Emmett Rensin is very, very very good. His latest article in the New Republic is fantastic except for the title.
The title evokes the misleading question that many people ask when they are talking about parties and politicians: what does X stand for? Often, the answer is not easy to find and an answer usually is not necessary. As Bill Clinton allegedly did in 1992, when asked a bunch of pointed questions about what he was for and what he was against, he pulled out a copy of his economic plan and said I have a plan to address the problem that most Americans are concerned about. The plan was not especially a good one and nobody knew about the details thereof. It did not really matter because it was enough to give an answer that addressed the problem(s) that many people were concerned with. This was not exactly the first time that the presidential candidate form the out party did so in a time of considerable distress: in 1968, Nixon talked about his secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. What was his plan? No one knew–it was secret after all. But what mattered was that a lot of people were deeply concerned about the war in Vietnam. The Johnson administration and its anointed candidate, Hubert Humphrey, seemed to have no good idea either. At minimum, Nixon recognizes that there is a problem, seems competent, and says that he can do something about it.
This is the real problem with the Democrats today: it is full of symbolic, identity politics, coupled with scare mongering against the weirdness and uncertainties that Trump represents. But, with regards what Democrats might do about the problems that the country faces, the problems that threaten, or at least, seem to threaten financial and physical well being of many Americans, the Democratic insiders seem defiantly obscurantist, refusing even to acknowledge that the problems even exist. The silly slogan that the Clinton campaign trotted out, and variants of which were still repeated at the convention, reflects this cluelessness: “America is already great.”
The reason that Trump’s and Sanders’ messages had the impact they did was that they found an audience who lived in an America that was not all that great, that wanted to see a revolution to bring about big changes, in order that it might recapture the place that it deserves but has lost–at least for them. The problems that they faced was very real and serious. Whether they should have trusted one or the other, or either one of them, is besides the point: both Trump and Sanders, notwithstanding the differences in the particulars of their vision, set themselves apart from the pack by recognizing that America may deserve to be great, but it wasn’t, at least not for all Americans. Thus, the paradox: if America were as great as Hillary Clinton says it is, were the millions of people who supported the Sanders campaign on the Democratic side and those who continue to support Trump on the Republican side a bunch of delusional mean-spirited liars driven only by ill will? It does seem like this is what many Democratic insiders might actually believe, given the hostility shown to the Sanders supporters at the Democratic convention.
The real essence of the Rensin article linked at the top of this post, then, can be summed in the following passage:
“…it is difficult to know what the Democratic Party stands for beyond the notion that America is “already great” and generally intending to get greater. ‘If people are blaming immigrants for their problems, the correct strategic response is to build a platform that shows people what the actual source of their problems is, and proposes a means of solving them,'”
Rensin is quoting another perceptive article, by Nathan Robinson. Ironically, of course, this is what gave rise to the original DLC: the recognition that, because of the many contradictory commitments that the Democrats had made as part of their coalition building strategy, they were unable to offer a solution to the serious problems facing the country, and worse yet, could do no more than simply accuse those who proposed solutions as racist. Sounds familiar? Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment came out of that realization: he made a deliberate, calculated move to, at least symbolically punch a hole that ran contrary to the web of sacred taboos, anticipating that he could mitigate the damage while winning enough credibility. While much derided recently, the “superpredators” remark by Hillary Clinton emerged in that context as well.
But one difference is that the demographics were different. Bill Clinton had to secure enough working class whites to win in 1990s. Hillary Clinton does not. She is hitting the campaign trail in the Midwest and I am curious what she will say. I would be surprised to find another Sister Souljah moment at this stage, though. The more likely scenario is that, while Clinton may formulaically cover all bases, she will not make the kind of sacrifice that will gain her much credibility beyond the Democratic base. She does not need to, at least not that desperately. But not addressing the problems can only postpone the crises further into the future. Langston Hughes’ poem may well have gone post-racial, and exploding dreams will not be pretty sight to bear.