By Bill Schneider
After 50 years, liberals are no longer on the defensive.
The party’s journey has been from Clinton to Clinton. Former President Bill Clinton led the Democratic Party to the centre in 1992, and kept it competitive through the 1990s, when the Reagan consensus still prevailed. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama led a new, more liberal coalition of Democrats to power in the wake of the financial crash and the war in Iraq. Obama won the Oval Office twice with a majority of the popular vote, the first Democrat to do that since President Franklin D Roosevelt.
Now, in an impressive show of confidence, Democrats have written the most liberal platform in the party’s history. It condemns capital punishment, calls for measures to curb the “greed, recklessness and illegal behaviour” of Wall Street, pledges to expand Social Security, advocates more than doubling the minimum wage, endorses a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and demands stronger gun laws.
In her acceptance speech, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton promised to make college tuition-free for the middle class, reform the criminal-justice system, pass the biggest investment in new jobs since World War Two and make “Wall Street, corporations and the super-rich” pay their fair share of taxes. Not a word about the federal deficit or the national debt.
California Governor Jerry Brown, who opposed Bill Clinton from the left in 1992, said Democrats today “want more interventionist government to make things more fair. . . . No one is going to say government is the problem, not the solution.”
What’s driving the Democrats’ shift to the left? Three things.
First, the country has changed, demographically and ideologically. The New America coalition that came to power in 2008 with Obama – minorities, working women, gays, immigrants, young people, educated professionals and the unchurched – has continued to grow in size and confidence. A majority of Democrats describe themselves as liberals. On social issues like gay rights and abortion, liberals now equal conservatives in number.
Second, wrenching economic changes – globalisation and the Great Recession – have generated a populist backlash. Among Republicans, the backlash has come mostly in the form of right-wing social populism. Like the hostility to illegal immigration that fuels the Donald Trump campaign.
Among Democrats, the backlash has come mostly in the form of left-wing economic populism. Like the anger at Wall Street that fuelled the Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Both parties are seeing mounting hostility to foreign trade.
Third, the nomination of Trump has exposed the ugly face of intolerance and bigotry in the Republican Party – a face that Republicans have largely kept hidden since 1968. Trump is stigmatising the right as racist and xenophobic and rallying liberals to turn out at the polls to vote against him in November.
Democrats are seizing an opening to appropriate what used to be a Republican theme: Americanism. “I think [Democrats] are trying to become the party of patriotism,” a former aide to President George W Bush told the New York Times, “the party that loves America, that is proud of America, that defends America.”
When a small group of Sanders delegates started yelling “No more war!” at former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, Clinton supporters shouted them down with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” You usually hear that chant from young conservatives at right-wing rallies.
What unites today’s Democratic Party is a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Republicans denounce it as “political correctness”, but it’s become the cause of the New America coalition. It is perfectly expressed in Clinton’s campaign theme: “Stronger Together”.
Trump played into the Democrats’ hands when he invited the Russians to hack his opponent’s emails and criticised a Muslim gold star mother who had lost a son in the war in Iraq, killed while he was trying to protect his fellow soldiers. What could be more un-American than that?
Trump’s hard-core supporters are white, working-class men. They embody the Old America. Their influence and share of the electorate are declining, but they remain important in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Those states are the battlegrounds of the 2016 election.
In a reversal of the parties’ usual roles, the Republican National Convention exuded anger and resentment, while Democrats embraced hope and optimism. Republicans appear to be closer to the national mood. “Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” Trump said. “The attacks on our police and the terrorism in our cities threaten our very way of life.” In the Gallup poll, 82 per cent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States.
But in bad times, voters often go for candidates who offer hope and optimism. Consider, 1980 was a very bad time – rampant inflation, energy shortages, a hostage crisis. Ronald Reagan called on voters “to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose.” The year 1992 was another bad time. Bill Clinton said, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
In 2008, the United States was teetering into depression. Obama said, “This election is our chance to keep . . . the American promise alive.”
Democrats are moving sharply to the left ideologically while at the same time embracing what used to be conservative styles and images. A Republican consultant recently commended Democrats for doing “a very good job of co-opting Republican language on exceptionalism and patriotism.”
As Trump likes to say, “There’s something going on.” What Democrats are doing is defining diversity and inclusion as the new Americanism.
That’s a clever and promising strategy, especially as Trump becomes the new face of the Republican Party.
Democrats need a new face, too. Clinton has been in public life for almost 40 years. Last week’s convention was an effort to give her a progressive facelift.
Bill Schneider is a visiting professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of California – Los Angeles