I spent the past week in Philadelphia, in the halls and in the stadium of the Wells Fargo Center, for nearly every hour of the Democratic National Convention. I heard more than a hundred speakers, and spoke to dozens of people in the halls. After four days, I am not certain that I know what, precisely, the Democratic Party wants to be.
For the past two days, I put this question specifically to delegates and staffers, to the people who ought to know: “What, at core, is the Democratic message coming out of this convention?”
I got no shortage of answers.
“Justice for all,” said Chad Lupkes, a Bernie Sanders delegate from Washington state.
“A party of inclusion that addresses the issues that families are struggling with,” said Susan McGrath, a Florida delegate for Hillary Clinton.
Calvin McFadden, a delegate from Massachusetts, suggested “equality and opportunity for all,” a fight “for the middle class.”
“What I’ve heard over and over is a party that brings us together, that doesn’t divide us, that’s a forward looking party of inclusion,” said Seth Hahn, a Sanders supporter from New Jersey.
These answers were not all issued with confidence. The delegates I spoke to paused, backed up, rephrased. In each case, they settled on general virtues: justice, inclusion, progress, the idea that the party was not so much associated with a particular program but with goodness itself, with a progressive sensibility that will, on the whole, produce virtuous outcomes.
This sense was reflected on the stage, as speaker after speaker appealed not so much to an agenda as an identity: a vision of competence and decency to be trusted with the management of the United States. It is what animated the speeches of Leon Panetta, Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren: figures who represent wildly different visions of American life, but who each asserted that Clinton and the Democratic Party were fighting for the good, whatever that meant to them. “I love Bill Clinton. But I didn’t love his speech Tuesday night in Philadelphia,” wrote Peter Bienart in The Atlantic. “It failed to do what he’s done in every convention speech he’s delivered since 1992: tell a story about where America is today and what can be done to move it forward. He called his wife a great ‘change maker’ but did not define the change America needs right now.”
This ambiguity carried through even to President Barack Obama, in a speech that was criticized, even by some of his and Clinton’s most ardent supporters, for its failure to hew to a concise thesis or vision. “He roamed around, hat-tipping Black Lives Matter and Clinton’s hard work,” delivering “a Bill Clinton-esque performance, meandering around his own record, taking random digs at Donald Trump, and hitting applause lines (YES WE CAN) almost at random,” Salon’s Amanda Marcotte wrote. Rather than a program or a call to action, it was a general paean to democracy and the American spirit, an attempt to align a vote for Hillary Clinton with goodness.
“American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc—they’re trying to take all our stuff,” National Review editor Rich Lowry tweeted Wednesday night. Yet on the same night, a DNC video portrayed the party struggling valiantly against all the GOP’s “stuff”—on gun control, on climate change, on health care, even at the risk of costing Obama a second term.
What program, what vision of the United States, can possibly contain all of that? What do the Democrats stand for?
“Nothing,” said one Sanders convention-floor staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, when I asked what such a large tent stands for. “Whatever you want it to. Whatever you want to hear.”
It’s a tempting answer—cynical, but in line with the possibility that so many people who fundamentally disagree about the priorities and ambitions of American society have all found themselves here to support Clinton for president. But I think the opposite may be true: Over the past few days in Philadelphia, the Democratic Party attempted to promise everything. It made a four-day bid to offer something to everyone, to give every element of the United States some rationale for buying in.
This is not necessarily a good thing. Over the past few days, and the past few months, and all the years that the Clintons have been in public life, it has not been difficult to tell the story about them that you want to. The evidence is there. If you want to believe, then Hillary Clinton is a champion of women and children, an integral member of Obama’s cabinet who helped find and kill Osama bin Laden, a workhorse and a fighter who was widely admired by her colleagues in the Senate, by almost everyone who has ever met her.
If you do not, then she is the senator who voted for the Iraq War, at the cost of a million Iraqi lives. She is the First Lady who called black teenagers “super-predators,” who opposed marriage equality until the moment 51 percent of Democrats were in favor, whose ties to Wall Street and past as a member of Wal-Mart’s board make her an enemy of working people.
