DNC Day Four: The Dallas Cowboys of American Politics

The Democratic Party is now America’s Team.

When Donald Trump claimed the Republican nomination on behalf of his party’s reactionary faction and promised to wage a campaign around their world view, he ceded a lot of ground to the other side. In Philadelphia this week, Democrats made a play for it all. Republicans now own the allegiance of a slice of largely white, blue collar, older and predominantly male voters who are being left behind by the economy and feel threatened by cultural change. Trump spoke to them from his bunker in Cleveland, promising to be a vessel for their grievances and the savior who will restore what they feel they have lost. It is a dark and defensive message of reversing social progress at the expense of the rest of the country.

Democrats, recognizing the opening Trump had given them, marched right in. They would speak for everyone else. The message of the Democratic convention was “join us” and it was pitched to those across the political spectrum who do not share Trump’s reactionary impulses. This is how Bernie Sanders could loom large over the proceedings, his supporters essential to the uneasy unity still being forged at the party’s base, yet share the stage with Michael Bloomberg. It’s how a string of Republicans could openly declare their disagreement with Hillary’s policies but endorse her for her competence and inclusiveness. It’s how military figures could support her for her steadiness and first generation Americans for her openness, how people of all faiths and orientations could celebrate together as they did on Thursday in a fit of patriotic optimism long the exclusive property of the Republican right.

Donald Trump made this possible. He built this.

The party that twice nominated a black man and now offers the country its first female president declared in Philadelphia that to be an American in the twenty-first century is to embrace the hues in the American patchwork. This is not an ideological message along traditional liberal-conservative lines because it is possible to share the values Democrats put on display without supporting universal healthcare or free public higher education. Trump turned this election into a referendum on who is an American, and Democrats have responded in the broadest possible way. The Republican convention, in every figurative sense, was held in black and white. The Democratic convention was a festival of color, an upbeat spectacle of inclusiveness so well crafted it could win an Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series.

The break from traditional ideological conflict has given Democrats cover to advance an emphatically progressive platform and thereby address the substantive and political rifts between the Bernie and Hillary camps. A Republican candidate from the party’s conservative wing would hammer Clinton as a socialist sympathizer for embracing Bernie’s ideas, greatly narrowing the range of platform concessions she could accept and making it much harder to unite the party. Instead, Hillary had the latitude to embrace the energy on the party’s progressive left and still make a play to centrists and some conservatives. On Thursday, Democrats made it patriotic to be progressive, offering an unapologetic liberalism not seen for decades.

It was a breathtaking moment to watch Hillary accept the nomination of her party, an apt conclusion to a sometimes unruly but always energetic celebration of American diversity. Democrats leave Philadelphia with a stronger sense of purpose and a more united sense of mission than they had when they arrived on Monday.

But this does not repair the weaknesses in Clinton’s candidacy. Though her surrogates did an excellent job of humanizing her, it is hard to change preexisting impressions developed over decades, and while Bill Clinton did his best to position Hillary as a restless agent of change she is still widely perceived to be an establishment figure in an anti-establishment year. These liabilities will need continual attention over the next three-plus months.

Similarly, Donald Trump remains competitive because his support is greater than the reactionary Republican core. The divided nature of our politics guarantees him the votes of many Republicans who share with him a party label and nothing else, and he benefits from the anger of those passed over by the 1% economy who accept or are not put off by his appeals to racial exclusion. Virtually nothing he will do can shake these voters. They like it when he demonstrates to the rest of the world that he doesn’t know what he’s doing because they want to shake things up.

These issues speak to the dynamics of this November. They will keep the election closer than it would be if Democrats hadn’t nominated a candidate with significant trust issues, weren’t trying to smash through the glass ceiling, weren’t asking for a third consecutive term, and weren’t operating in a period of political tribalism. But the lasting ramifications of the alignment emerging from the conventions will be profound, both for the growing influence of the progressive movement in the Democratic Party and the damage it can do to Republicans, who no longer can split the electorate with cultural wedges and claim the larger half. They are married to voters whose numbers are shrinking while the rest of the country embraces a different set of values. To those voters this week in Philadelphia, the Democrats’ message was: welcome home.