Political scientists tend to like conventions more than media figures do. One reason is that journalists, whose souls are stirred most of all by the dramatic and the unexpected, are easily bored and annoyed by the packaged, stage-managed production of modern conventions, where the nomination outcome is pre-ordained and party leaders labor to hide any internal divisions or other juicy stories from public view. (Clint Eastwood's famously bizarro empty-chair routine got so much media attention at the 2012 Republican convention largely because it was a rare moment of true spontaneity.)
But another reason is that political scientists tend to like parties more than media figures do, and national conventions are above all party affairs. The nature of this year's conventions means that they can't serve as physical gatherings of the parties' human infrastructure—a real loss, even if the virtual version is a slicker and snappier experience for viewers on television. But they are still important as a unique window into how each party defines itself, and how that definition changes from one election to the next.
In most respects, the Democratic Party we saw on display this week was a familiar animal—above all, a varied coalition of social groups. Unsurprisingly, given the current climate, the topics of racial and gender equality were not only implicitly primed by the presentation of a demographically diverse succession of participants, but were also frequently invoked in speeches and voiceovers. Democrats also handed over key speaking slots to the first families of the party—the Obamas and Clintons, with a briefer but equally inevitable Kennedy appearance as well—and exploited their permanent representational advantage within the community of popular entertainment-industry professionals.
But there were also unmistakable signs of change. If the typical persuadable voter in the minds of party strategists 20 or 30 years ago was a small-town, church-going wage earner who goes hunting on the weekends, today it's more like a suburban small-business owner with Lean In on the coffee table and Beyoncé on Spotify. Democrats' former defensiveness about associations with cultural liberalism is no longer a visible element of the party's national message, and subjects that party leaders were once somewhat reluctant to discuss—gun control, feminism, LGBT rights, illegal immigration—are now central elements of its public appeal. So while Joe Biden might have been seen in the primaries by supporters and detractors alike as a kind of throwback figure representing bygone days, the campaign he's wound up running is very much a reflection of the Democratic Party's present course.