I don’t intend to summarize the main speeches. I won’t give you the details of Kamala and Joe’s biographies, so skillfully and touchingly presented. I’ll skip the humor and the shade thrown on Trump.
Instead, I’ll talk about how the convention showcased the progressive view of history, and how I expect the Republican Convention to showcase the reactionary view of history.
I. The Progressive View of History
The progressive view goes like this: America was founded as a liberal democracy, which sounds great—except for one big problem. Initially, “we the people” meant white mostly landowning men.
Slavery was legal. Women were chattel. Native Americans were not citizens. You get the idea. The governing philosophy of 19th century America was a hierarchy with white men at the top and Black women at the bottom.
After the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were added to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment eliminated slavery, the Fifteenth gave black men the legal right to vote. (Well, Black men were given the right to vote in theory. In fact, they were largely prevented from voting.)
The Fourteenth Amendment provided that:
Notice the part about how any “person” is entitled to “due process” and “equal protection of the laws.” African Americans read this and thought Wow! This is great! Except that in 1896 the Supreme Court said that racial segregation didn’t violate the 14th Amendment. Women thought, Wow! This is great! Except that 19th-century courts held that women were not “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment. The rationale was that infants and imbeciles are also persons, but we certainly don’t let them vote.
Things didn’t begin to change until after 1954, when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, the case that declared racial segregation unconstitutional. Brown v. Board ushered in the Civil Rights movement, which gave rise to the Women’s Rights movement.
For most of American history, we lived under a patriarchy (a hierarchy with white men at the top, and Black women at the bottom). The changes that happened during the past 66 years were rapid—and for many— unsettling.
The Democratic ideal is that as “we the people” expanded to include more people, the union became more perfect. The progressive notion is that history has brought positive changes, and with work, things will continue to improve. Progressives view history like this:
II. The Democratic Convention
The Convention opened with a recitation of the Preamble and developed the theme of “we the people.”
On the second night, Kerry Washington said this:
The first 15 words of our constitution are, we the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, we say, “more perfect,” because our union is not without flaws. When our constitution was written, women couldn’t vote and Black people were considered three-fifths of a human being. But therein lies the work. No one is perfect—nothing is—but it is the striving toward justice, equality, and truth that distinguishes us.
Thus the convention literally opened by articulating a progressive view of American history.
The main themes of the convention included:
Unity: Bernie Sanders talked about the need for unity and Kasich talked about why a life-long conservative was voting for Biden.
Inclusion and diversity: The people showcased represented the true diversity of America–Native people, Black communities, Asian-American communities, LGBTQ, the disabled.
Humanity and kindness: Joe Biden’s stutter was brilliantly explained in the powerful speech of 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, who stutters. Anyone watching that speech will think of the way Trump mocked a disabled reporter. You can find it here, if you missed it.
The Democratic policy agenda included:
Deploying a national strategy based on science to combat Covid.
Creating fairness and equality by building on the affordable care act to make sure all people have access to health care, raising the minimum wage, fairly compensating essential workers, eliminating racial injustice, making the economy work for everyone.
Preserving the earth for future generations by reversing climate change, preserving the natural landscape and resources.
Making sure all citizens have the right to vote. This was a big one, touched on by most of the speakers. Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, for example, accused Trump of working to defund the Postal Service and undermining the right to vote, putting seniors’ lives at risk over the issue in the process.
Notice how each item on the agenda, and each theme developed, has the goal of creating a more fair and equal society. (I’ve talked about how Democrats are the party of fairness here.)
I got the feeling that Barack Obama lurks on social media (certainly on Twitter) and can see that lots of progressives think that it’s all over. They think the graph looks like this:
First Obama answers the people saying it’s too late, democracy is already dead, by talking about what life was like for our ancestors:
Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs were made to feel suspect for the way they worshipped. Black Americans were chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.
If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, someway, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life. (Full transcript here.)
Next, Obama explains how the graph will, indeed, keep sloping downward:
Well, here’s the point: this president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all. (Full transcript here.)
Finally, he tells us that the way to keep the slope moving upward is for us each to take responsibility as citizens:
Tonight, I am asking you to believe in Joe and Kamala’s ability to lead this country out of these dark times and build it back better. But here’s the thing: no single American can fix this country alone. Not even a president. Democracy was never meant to be transactional — you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.
Shorter version: Nobody owes you a democracy. If you want it, take responsibility and make it happen.
We’ve advanced far in the years since Brown v. Board. The problem is that there are people working hard against progress. That brings me to the reactionaries, who look back longingly to the good old days.
IV. The Reactionary View of History
Reactionaries look back longingly to the good old days. They feel that something vital has been lost and they long to return to a bygone era.
Reactionaries view American history like this:
For reactionaries, life was great back in the good old days. They yearn for the time white men had almost unlimited freedom. They long for the wild west, and the time before the federal government grew so large and the federal criminal code tightly regulated people and businesses.
They feel that their “way of life” and something quintessentially American is being lost.
In a way, they’re right, if by “America” they mean how things were from colonial days until the Civil Rights movement–which, admittedly, was most of American history.
Going backwards means going back to the patriarchy (the governing philosophy of the 18th and 19th centuries, which held that women belonged in the home and minorities were inferior.)
This is why the Republican Party is said to have morphed into a white grievance party. It’s also why they rely on suppressing the vote: In the old days, only white men could vote.
Reactionary politics is based on fear: There is an enemy destroying “our way of life.”
Just as the Democratic convention embraced the progressive view of history, I expect next week’s Republican Convention to embrace the reactionary view of history. The message will be “Vote for Trump or the Democrats will destroy America as we know it.”
And you know what? If their idea of America is a 19th century style patriarchy or all white 1950s style suburbs, they’re right.
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