Johns, a retired criminologist in Brunswick, Ga., found the first two nights of the Democratic National Convention “very disappointing, a kind of People magazine personal interest story,” she said Wednesday. “I’m not voting for a roommate. It’s very easy to show a lot of people’s faces, but that doesn’t tell anybody what you’re going to do for working-class people.”
Come Nov. 3, “maybe I’ll just stay home,” Johns said. “Last time, I gritted my teeth and voted for Hillary Clinton, and I really don’t know if I can do that again for another corporate Democrat.”
Eight hundred miles north of where Johns is watching the convention, in Chesterbrook, Pa., Jessica Weingarten is savoring every zinger aimed at Trump. She loved Michelle Obama’s barbs and only wishes the Democrats would be more pointed about “how illegal and incompetent Trump’s behavior has been.” Weingarten said Jill Biden’s earnest authenticity will help her win over some of the nonvoters she intends to persuade to support Joe Biden this fall.
“This is a fight between fascism and democracy,” said Weingarten, 63, a business owner and lifelong Democratic activist. “These privileged left-wing progressives aren’t the ones living in their cars because they lost their home because of coronavirus. This election is about them, about the roads, the schools — it’s health care, it’s everything. Good government can save the world.”
In this strangest of campaigns, Democrats watching the nation’s first virtual convention are at once united in their passion to end the Trump presidency and divided in their visions of how to do that — and what should come next.
In opinion surveys and dozens of interviews, Democrats see a nation adrift, a people in pain. Together, they yearn for hope and inspiration. They want to be able to trust again — trust their leaders, institutions and their fellow Americans. Yet like the country as a whole, they fall into sharply divided factions with decidedly different perspectives on what needs to be done and who ought to do it.
Whomever they supported in this year’s primaries, the overwhelming majority of Democrats tell pollsters they’ll vote for Biden, who has a half-century-long record as a traditional liberal but is running on the most left-wing platform Democrats have adopted since 1972.
But beneath that unity, an undercurrent of division is palpable, exacerbated by the economic crisis caused by the novel coronavirus, the street protests unleashed by the killing of George Floyd and the party’s failure to prevent the Trump presidency four years ago.
“The pandemic, Black Lives Matter and the protests have made it obvious to everyone that we’re in such a tough situation because everyone in the country is not equally protected,” said David Sinaiko, who teaches theater and English at a high school in Marin County north of San Francisco.
Sinaiko has three children in their 20s, and “they’re all dying to see what the future of the Democratic Party will look like,” he said. “So it’s really disappointing that they have their convention and it’s Hillary and Bill Clinton speaking again. The Clintons represent something young people are eager to move on from — economic policies that created this vast inequality in the country.”
Yet as much as Sinaiko and his children want fundamental change that would narrow the gulf that separates most Americans from the affluent, he can’t understand why some left-wing protesters reject Biden and traditional Democratic politicians.
“I’m confounded by the Never Biden stuff,” Sinaiko said. “Change doesn’t happen with an all-or-nothing attitude. Do they really not see the difference between the parties after all this time under the Trump administration?”
Since March, when Biden’s nomination first seemed likely, the party’s factions have sought to solidify the Democratic base against Trump. Biden and his left-wing rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), formed a Unity Task Force, and its discussions led Biden to shift left on matters such as climate policy and to adopt more energetic rhetoric about how the coronavirus has revealed structural weaknesses in American society.
But for the many Americans who don’t follow politics closely, this week is the first major opportunity to see what the Democrats stand for. In Portland, Ore., Andrea Haack hopes the convention will clarify whether the Democratic message is primarily one of relief from Trump or is an assertion that issues such as health care, homelessness, immigration and police reform must be addressed.
Haack, a 45-year-old staffer at Portland State University, grew up believing politics was a tool for change.
“I’m a typical Portland person,” she said. “I wear lots of black. I’m tattooed everywhere. And of course I protest.” She’s been to dozens of marches since high school — for gay rights, against President George W. Bush, for labor unions.
Haack believes it will be necessary to keep protesting under a Democratic president, to assure that the issues she cares about stay front and center, but she worries that putting too much emphasis on difficult issues during the campaign might backfire.
“The anti-Trump message might work better to pull in right-of-center people, but the policy positions are what are important to people already left-leaning,” Haack said.
“How do you thread that needle? I honestly don’t know. Because, to be honest, I don’t know very many Republicans, so I don’t know what would appeal to them.”
Democrats don’t agree on what policies will get the country back on track, but many are united in their craving for a sense of belonging and for a rekindling of the trust they once had in the system and in each other.
Many cited the divide over how to address the coronavirus crisis — the wildly different attitudes toward wearing masks, opening stores or holding school in-person — as evidence that too many Americans no longer trust their neighbors, medical and scientific experts or government authorities.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans said in a Pew Research Center poll earlier this year that people mostly look out only for themselves, a number that didn’t vary much by party affiliation.
Celia Sgroi, a retired city judge in Oswego, N.Y., near the Canadian border, wants the convention to restore her faith in America. The party’s previous two White House occupants won with messages of hope — Clinton’s “man from Hope” campaign and Barack Obama’s “hope and change” theme — and Sgroi now seeks a similar approach from the man who would be the country’s oldest president ever.
“I’m not proud of being American anymore,” she lamented. “I never had the feeling like I do now that people in the world are absolutely disgusted with us. I want a vision for the country, for what I used to think of as America — a leader in education, science and technology, a country that helps others.”
The country needs an emotional boost, Sgroi said, and so does she.
“I watch MSNBC a couple hours every night, and lately the tone has been ‘We’re all going to die,’ ” she said. “I can’t take much more of that. I don’t want to be hanging black crepe all the time. What I need from the convention is the tiniest sense of hope.”
