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Democrats highlight diversity at their convention — and the challenges that come with it

There are a variety of themes and messages woven through this week’s Democratic National Convention — the humanity of Joe Biden and the unfitness of President Trump principal among them. Less spoken but more apparent is the theme of diversity and with it the reality of a political party coming to terms with a rising America.

Tuesday’s reimagined roll call of the states, a visual and verbal tour across every corner of the United States, highlighted the richness and variety of the nation’s demographic tapestry as well as the geographic splendor of the country. That roll call likely rendered obsolete the traditional and often tiring and cliched balloting that was a hallmark of past conventions.

The keynote address, normally a plum assignment given to a single politician — think of Barack Obama at the 2004 convention in Boston — was assigned to 17 people, all part of a rising generation of party leaders coming to the fore, their images conveying a message that spoke as loudly as the words they collectively spoke.

Diversity is not a new theme for the Democrats. Every national convention dating back years has sought to highlight that Democrats are, as they like to say, a party that looks like America. The past two Democratic presidents, Obama and Bill Clinton, promised to assemble administrations that met that test, even if they sometimes struggled to get it done.

Biden, now officially the party’s presidential nominee, has promised, like Obama and Clinton before him, to put together a government that reflects the country’s diversity. By selecting Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate, he has taken the first big step toward living up to that pledge — but only a first step.

If the theme on display at the convention is not new, there is something different today. The party that has prided itself on being diverse is being forced to come to terms with what it means to live up to that claim. Women and people of color want more than to be highlighted at national conventions. They are demanding and beginning to get the power and prominence that their numbers and influence represent. They are not yet where they want to be.

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The field of candidates who sought the party’s nomination reflected this new reality. More women and more candidates of color sought the Democratic nomination than ever before. In the end, the race devolved to a pair of old White men, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to considerable disappointment among many in the party, even if they ultimately agreed that Biden was the strongest candidate for the general election.

Harris left the race before the first votes, as did Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and others. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) lasted far longer but neither finished higher than third in any of the primaries or caucuses. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) provided sparks of inspiration but didn’t attract votes. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang raised issues in new ways but couldn’t get traction. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is openly gay, started strong but then faded.

At the convention, there are grumblings among some Latinx activists that their community has been underrepresented on the virtual stage, especially during prime time. Julián Castro, the former housing secretary and mayor of San Antonio who also sought the nomination and took a hard shot at Biden, has been largely sidelined. Eight years ago, he delivered a well-received keynote address at Obama’s second convention.

From a different angle, the Democrats’ focus on diversity has long been seized upon by critics on the right who claim the party is obsessed with identity politics rather than the whole of the country. One reason Trump was elected in 2016 was because of his success in appealing to and motivating older White voters, including those in the working class, who felt ignored or disparaged by the party of Democrats and who are unnerved by the demographic changes that have reshaped America.

As a candidate, Biden has sought to appeal to some of those voters, particularly in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where the election was decided in 2016. At the convention, the Democrats have brought in disaffected Republicans who are supporting Biden in hopes of attracting more. But the balancing act of creating a big tent remains challenging and will test the party through the election and beyond.

Still, the theme of diversity that is on display at the convention is one that is increasingly embraced by society more broadly. The phrase “diversity, inclusion and belonging” has become more commonplace across a range of institutions. Whether among a younger and more diverse generation or within businesses and other institutions dealing with a changing workforce, these words represent widely accepted goals and aspirations, even if still largely unfilled. It is one thing to celebrate diversity, another to live up to it.

Only in the past few years has that reality hit home for many Democrats. If Black women are the backbone of the party, they have until recently played less prominent roles than White men and still are not where many of the activists want them to be. If Latinos have changed the face of America, they have sometimes been an afterthought in the way Democrats have run campaigns. Former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke might now be a senator from Texas if he had marshaled his resources more effectively in the Hispanic community.

At a moment when the country is suffering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and an economic collapse, the absence of hoopla and silliness seems to match the mood of the moment. The virtual convention that the Democrats are offering the country each night not only highlights the theme of diversity, it brings it into everyone’s living room with an intimacy and therefore a power that traditional conventions cannot.

There is a big difference between a sea of faces on the convention floor that includes many people of color and the individual faces and voices, in big or small boxes, on the screen this week. The absence of applause interrupting speeches and the intimacy of many of the prepackaged video clips adds to the focus on images and words that the Democrats have chosen to highlight.

This is a new kind of convention for a new America that aspires to greater equality and more equitable participation. The Democrats have chosen to highlight that this week, but in doing so they have also brought a reminder that the path to fulfilling that goal is still a long one and not without many obstacles.