The message of the first night of the Democratic Convention was “We built it together.” Speaker after speaker took aim at the Republican Party’s Randian, libertarian vision, at the ideology that Britain’s Margaret Thatcher succinctly expressed when she said, “There is no such thing as society.”
There is, too, replied the Democrats. There is temporal society—the intergenerational links, the investment in education that pays off not in your own success but, as San Antonio Julian Castro pointed out, in your children’s. There is the society of laws, where Democrats (in general) and Barack Obama (in particular) have fought for equality in matters of sexual orientation. There is the economic society—now more unequal than it’s been in 80 years—where Obama, in his wife’s words, ensured that paying your medical bill won’t mean you go broke.
The first evening on the Democrats’ conclave was a declaration of interdependence, backed up by personal testimony to the value not just of schoolteachers but, quoting Michelle Obama, of school janitors; of parents and grandparents; of the obligations to America’s children, whatever their parents’ lot. In the killer line in the killer speech of the night—again, Michelle’s—she contrasted that commitment, her husband’s commitment, to Mitt Romney’s. Her husband, she said, “believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you.”
Michelle Obama’s speech was the single most successful speech to a national political convention since—well, since a U.S. Senate candidate just on the cusp of fame delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. Her voice was stunning; she spoke with a timbre of deep emotion held in check by an equally apparent discipline. She’s clearly so schooled herself in public speaking that we can acclaim her as a natural. And she delivered many of the things Ann Romney didn’t in her own testament to her husband—notably, some genuine anecdotes about the man in her life.
Michelle was just one—the most effective, but just one—of the opening session’s speakers who talked about the ten letters Obama reads every night from Americans who write the president. The image of Obama poring over these letters isn’t a bad one to contrast with that of Romney poring over numbers that will help him decide whether a business should live or die. People figure into Obama’s calculations in a way they don’t in Romney’s—that was the main contrast point of the evening, and it complements the ideological contrast the speakers drew between their vision of an interdependent nation and the Republicans’ vision of an atomistic one.
The one speaker of the evening who rivaled Michelle for emotional impact was an Arizona woman named Stacy Linh, who came onstage with her husband and two little girls, one of whom, a toddler named Zoe, suffers from congenital heart disease. Zoe has already had two heart surgeries and will soon have a third. Thanks to Obamacare’s ban on the lifetime limits that health insurers routinely used to impose, her mother said, Zoe’s upcoming surgery won’t be the last medical care that the Linh family’s insurer will pay for.
Stacy Linh seemed on the verge of tears as she spoke. One more declaration of interdependence, one more life experience that shows the hollowness, the bankruptcy, of the Republicans’ Thatcherite vision for America.