For three years, Sgroi, 71, has felt as if she were in a waking nightmare.
“I’d like to be able to sleep again,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up in the middle of night with my mind racing about Trump policies.” Children in cages, bullying, lying, denigrating nicknames for everyone — “he’s come to be too much of a negative influence in my life, and he’s everywhere. I want him out of my life.”
Since March, Sgroi has barely left a house where she lives alone but for her Maltese dog, Cassie. Going out, she worries, would be the death of her.
She wavers between wanting the Democrats to hit Trump hard, like those Lincoln Project TV ads from anti-Trump Republicans, and wanting Democrats to go high when the other side goes low, in former first lady Michelle Obama’s famous formulation.
“I want to come away from the convention believing again that yes, we’re better than that, and people have had enough of him so that no matter what he does, we can still beat him,” Sgroi said.
That passion to feel hopeful again is one of the few themes that seems to bind moderates and left-leaning Democrats.
At 15, Dhruvak Mirani is already a veteran of several political campaigns; the junior at Glenelg High School in Howard County, Md., sent tens of thousands of texts on behalf of Sanders before the senator dropped out of the race.
Mirani shifted his support to Biden, if reluctantly. “Look, Joe Biden is a far better alternative than Trump, but it’s not what a lot of people like me were looking for,” he said.
The teen is casting his eye beyond this fall, hoping that the convention will signal what might come after Biden. “I’m curious how long the progressive wing will be okay supporting mainstream centrist candidates that keep undermining progressive movement,” Mirani said. “The primary goal right now is to get Trump out. But what happens after that?”
Levi Bradford, a third-year student at the University of Florida law school, doesn’t want to wait for his party to change.
“I’m kind of conflicted,” said the 25-year-old from Sarasota. “I want them to send a message that we’re all on the same team, and we’re going to get this guy out of office. But at the same time, I want them to recognize that this is not the ideal ticket for a lot of us. I feel like, once we get Trump out of office, that’s great, we’re taking down a demagogue. But how are they actually planning to really revamp the party so it’s more representative of minority voters?”
Barbara Cary says she cannot afford to look beyond this election cycle — the damage that she says Trump has caused to the nation’s economy and health-care system needs to be repaired now.
Cary, who works in human resources for a company that makes window shades, said that where she lives near Knoxville, Tenn., Trump voters remain loyal to the president.
“My neighborhood is just littered with Trump and ‘no liberal zone’ and Blue Lives Matter” signs, she said. “It’s just Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.”
Cary, 62, sees no sign that Democrats can peel off Trump supporters, just as she says that “There’s nothing Republicans could say to win me over.”
So Cary, who is Black, wants Democrats to avoid controversy and “just let the knucklehead keep talking — like what he’s doing to the post office.” She was intrigued to see that some of her White neighbors have been frustrated by the recent removal of some mailboxes in their neighborhood.
“Give him the rope to hang himself, which is what he’s doing a fine job of already,” she said.
But Andre Dickens, a Democratic city council member in Atlanta, said it’s not enough just to bash Trump or let him damage his own chances.
Dickens, 46, wants to hear “a message that is unifying to the Democrats, but also unifying to the nation in general. The message needs to communicate that we are a strong nation, but that we can be weakened by selfishness at the top.”
“Even if you previously voted with Republicans or consider yourself an independent, we’ve got to have a message that says, ‘together we will figure out a path forward that includes everyone and doesn’t pick fights to separate us,’ ” Dickens said. “I don’t want to see anyone trying to out-Trump Trump in nastiness, in selfishness, in that whole race to the bottom.”
But governing is about policy, and many voters have a menu of changes they want from the next president.
Patricia Sperti, who describes herself as a “65-year-old lesbian” and lifelong Democrat, has stood with her party since her Italian immigrant grandfather took her to see John F. Kennedy speak in Battle Creek, Mich., when she was 5.
Retired from work in adult foster care for the state government, Sperti has been stuck in her small condo in East Lansing since March because she has an autoimmune deficiency that makes her particularly vulnerable to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
An avid Sanders supporter — “I’m not a capitalist, kiddo” — she’s now all in for Biden. Still, she says it’s vital to keep criticizing Biden and the party even while supporting them.
“I want them to address immigration — I want them to connect a path for DACA immediately,” she said. “I want them to make Medicare-for-all available for anyone who is uninsured.” She wants audits of White House spending, an accounting of research money going toward a coronavirus vaccine, and stipends — not just unemployment benefits — for those who’ve lost work because of the virus.
“People are hungry; they’re struggling for food,” she said.
Democrats have different agendas, political strategies and tastes in leadership. But they seem to agree that the country sorely needs inspiration.
“Honestly, I want something refreshing, something that is reassuring,” said Jude Derisme, a Haitian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 1997 and works in South Florida for the SEIU, a union representing public employees and health-care workers. “I’m not looking for anything radical, or anything extreme. I just want something normal, because it’s been so chaotic. We want to build and create something, not just vote against something.”
The No. 1 thing T.J. Shanoff wants from this week is to see Democrats “get behind Biden without equivocation,” said the musician from Evanston, Ill. “I forgive a man in his 70s who has otherwise demonstrated a passion for politics, empathy and kindness and who has gone through repeated tragedies. It’s okay if he’s not like Bernie Sanders, policy-wise. Just because he’s not screaming ‘defund the police’ through a bullhorn doesn’t mean everyone should not get behind him. Things have gotten so crazy, even a modicum of normalcy would be welcome.”
Lori Rozsa in Miami, Haisten Willis in Atlanta and Mark Guarino in Chicago contributed to this report.