In Philadelphia, this abundance of available narratives was not merely a consequence of the Democratic message, but its essence: We will give you what you need to tell the story you want about America. It was the central theme of Clinton’s acceptance speech on Thursday night: I am here for all of you, whoever you are, whatever your ambitions—I am fighting for you. Or, as she put it: “Some people don’t know what to make of me. Let me tell you.” What followed was a sentimental autobiography, and a belief in “better futures,” promises to help all Americans rise up.
What this amounts to, at bottom, is a party that wants to carry on—a party that, per its platform, sees protecting our values as its core commitment moving forward. “The basic message is continuing on the path from 2008,” Marcus Stevenson, a Sanders delegate from Utah told me. “It’s not a rah rah thing, but it’s the safe way. They’re saying we’re on right path, it’s been positive, it’s a good direction. Nothing dramatic will change, but it’s fine. It’s the path we’re on.”
It is. It is a path that had led to marriage equality, and to the Affordable Care Act, and to a nuclear deal with Iran. But it is the path that has lead to the drone war, too. The path that has led to crackdowns on whistleblowers, to millions of deportations, to wage stagnation, to increasing disparities between our wealthy and our poor.
It is a path that the Democratic Party wagers most Americans can live with, its successes celebrated, and its failure justified by the realities of politics and the demands of expediency. That is good enough, for now.
There are those who see this style of government as a virtue, or at the very least as a reflection of reality, an adult acceptance of the notion that compromise must triumph over ideals. The flexibility of the Democratic Party, its capacity to negotiate the competing interests of all Americans, to produce a national program that is perfect to no one but “good enough” for both is central to its strength.
But in Philadelphia, this flexibility felt stretched to its limits, giving way to contradictions of vision that make it difficult to determine what to trust, what to believe will be taken seriously, what will be betrayed.
When I asked Lupkes, the Sanders delegate from Washington, what “justice for all” meant, he said, “Nobody left behind.” But surely, somebody must be left behind. The Democratic Platform calls for an unprecedented mobilization against climate change, while the Clinton campaign indicates that it intends to pursue a more conservative, market-based plan. The party promises to pursue peace in the Middle East, to uphold the Iran deal, while promising to take America’s relationship with Israel to “the next level” and refusing to recognize the occupation of Palestine in its platform. The convention devoted night after night to a vision of inclusion, of acceptance and love for black Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and immigrants, while inviting a Republican to declare that Trump is “no Ronald Reagan,” earning a cheer from the crowd. If you need to know that Trump is nothing like the man who laughed off the AIDS crisis in order to vote for Clinton, the party is happy to help.
“Our cause is your cause,” Clinton said in her speech, referring to Sanders’s call for economic justice. Yet the whole convention represented “one big corporate bribe” where speakers denounced Citizens United while laughing off the possibility that massive donations to the convention influence them.
“Debt free college” was invoked by speakers on the stage at Wells Fargo, but they said it after a Clinton campaign waged in part by asking Bernie Sanders, “How are you going to pay for that?”—by calling costly proposals “pie in the sky” nonstarters in Congress. This included Sanders college plan, from which Clinton’s recently adopted debt-free education proposal is derived.
On stage, speaker after speaker voiced their support for organized labor; one, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, even explicitly named the virtue of refusing to cross a picket line. But outside, Uber ran a tent in the parking lot and staffers looked at their phones, waiting for their cars, while a passing Sanders delegate screamed, “Union busters!”
There is, indeed, something for everyone, some reference point for any story you would like to tell about the Democratic Party.
“[Michael] Bloomberg nailed it: vote for the sane and competent one,” a national staffer for Bernie Sanders tells me. “But that means different things to different people. Tough abroad, sane, reliable—that’s enough for the center-right, maybe. Then on the left, you get the most progressive platform ever.”
“She’s almost certainly going to win—and then will she pull one over on the right? I hope so. Or will she disappoint the left?”
Or as Kirk Voorhees, a 56-year-old truck driver told Vox earlier this week: “I just feel like the Clintons have betrayed me over and over… Why will she turn on [special interest groups] when it’s always so easy to turn on us?”
