If nothing else, the past two weeks bear witness to the amazing resilience of America’s political parties — not as political or intellectual movements, but as tribes. Ideas come and go — but what do ideas matter, really? The parties endure.
Donald Trump is neither a conservative nor a Republican, as President Barack Obama told the Democratic National Convention last Wednesday. The Republican nominee’s programme, such as it is, rejects mainstream conservatism in almost every particular. In taking over the party, he ran against it. Yet see how the party accommodated itself to the invader. The Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week celebrated his coronation. Expressions of discontent weren’t tolerated, as Texas Senator Ted Cruz found out: Republicans ditched everything except the imperative to unite against the enemy.
The remoulding of the Democratic Party has been less dramatic, but there are similarities. Senator Bernie Sanders stands for a tendency within liberalism, not something entirely outside it, so he isn’t the Democratic equivalent of Trump. Even so, the demands of tribal politics have yielded a notable reordering of ideas.
To accommodate the ‘Sandernistas’, the Democrats are now offering full-spectrum economic populism — an essentially anti-globalist, anti-corporate vision that has more than a little in common with Trump’s. (Bill Clinton and the New Democrats might never have happened.) On foreign policy, the party, despite the Sanders no-more-war faction, is moving to the right, into space traditionally occupied by Republicans, heavy on great-power rivalry and the duties of global leadership. Most striking of all, the encompassing Democratic theme is American values, American optimism, American exceptionalism — notions that the college-educated high-information types in the Democratic coalition would normally greet with a rolling of the eyes.
I’m hoping this vision serves its purpose — defeating Trump — but it sure makes demands on one’s capacity for cognitive dissonance. In her speech last Thursday night, Hillary Clinton talked about places ravaged by addiction, regions hollowed out by greedy unpatriotic companies, “systemic racism,” an economy that’s broken because America’s democracy is broken, banks that are killing people’s dreams, and a one per cent that’s grabbing everything. Without irony, she also criticised Trump for his dark vision, adding (to cheers), “America is great because America is good”.
Whatever. Such are the requirements of tribal solidarity — not to mention beating Trump. And by that crucial test, Clinton’s speech was effective. As well as bringing the party together, she associated the Democrats’ steady and admirable faith in diversity with American patriotism, a connection that’s capable of appealing to wavering Trump supporters. And her attacks on Trump’s character and temperament hit home. The most memorable line — “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” — makes a sufficient case against Trump all by itself.
In speaking to the country as opposed to the Democratic coalition, she especially needed to avoid the trap of attacking Trump in ways that insulted his supporters. You don’t win people over by disrespecting them. Few progressives seem to grasp this. They express their contempt for Trump in ways that convey equal if not greater contempt for anybody who’d think of voting for him: The best they can do is express pity for anybody so stupid. This relentless condescension is one of Trump’s most valuable assets.
Clinton mostly avoided the trap. At one point she said: “But right now, an awful lot of people feel there is less and less respect for the work they do. And less respect for them, period. Democrats are the party of working people. But we haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through, and that we’re going to do something about it.”
That struck the right tone, and suggests she understands the issue. She slightly undermined this conciliatory note soon after when she turned to climate change and said, with a smirk, “I believe in science”. That’s a classic instance of the error I’m talking about. If you want to change people’s minds, don’t laugh at them or dismiss their opinions as markers of inferiority. But that was a rare lapse in a speech that managed to hit Trump repeatedly and hard, without sneering at his supporters.
It’s too soon, perhaps, to worry about what becomes of the programme Clinton set out if she wins in November. Sanders supporters will suspect that she’ll abandon the economic populism she promised in her speech and revert to cautious market-friendly centrism. Let’s hope so. It’s another reason to want Clinton to win. There’s always a chance that, unlike her, Trump means what he says.
Clive Crook is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.