You can't steal America

As I said, political conventions are stories. They are narratives through which political parties explain America to America. Last week’s Republican National Convention was a straight-up horror story, a nightmare scenario in which America was under continuous and merciless attack from alien forces both without and within. Donald Trump painted himself as the one man standing between life as we know it and total destruction. it was a child’s morality tale, a binary-minded nightmare lullaby of “winners” and “losers,” of “good guys” and “bad guys,” of “America” and “real America.”

What did Republicans think of this week’s Democratic National Convention? Katherine Kruger at Talking Points Memo collected a few Twitter reactions. Here’s a columnist at the conservative National Review:

And a National Review editor:

Here’s a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan:

Here’s Dick Cheney’s former press secretary:

A former Ted Cruz staffer:

They are right: the Democratic National Convention was far more optimistic and uplifting, which is to say more American, than the Republican National Convention. It featured more praise of the American military, and our police officers. It had more references to God and spirituality.

But the conservative commentariat is wrong to assume that this encroachment on what they believe to be Republican turf is anything new. I attended both conventions in 2012, and the last DNC wasn’t proportionally much different than this one. It featured roughly the same tributes to the military, and references to God, and cheerful optimism. Let's for right now set aside the ridiculousness of a political party believing that its opposition doesn’t have the right to be proud of its own country and ask: why are conservatives crying this year about Democrats stealing their schtick?

The difference, of course, is that Mitt Romney’s RNC of 2012 presented a similar face to the world: spiritual, relatively optimistic, inclusive. Trump’s racist, fearful spray of pseudocelebrities and political nonentities simply made the contrast starker. In short: Democrats didn’t gain ground; Republicans ceded it. That optimism and pride and faith has been there in the Democratic story for years; it’s only in comparison with the vacuum created by Trump that it was suddenly more noticeable.

So if every convention tells you where we’ve been as a people, what we’re doing now, and how we’re going to get to the future, what was the story that this DNC laid out? The “where we’ve been” part lingered most often in the recent past. Specifically, embedded into this convention was a farewell party for the Obama Administration. For too many of President Obama’s eight years in office, the Obamas could not claim any sort of victory; the recovery from the recession was too slow and too many people were in trouble.

And at the end of President Obama’s term, there are plenty of problems to be faced: inequality is still rampant, college debt is too high, and our economy is in dire need of a top-to-bottom rehaul in favor of the middle and working classes. The drone war continues, and so does wiretapping. The time is never right for a presidential victory lap.

But what the Obamas could do at the DNC for the first time was to acknowledge that they held the country together at a time when it could have fallen apart. They could say that they were proud of pieces of their legacy, even as they were humbled by their failures. And they could talk about what they learned and how they felt and what they wanted for the future.

Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday was widely regarded as a high point for convention speeches of any kind. It was a gorgeous piece of writing, finely structured and delivered with passion and true emotion. And it closed a narrative loop for First Lady Obama, addressing the conservative outrage of the 2008 presidential campaign when she said that her husband’s presidential campaign made her, “for the first time in [her] adult life,” proud of her country.

At the time, that was a nuanced statement from someone who had been thrust into the spotlight. It drew howls of treason from the right. Eight years later, Obama threw that outrage back at the Republican presidential candidate when she urged the audience to “don’t ever let anyone tell you that this country isn’t great.” The fact that she took this stage in front of millions and acknowledged the reality that the White House was “built by slaves” — and the fact that some pedants actually challenged her assertion — was a significant moment in American history. Her feelings for America are complicated, as they should be, but she hasn’t given up on it and, ultimately, she doesn’t feel that it’s given up on her.

The first lady gave President Obama a high bar to clear, and to pit the two in mortal combat would be missing the point. They were companion pieces, two beautifully written tributes to the idea of America. The point that got me in President Obama’s speech was near the end, in a Wizard of Oz-style moment, when he called back to his earliest campaign themes and tied them together into a big beautiful rhetorical bow. He tells the audience…

…you're who I was talking about 12 years ago when I talked about hope. It’s been you who fueled my dogged faith in our future, even when the odds were great; even when the road is long. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope.

It’s a moment that could be schmaltzy if it weren’t so earnest: don’t you see? You were the hope and change you sought all along! It’s a moment that concludes one chapter, and opens another. When Hillary Clinton took the stage to embrace the president and hold his hand and walk around the stage with him, Obama had prepared the audience for the moment. He had said goodbye, in his thoughtful, writerly way, and introduced a new narrative with a new protagonist.

