The Three Powerful Messages of the Democratic Convention

(Photo: Sipa USA via AP/Dennis van Tine)

Hillary Clinton speaks during the final night of the Democratic National Convention, after formally accepting the party's nomination for president.

The Democrats left Philadelphia last night after a generally successful convention that conveyed three messages.

The first was simply that we are, as the campaign says ad nauseum, stronger together, and that Donald Trump’s efforts to pull us apart will—well, pull us apart. No convention has ever emphasized tolerance and equality—and the costs of intolerance and the denial of rights—like this one. None ever featured so prominently every minority or out-group. In the first two hours (4 to 6 p.m. Eastern time) of Thursday’s session, more than 25 speakers came to the podium, not one of them a straight white male. The most devastatingly effective of these presentations, however, came during primetime, when the father of a Muslim Arab-American immigrant who became an army officer and died in Iraq to save his troops, indignantly asked Donald Trump if he’d ever even read the Constitution. Speaker after speaker, culminating with Hillary Clinton herself, both decried Trump’s bigotry and extolled the advances towards equality among non-straight-white-males that the Democrats have championed and will continue to champion.

The second message was directed both at all those out-groups, whose numbers are steadily increasing and which pollster Stan Greenberg has dubbed the Rising American Electorate, and at that out-group nouveau, the white working class, whose numbers (and life expectancies) are dwindling, and which we might term the Sinking American Electorate. After 6 p.m., the speakers alternated between those who continued to deal with social inequality, those who dealt with economic inequality, or both. Representing the Rust Belt, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm decried corporate offshoring and spoke of Clinton’s plan to devote federal funds to infrastructure and manufacturing. In a striking indication of how far left the party has shifted on economic issues, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—speaking more about his own record than Clinton’s, in a bid to position himself for a future presidential run—ticked off the progressive legislation he’s signed in the past couple of years: a $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave, and marriage equality well before the Supreme Court made it the law of the land. Cuomo has been a Wall Street Democrat par excellence and a scourge of the left; that he came before the convention as a born-again liberal is a clear signal of the party’s leftward shift in the wake of the 2008 collapse, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and the shrinking of the middle class.

It was these concerns—the plight of downwardly mobile white workers, poverty-wage immigrants, and students saddled with debt—to which Clinton gave pride of place as she outlined her programs in her acceptance speech. She offered an extensive menu: investing in infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, creating tax breaks for corporations that share their profits with their employers, mandating paid family leave, funding tuition-free college and student loan relief, imposing penalties for corporations that move abroad, demanding fairer trade deals, cracking down on Chinese violations of the terms of trade, imposing stricter Wall Street regulations, and raising taxes on corporations and the rich.

Just as important, she laid the blame for wage stagnation and the rise of inequality not on such impersonal and unstoppable forces as technology and globalization, but on the way in which big money dominates politics and government to secure policies that ensure all income flows to the top. “I believe that our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should,” she said. “That’s why we need to appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics and expand voting rights, not restrict them. And we’ll pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.”

That’s not a full Bernie Sanders, but it’s a big step toward the de-plutocratization of government and the economy.

Whether Clinton’s progressive economics will garner her enough white voters in the post-industrial Midwest to win their states in November remains to be seen. But Clinton and the Democrats also advanced a third argument during the convention that I think may be their most powerful. The argument concerns Trump’s temperament—narcissistic, authoritarian, insecure, and just too impulsive to be allowed to govern in the nuclear age.

Imagine Trump, Clinton said, “in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons. I can’t put it better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started, not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men, the ones moved by fear and pride.”

Like Obama and several other speakers during the convention, Clinton also seized on Trump’s perhaps fatal-to-his candidacy choice of words in his acceptance speech: “I alone can fix the system.”

Trump himself may well prove the Democrats’ trump card (sorry).

Clinton’s speech was no oratorical marvel, but it covered all the elements of her messages ably and in rousing fashion. It capped a convention that, particularly in its last two nights, effectively reached out both to the party’s base and to that key swing constituency, more conservative college-educated whites (hence Michael Bloomberg and the former Reagan administration officials). If a convention as successful as this one doesn’t put Clinton back atop the polls, the Democrats have major cause for worry. 

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