Democrats should lay off the patriotic gushing.
While not the fear-fest of the RNC, in many ways, the DNC was also a sickening display.
We all heard the convention last week. In a brilliant flurry of speeches the Democratic party seized the “nationalist glorification” brand from the Republicans.
There are famous faces all over television just loving this. To the elite members of the media, who identify as “Democrats” but have no connection to labor struggles and whose fortunes have either been unhurt or improved by the 30-year ravaging of the middle class, this pivot to patriotism by the Democrats is nothing but positive. Their upper-class acquaintances amongst the Democratic Leadership who perpetrated this assault of positivity are also pretty high on themselves at the moment.
Unfortunately, this praised rhetoric suffers from the same problems that it did when it came out of Republican mouths: it is very much fictional.
The switch was a long time coming. Republican Leaders have been following through on what they said they would do to this country for decades. From deregulation, to tax cuts for the wealthy, to corporate feudalism, they largely succeeded in imposing their entire agenda on the country. It was only a matter of time before Republican voters realized they didn’t like living in a society built around servicing billionaires while not becoming billionaires themselves. Naturally they’re angry, even if they don’t know who to be angry at.
Stealing that party’s patriotic optimism in this moment was a logical move for the Democrats, but it’s also horribly disingenuous.
Did I miss something? Did the Democrats actually accomplish everything Bernie was talking about in the last week while we weren’t looking? That’s what they sound like. They talk about the land of opportunity like college is no longer a giant debt trap. They talk about diversity like everyone is sharing in our economy equally. They talk about human rights as if they’ve successfully implemented universal health care. They brim with pride over what they supposedly plan to do without having even started to try doing it.
I thought the thing we liked about Democrats was that they were more policy-oriented and didn’t wallow in empty platitudes. Yet here they are spouting phony rhetoric completely unearned by what they have done and what they plan to do.
Everything that voters on both sides of the aisle are upset about is still true. The political system is rotten to the core, the economic system is rigged in favor of the rich, and we wasted three decades not even trying to join the rest of the free world in embracing the full spectrum of second generation of human rights (which is a cover-all term for the idea that government shouldn’t just be granting negative freedoms, by not doing certain things, but also securing positive freedoms by actively participating in the economy to secure necessities like health care and higher education for their entire populations). Having privileged people go on stage in a stadium named after a bank and say how wonderful the country is, despite having done nothing to address its fundamental problems, is not a good look for a Democratic Party which prides itself on appealing more to logic than ignorance and blind optimism.
Let’s not forget that the ultra-nationalist, chest-beating mantra that they are now co-opting has not been America’s defining character trait throughout its history. We carried ourselves much more humbly than that for over 200 years, even in our most prosperous times. This whole approach really began in the 1980s with Reagan’s “morning in America” optimism. It was never genuine.
By the end of the 1970s people were pretty much fed up with the federal government. It had grown bloated by decades of programs attempting to solve all of society’s problems and the country had just been wracked by massive scandals and economic hardships. There was a sense of wasted effort and misguided direction. People were in desperate need of some positivity, even if it came from a con man.
Enter Ronald Reagan. He came onto the scene in contrast to a Democratic Party that had been associated with the growth of “big government” and, decidedly unfairly, with economic stagnation. Reagan rebranded the Republicans in the wake of Nixon and touted the virtues of America. He differentiated between the American people and their government. The theory was that the country and its people were wonderful, and would rebound from their problems as soon as government had been cut down to size.
Philosophy aside, he achieved the remarkable feat of making Americans feel good about their country again. The country as a whole was eating out of his hand. Naturally, he won in a landslide.
At the time, with a little leadership, he could have created a moment where Americans banded together to become their best selves, faced the problems of the day together, and made this the greatest place on Earth to live while forging a path into the 21st century.
Unfortunately it was a well-dressed lie. Reagan was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was essentially an operative for the ruling class tasked with dismantling the New Deal and installing a more favorable political climate for the corporate elite. His optimism was a ploy to enter the White House and spend almost a decade repeatedly bludgeoning working class people over the head with neoliberal economics. He was resoundingly successful.
He cut taxes for the wealthy, initiated the destruction of the unions, kicked the military industrial complex into overdrive, and created a culture of deregulation and gutting of social programs that would continue to reverberate through government to this very day. Today our political parties fight over whether to cut programs modestly or extensively, not whether they should expand or be modestly scaled back. We can thank Reagan for moving our political center to the right.
He got away with this in his own time because people did not feel the consequences of his policies immediately. His tax cuts for the rich didn’t cause any immediate pain in the federal budget because copious deficit spending prevented the need for commensurate. The unions didn’t disappear overnight, they took a couple of decades to fully deteriorate. Deregulation would take decades before peaking in the Bush Administration. The costs of everything he did were put off for future generations, but the policies looked good at the time.
What Reagan did was a form of chronological tyranny. Later generations are, through no fault of their own, always at the mercy of earlier generations. Older people, by virtue of being older, get to control the world first before the younger generation has a say. Most people understand that this means older generations have a responsibility to make sure that they leave a heathy society and planet for future generations. Reagan, and in fact his whole generation, copiously abused that power and shirked that responsibility.
Additionally, the end of the Cold War, which would have happened by the end of the 1980s no matter what, and which he was in no way responsible for, made him look good. But his legacy will not stand the test of time. In the long run, history will remember Reagan as one of the United State’s worst presidents.
This is not an example that the Democrats should seek to emulate, but I can see why they would go there today. Since Reagan left office almost three decades ago the Democrats have changed as well. Republicans may have been the first to take corporate money and impose those interests upon the American people, but the Democrats quickly followed suit. Maybe they felt pressure to compete for corporate money, maybe party leadership became occupied by individuals prone to corruption, likely a bit of both. Either way, Democrats started taking money from the same interests, and spent a generation forwarding the same policies as Republicans.
