaks down into partisan disagreement. Right-wing pundits lob “awkward” like a slur, while left-wingers and centrists say it was “awkward, but …” then add something nice. Almost all of this hand-wringing misses the point. When it comes to political conventions — online or off — awkwardness isn’t just inevitable — it’s actively ideal. The logic goes like this: Awkwardness imbues an event with the sense that what we’re watching is happening live, even when it has been prerecorded or carefully produced, as is the case with this week’s DNC goings on. And liveness, in turn, lends the event the feeling of authenticity, which is exactly what presidential campaigns need most of all.
Some pundits and observers, rather than mocking or mitigating the DNC’s “awkwardness,” have rightly recognized that it is key to the convention’s charms — and possibly even its success. On the convention’s first night, The Washington Post said: “There were glitches of course: a creaky door, odd camera angles, awkward pauses,” but the result was that speeches felt like “intimate little visits” to speaker’s homes. Likewise, Vanity Fair called Tuesday’s roll call vote “a little awkward,” but then clarified that it “went off the rails — in a good way.” Instead of passing microphones from one delegation to the next, as they would in a normal year, DNC producers skipped from one live video stream to the next, taking us all on a whirlwind tour of 50 states and seven territories.
Were hiccups and stumbles evident? Oh yes. The bulk of Wisconsin’s delegates went to a mystery-candidate named “Joseph Videns.” And the whole thing descended, as Vanity Fair observed, into “public access TV battiness” more than once. For example, during Rep. Joseph McNamara’s live stream from Rhode Island, a mystery man stood beside him dressed in black, gazing deeply (too deeply) into the camera. All the while, this man, later identified by The Post as a chef named John Bordieri, displayed a heaping plate of calamari, holding it not like a plate of hot squid but like a jewel on a velvet cushion. Look, I’m sure the DNC would have preferred a second take. (Less intensity about the squid this time, okay?) But according to Fox News and the Boston Globe — not to mention almost all of Twitter — this man “won” the night. The awkwardness again became the story, but it was a story the DNC should revel in.
Awkwardness is good for more than giggles. It helps to resolve a paradox faced by every party convention. As a demonstration of party competence, the convention must go smoothly. But as a stage for political expression, it must feel real — and, whether party leaders like it or not, this means free to go really wrong. It’s a tricky balancing act. Stage-manage the action too tightly, and no one will believe a word you say; cut things too loose, and your party will never live it down. A bit of awkwardness — think Clint Eastwood’s baffling address to a chair in 2012 — solves both problems. It loosens the collar of party management without letting the most important speakers run hog-wild.
And this little bit of freedom has a way of authenticating the speaker and lending extra credibility to whatever they say. That’s because we tend to equate clearly scripted performances with falseness and more spontaneous ones — or at least ones that appear to be spontaneous — with truth. Trump knows this well. That’s why he spent years of Barack Obama’s presidency harping on Obama’s use of teleprompters. In Trump’s view — a view shared by many Americans — teleprompters turn people into automatons, puppets, playback devices for words that slip unbidden across their lips. (Just ask Marco Rubio.) This quasi-religious fear of scripts and faith in liveness also partially explains Trump’s bizarre behavior at his rallies. Sure, he may speak in fractured sentences, he may meander through a dozen different topics, and he may get the facts completely wrong — but at least he’s both thinking and speaking live.
This sort of liveness doesn’t depend on live transmission. It’s the liveness of late-night talk shows, old-style sitcoms, and other stuff recorded live before a studio audience. Such programs might be edited to remove the most egregious errors, but they retain a certain je ne sais quoi we call “live.” It’s clear that someone spoke off the cuff, milked the crowd, stayed on their toes, hit their marks, and picked up their cues. In other words, something happened, and it might have happened differently.
This kind of liveness is everywhere on TV — not only in the obvious places like prank shows, game shows and reality TV, but also in procedurals, commercials and prestige dramas that go out of their way to adopt the camera habits, speech rhythms and body language of such liveness. As TV scholar Jane Feuer argues, even as TV “becomes less and less a ‘live’ medium,” people “insist more and more upon an ideology of the live.” By this, Feuer means that ostentatiously live television persuades us to believe in things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to prove, lending a patina of authority and reality to the things unfolding on our screens. Over the decades, we’ve become experts at slipping into this way of seeing, deducing it from the way a shot is framed, the way a camera moves (or doesn’t), people’s reactions, the way they talk — and, yes, the awkwardness they exhibit.
Because it furnishes a sense of authenticity — the very thing that political candidates crave above all else, this experience of liveness is the goal of all conventions — a goal that’s more difficult than ever this year. Not wanting to rely on 1,000 live transmissions going right, the DNC has relied heavily on prerecorded videos. And yet they’ve gone out of their way to make these recordings feel live — in that other, recorded way — often by letting them feel more awkward than they would if they were playing out live in a crowded convention hall.
Consider, for instance, Tuesday’s keynote — a single speech given in snippets by 17 different speakers. The DNC certainly could have afforded to send home broadcasting kits to each of the speakers, which would have lent the production a more homogeneous feel. Instead, they apparently left each of the participants to fend for themselves. Some held a smartphone at arms-length, which you see in their twisted bodies, odd camera angles, and the way the image shakes in rhythm with their speech. Others used selfie sticks, tripods, and tabletop lighting rigs — facts I know because the DNC decided to show us how they were pulling all of this off. Mid-sentence, they cut away to “live” shots of the speakers filming themselves. These shots seem to take us “backstage” — giving us the vibe of the live, even though we know it was carefully patched together after the fact.
This keynote worked because its strategically deliberate awkwardness matched its message so well. The 17 speakers were mostly minor figures like state senators and junior representatives — people elected into office after Trump’s rise to power. In lieu of a single rising star, we were shown a swirling nebula — a mass of people about to gather into something new. This could be you, the DNC is saying. You have a smartphone, right? These are just people who said “Enough!” and ran for office.
And if that feels right and real today, it’s at least partially because it fits so well into our own all-too-familiar experience of liveness. Locked away from our loved ones and friends, we drop into each other’s lives by FaceTime — we schedule family Zoom calls, in which we alternate between clumsily talking over one another and letting long, yes, awkward, silences linger, knowing that all of this is the price we pay for feelings of love, community and connection. This is what it means today for us to live with one another, to be alive for one another, and to keep each other alive. And that’s why the convention’s similar stumbles and stutters feel less like missteps than they do like real evidence of shared intimacy and mutual humanity. So, sure, the DNC has been an awkward affair. But that’s exactly how they want it — and how it should be.