Nomination acceptance speeches are never going to be works of fine rhetorical art. They are speeches with way too much to do: they have to introduce the candidate, sum up all the symbols and themes of the previous four days, present the difference between a candidate and her opponent, and make the case for what they would do in office. It’s a speech that has to reach for the sky and sift in the dirt. It’s a balance sheet and it’s a love letter. It’s impossible to get exactly right.

That said, Hillary Clinton gave as good a speech as I’ve ever seen her give — and that includes her transformative "Women's Rights Are Human Rights" talk in Beijing and her graceful 2008 concession speech. Clinton seems energized to find herself competing against a target like Donald Trump. (In that way, she’s very much like President Obama; his outright contempt for Mitt Romney gave him strength in some of the darkest hours of 2012.) And her disdain for Trump’s dangerous temperament felt honest and was entertaining; she attacked her opponent directly more than is traditional for one of these speeches, probably because it’s not a traditional election year. Her speech was thematically appropriate, and smart, and loaded with subtext to honor the historical importance of the moment.

And while Trump’s narrative has no middle, Clinton’s speech was obsessed with the middle. She referred to herself, self-deprecatingly, as a process nerd. She talked about policy. She even concluded the speech with a quote from the musical Hamilton, about “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Clinton immediately emphasized the importance of the lyric: “That’s why we’re here — not just in this hall, but on this earth.” Deferred gratification. Hard work for its own reward. Planning for generations that do not yet exist. Not only would a strip-miner like Donald Trump never be caught saying anything like this aloud, it’s likely that he does not even understand the concept.

If there is one insult Republicans can never hurl at Clinton, it would be that she’s lazy. Her husband made the case in his speech that she was a “changemaker,” and every other major speaker subtly reinforced that claim. She is a hard worker, someone who focuses on details, and policy, and people. And so in that way, the story she told was unique for a presidential convention: she did not focus on the America we can one day build, she focused on the America we are building right now.

And, really, what else could there be in our future but more work? The work of America will never be done. There will always be more goals, and new problems, and mistakes to clean up. There will never be a time when we look down on the American experiment, clap our hands together, and pronounce it finished. We will always wake up and look around and go to work. That is our privilege and our joy as Americans.

And what about the protesters? It would be downright odd to write about the DNC without writing about them, because they were a part of every night of the convention. On the one hand, I think it’s very likely going to be historically embarrassing for our generation that the first woman to accept her party’s presidential nomination had to do so through intermittent jeers and howls from aggrieved men. Most Sanders supporters have the same problems with President Obama that they do with Clinton, yet Obama’s speech the night before saw many fewer would-be interruptions than Clinton’s. It is impossible to separate the troubling gender dynamics from this moment.

But on the other hand, what could be more democratic, and more Democratic, than protest? Democrats have never demanded the mindless fealty that Republicans did at the peak of Reaganism. Democrats employ the tools of dissent throughout the party — from striking unions to Occupy to the wonderful Congressional sit-in from earlier this year — and so it’s only fair to expect Democrats to use dissent against other Democrats.

You and I may disagree on tactics — I absolutely believe, for instance, that it is fair game for Black Lives Matter activists to shut down highways, while others seem to believe that inconvenience is not a legitimate activist tool — but the Democratic Party has never been as comfortable in its own skin as the Republican Party. It doesn’t demand a values test of its members, nor do Democrats spend a lot of time concerned over the authenticity of other Democrats, the way Republicans will obsess over RINOs. Democrats will always argue with each other over what is right, and how to go about doing what was right. They will always protest.

Because in fact protest works. Clinton made it clear in her speech that Sanders supporters helped drive the platform to the left:

Bernie, your campaign inspired millions of Americans, particularly the young people who threw their hearts and souls into our primary. You’ve put economic and social justice issues front and center, where they belong. And to all of your supporters here and around the country: I want you to know, I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause. Our country needs your ideas, energy, and passion. That’s the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America. We wrote it together – now let’s go out there and make it happen together.

The thing about protest is it’s not a single thing. A protest doesn’t just happen once. Protest is an ongoing action. You have to champion your causes, and once they’re instantiated into the mainstream you have to fight to make sure they’re not diluted. And then you have to fight to make sure people know what you did. And then you have to move on to the next thing. This is work, all of it. It’s continuous and ongoing work. And that’s what Clinton was saying from the stage, even to the people who wanted to shout her down: she was telling them, let’s go to work. Together.