Their tone was different, they were more progressive on social issues, but they were every bit the supporters of neoliberal economics that Republicans were. They supported free trade, low taxes on the wealthy, various forms of deregulation, and union busting measures, even while they pretended not to. It always seemed like their social justice rhetoric was always backed up by ineffectual action, but they never failed to contribute competent effort whenever a “NAFTA” or “Crime Bill” were on the table. They seem to have spent the last 30 years willing playing second fiddle to the conservative party’s entire agenda.
The sick part about the recent turn in political fortunes for both parties is that Democrats are completely squandering the opportunity that it represents. At the moment, the Republicans are essentially a collapsing brand, unable to construct any kind of campaign to work their way back into America’s good graces. Democrats have an opportunity, unprecedented in living memory, to simply turn their back on their corporate donors, who have no where else to go at the moment, and make this election about helping the American people take their government back. Instead they’re peddling the same manipulative fiction that Republicans used at their peak.
Rather than taking this opportunity to level with the American people and speak to them like adults, they have slipped right into the role of “patriotic cheerleaders.” When the Republicans imploded, this country should have gone from having one blindly patriotic party and one rational but ineffectual party, to having one catastrophically pessimistic party and one rational and effective party engaging the American people. Instead, we now have one catastrophically pessimistic party and a newly blindly patriotic party. Ugh. Can’t we have one election with one political party that is honest with the American people?
The Democrats should have been willing to seize the moment and embrace common-sense policies like universal health care, higher taxes for the wealthy, and tuition free college education in this election. Steering clear of those policies for fear of upsetting their corporate overlords has been one of the biggest reasons why the Democrats seem to lack a decisive agenda. Face it, when obvious policy solutions to fundamental problems are staring a population in the face, and the major political party that prides itself on being scientific in its approach and progressive in its priorities simply refuses to embrace those policies, that party will always appear to be some combination of incompetent and corrupt.
This problem will not be solved by explaining the corporate interests that the party needs to balance. With that explanation, the party just goes from “appearing corrupt” to “being corrupt.”
This problem will not be solved by proposing half measures that supposedly take “political realities” into account. Those proposals invariably sound more like making excuses for not addressing problems than actually presenting meaningful solutions.
Most of all, this problem will not be solved by hyper-patriotic rhetoric aimed at convincing the public that this is the greatest country ever. That just comes off as an attempt to distract the public in order to avoid directly addressing actual problems.
I understand that inspiring voters is part of leadership in an election. We had the best example of that in a generation with Bernie Sanders. But the fact that this election featured a candidate that so starkly contrasts with the rest of the Democratic Party only serves to highlight the problems with these convention speeches. There is a difference between inspiring people to be their best selves and solve problems, and trying to whip them into a fit of false cheer by lying to them about how great something is.
All I saw at the convention were spoiled rich people on stage bragging about how great “America” is because it has worked out so well for them. Yes, that includes Michelle Obama’s glib insistence that this wealthy country that still fails to guarantee health care, child care, paid vacation, and college education as basic rights to all citizens is “the greatest country on Earth.” I definitely wasn’t won over by her “in a house built by slaves” moment, given that her husband, rather than being an inspirational embodiment of this country overcoming its legacy of slavery, is actually descended from an African tribe that sold slaves and an American family that owned them. Just because The Daily Show, The Nightly Show, Last Week Tonight, and Real Time all repeat the same narrative, doesn’t mean liberals should accept it. With their phoniness, the Democrats were copying Republicans in substance, not just tone.
The problem is, after the way the primary went, I don’t really trust the Democrats with brimming optimism and super-patriotic rhetoric. Over a generation they have proven their interests and priorities to be with the same members of the ruling class who fund the Republicans. In this particular election they have been revealed as cheaters. Unless they changed into populists with integrity overnight, this is likely just blatant manipulation, just like it was with Republicans.
Am I being too cynical? Are we supposed to believe that this obtuse out-of-nowhere positivity is an honest attempt to engage the American people and not a smokescreen designed win over the American people with substance-less fluff? At what point did Democrats ever earn the right to be given the benefit of the doubt?
Like the Republicans, they are employing language that should only ever be used sparingly to complement concrete national achievements, and they are throwing it around liberally in light of nothing but the fact that they are successfully having a convention. As it was with the Republicans, the whole charade feels suspiciously manipulative.
One does not lie to citizens about the magnificence of a country when one plans to enter office with a mandate for reform to improve the lives of said citizens. That tactic is only used by people who either want to enter office with no mandate for change, or worse, as a smokescreen to do things to voters that they don’t want done to them. If the goal of a candidacy is to fix problems and make people’s lives better, a candidate will lean on that platform, as Bernie did.
The bottom line is that the Democrats’ new nationalist fervor is deeply concerning. It is coming out of nowhere. It is in no way presaged by anything that happened in this primary. Nor is it earned by anything about the condition of the country. It completely calls their intentions into question.
Even if they’re preaching diversity, we should be weary of nationalist aggrandizing. It’s not a good look on a country with a military like the one we have. It’s a good way to get into wars of choice while ignoring problems at home. In fact, that’s usually the point of such rhetoric.
We’ll find out soon enough whether or not the Democrats have changed or are worthy of their rhetoric. That party needs a drastic shift in priorities. It needs to start aggressively pushing progressive policies that place it squarely in the corner or the American people against corporate special interests. Until then, Democrats should probably tone down the super-patriotic gushing about how wonderful this country is. It rings hollow.