“First, I want to tell you about Donald Trump,” Bob J. Nash told me when I put my usual question to him. A Clinton delegate from Arkansas, he has worked with the Clintons for 40 years—as White House personnel director, as an under secretary of agriculture, as an economic advisor in Arkansas to then-Governor Bill Clinton. He worked for the Clinton campaign in 2007, and again in 2016. “Donald Trump is just simple answers to complicated questions.”
Josh Stanfield, a young Sanders delegate from Virginia, said the same in a different tone: “It’s anti-Trump. There’s a platform, but what Clinton is going to run on is just anti-Trump, anti-Trump, anti-Trump.”
Trump, many argued, was not merely a Republican: He was unstable, fundamentally unfit for the presidency, outside the bands of ordinary political life. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly the consensus, not only within the convention but in the better part of the national press, in a large section of the Republican Party, from George W. Bush to Mitt Romney to Ted Cruz, who have withheld their endorsements at the risk of allowing another four years of the Democratic administration.
In such conditions, it is tempting to suck up all the available oxygen, to transform your party first and foremost into a vehicle for rejecting a bigoted dilettante whom it is difficult to imagine performing the basic functions of the presidency, much less advancing even modest national goals. With the Republican Party entering what appears to be a long fallow period, why not cast the widest net possible, become the party of patriotic jingoism to some, of “black lives matters” to others, to get through November—perhaps many Novembers—and sort out the specifics after you’ve won.
But this state of affairs, this effort to absorb the full spectrum of the reasonable, is not without its dangers.
The possibility remains that Trump will win the election, that he will win precisely because it is difficult to know what the Democratic Party stands for beyond the notion that America is “already great” and generally intending to get greater. “If people are blaming immigrants for their problems, the correct strategic response is to build a platform that shows people what the actual source of their problems is, and proposes a means of solving them,” wrote Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs last week. “If you don’t have a compelling alternate vision and program, then of course people will be susceptible to demagoguery about crime and immigration. Trump and Nigel Farage may have a racist and delusional explanation for the cause of the world’s troubles, but they have an explanation.” Trump voters, at least, have no difficulty saying what their program is, who particularly it will reward, and who particularly it will punish, no matter how deranged.
There is also the danger of winning at an untenable price. We have seen this kind of false confidence before: After the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the punditry declared an era of permanent liberal consensus, only to see Ronald Reagan elected a scant sixteen years later on a nearly identical platform. When a single party absorbs the whole of “reasonable” political opinion, the consequence is rarely a single-party state. The adversarial logic that dictates the terms of American political life will only drive the opposition to the fringes, where there’s oxygen to be found, until the bounds of the “reasonable” are so expanded—eventually, the unreasonable win an election. Defeating Trump is a viable strategy. Praying that no Trump ever wins is not.
Then, of course, there is the danger lurking even in an improbable, permanent success. There is the danger that a party without a clear program, a party that is invested first and foremost in competence, in management, in providing enough for almost anyone to buy in, can by its nature do nothing but manage society as it is. There is a danger that such a party, even with the best of intentions, will tilt toward the interests of the powerful. They always do. There is a danger that such a party will make progress not when it is just, but when it is palatable, that it will stand permanently for good intentions but against the risk and sacrifice required to bring about a nation that did not require so much ambient brutality—from violence, from capital, from empire—just to carry on, no matter the good intentions of its managers. That it will plod on, competent and reasonable, but no more. A hard-working technocrat saying “America is already great, I’m fighting for you,” forever, while some people remain hungry, and some people remain sick. While some people find themselves more accepted in America, and who are grateful for it, while others on the other side of the world are incinerated in the name of American freedom. Because it’s good enough, really, it’ll get a little better sometimes, be reasonable: This is how the world has to be.
“What is the central promise you took away from this convention, the core of what you can expect will be delivered when Hillary Clinton is elected president?” I asked Sarah Parrish, a Sanders delegate from Kansas.
She paused. “I don’t know if I can,” she said.