How the Democrats Stole the Republicans’ Turf
In speaking for all Americans—instead of just a section of them—Biden's team has rejected the conventional narrative about how to beat Trump in November.
Much conventional wisdom after the 2016 U.S. presidential election held that Democrats needed to dedicate their time and efforts to winning over voters in swing states who had defected from the party. These voters, we were told, were plagued by economic anxieties and turned off by what has been derided as “identity politics”—in essence, anything that acknowledged the existence of groups that have historically been excluded from accessing the opportunities and protections offered to straight, white, Christian men. And so, the story goes, these voters entrusted the solution to their woes to an inveterate conman.
This week’s Democratic National Convention has been a decisive rejection of that strand of conventional wisdom. It rejected the false premise that in order to run a politically viable campaign, Democrats needed to abandon the party’s focus on fairness. Democrats chose to position the party to speak for all Americans, rather than obsessing about how to speak to particular Americans.
If there has been a consistent thread in the erratic administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, it is the marriage of white nationalism with plutocracy. His populist political trick—from that first speech after descending the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy—has been to blame Black and brown people for the economic and social dislocations that were, in fact, the product of Reaganite economic policies and the costs of a misbegotten war. Trump and his accomplices in the U.S. Congress have deployed this populist scapegoating (a tired old trick) to distract from their use of the federal government to serve the short-term interests of corporations and the superrich, further exacerbating the economic inequality that hamstrings the country’s future. Much has been said about the evils of this approach to governing, but what Democrats (and a very few Republicans) have realized is that in choosing to plant his own and his party’s flag in a moral abyss, Trump ceded all higher ground.
Democrats are rushing in. The convention speeches of party leaders have been complemented by poignant vignettes of families and individuals to lift up and give life to so-called kitchen table issues such as creating jobs, supporting farmers and small businesses, and securing affordable health care and education. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s commitment to stewarding a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant economic devastation and to “build back better” is a consistent theme of his presidential campaign. Tuesday evening’s segment with testimonials from national security leaders featured a former Republican senator and secretary of defense, the U.S. point person for the anti-Islamic State coalition, the former deputy secretary-general of NATO, and career diplomats who have served in multiple Republican and Democratic administrations.
This part of the Democrats’ message was clear and predictable: Trump has abandoned the core responsibilities—foreign and domestic—of governing. Biden is promising to bring a lifetime’s experience, a competent team, and seriousness of purpose to the work that drives the country’s prosperity and security.
What was less predictable was the way that Democrats have leaned into—even doubled down on—issues of racial, social, and environmental justice. Most speakers talked about the divisions in the United States and the need to invest in unity in order to bring Americans together. And as they did so, they didn’t suggest that the path to unity involved sidestepping issues of racial or social justice in order to arrive at some kind of lowest common denominator. Rather, they made an argument that addressing the country’s shortcomings on racial and economic justice was itself a cause around which Americans ought to unify—and raise their expectations of the future. Democrats didn’t just reaffirm that Black lives matter, that gun violence is an epidemic, that climate change is an existential crisis, or that caregivers deserve a living wage—they effectively married those progressive priorities to the broader promise of an American renewal.
And that broader promise is at once expansive and essentially conservative—as exemplified by former President Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday evening. He spoke from Philadelphia, the birthplace of the U.S. Constitution, and began his speech invoking that document. His remarks were a paean to Americans’ founding values and to the potential of their democracy, a pep talk to the downtrodden, a corrective to the cynic. He marshaled the full force of his (almost surreal) oratorical talents to deliver a patriot’s plea to believe once more in the promise of a more perfect union.
In the end, instead of fashioning a narrow argument tailored for swing-state voters, the Democrats argued for recommitting to making the reality of America match its ideal. They planted their flag on the moral cause that inspired the country’s founding and confidently asserted the capacity of that cause to deliver for the white unemployed factory worker in the Midwest just as much as for the Black front-line worker in a coastal city. In response to a current president who has so damaged the United States’ institutions and reputation, the Democrats have said: Let’s go back to the foundations and trust that if we purposefully build an America that is fairer for everyone, it’ll work better too—and gain broad popular support.
And that is also the America that engenders the world’s respect—sometimes hopeful and admiring, sometimes begrudging. It is the America that dictators and populists fear for the way it exposes the lies that underwrite their power. For when Americans show what they can do with the institutions and values of which Obama spoke, they animate the promise of pluralistic liberal democracy for all the world to see.
If one issue’s treatment has been most striking at the convention, it is arguably the consistent embrace of immigrants. After all, this is perhaps the issue on which the purveyors of conventional wisdom would have urged the most caution. We know that it is central to what Trump believes makes his own candidacy attractive: From the racist anti-immigrant rhetoric of his 2015 announcement speech, to his unfulfilled promise to build a wall on the southern U.S. border, to the scaremongering about a so-called migrant caravan that he deployed in an attempt to sway the 2018 midterm elections, Trump has bet big on anti-immigrant sentiment.
In response, Democrats made immigrants a focus of the convention. They have been featured prominently, not just in vignettes about immigration reform but also in segments about small business and health care. They appeared as eloquent spokespeople for their home states in the genuinely delightful roll-call vote on Tuesday night. And U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, introduced herself at the convention not only as a Black woman but as the daughter of two immigrants.
The Democrats took the people whom Trump has tried to dehumanize and portray as monsters and instead projected their humanity. And, as with other issues, they linked this embrace of immigrants and refugees to a recommitment to the founding ideals of their country.
Nearly 32 years ago, as he closed his oft-quoted farewell address in the Oval Office, then-President Ronald Reagan shared his own paean to the United States, invoking 17th-century Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop’s vision of America as a “shining city on a hill”:
“And how stands the city on this winter night? … After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
That last sentence is a stunningly beautiful line. And at this week’s convention, Democrats have shown that they are the party that still believes it.
Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomatic fellow at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer