What the Democratic Party needed to do in Philadelphia was simple: they needed to depict themselves as being at the center of the American political scene. They could do this by highlighting the big tent aspects of their party, focusing on economic issues, and going hard against Donald Trump in all the aspects of his oddities – with a running critique of his past failures related by those damaged by his schemes, depicting him as a draft dodging conspiracy theorist dripping with cronyism and surrounded by Putin allies. They could cement themselves as the American Tory Party and highlight all the ways Donald Trump is a risky choice in an unstable world. It should be easy as pie.
But that’s not what they’re doing. Instead, just as Jonathan Last predicted a few days ago, they are going full virtue signaling.
The problem is, while most Democratic elites might find the above indictment damning, that’s not the stuff they really care about. They’re intent on fighting the culture war, not only because it’s the subject that matters most to them, but because it’s a form of their favorite pastime: virtue signaling. So instead, expect the DNC to be heavy on Shout Your Abortion, as though Trump, a guy who once suggested his mistress get an abortion, has any interest in the subject beyond supporting Planned Parenthood. They’ll talk about how Trump and the Republicans want to take away contraceptives—as though anyone, anywhere in America believes either that Trump would ever, under any circumstances, touch the subject. They’ll roll out Black Lives Matter, unaware that the juxtaposition it creates puts Trump on the side of the police and Clinton on the side of Michael Brown. They’ll harp on Trump’s Muslim ban, which creates another unhelpful juxtaposition.
And so on and so forth. They are making a similar mistake to those of Trump’s primary opponents – they don’t realize that Trump is a different kind of candidate, and the normal anti-Republican playbook just doesn’t work on him.
The longer this convention goes on, the more it seems that the success of the left in the culture wars is blinding them to the concerns of the moment in America, which have very little to do with bathroom policies and paying for the pill. An exception was Bill Clinton’s speech last night, which was at least an attempt to humanize the distant person who is Hillary Clinton. It can be a pleasant bit of nostalgia to hear Bill’s speech patterns – he speaks in cul de sacs, branching off to tell a story, looping around again in a long circle, then rejoining the main. But he has been doing this for a long time, and last night it seemed that he had lost a good bit of his bite.
What Bill Clinton’s speech suffered from is the cognitive dissonance at the heart of his party – a clash between his brand of 90s nostalgia and futurist optimism and a progressive core that feels disappointed and betrayed by the party leadership.
What the DNC hoped would be an historic night focused on uniting around the nominee instead highlighted the deep philosophical schism in the Democratic Party. There’s no getting around it: millions of Democrats have a dark, pessimistic view of the country. They’re angry and they want a revolution, not four more years of the Obama administration under Clinton. ‘We’re sick of incrementalism!’ one riled-up activist told me earlier in the day at a demonstration outside City Hall… ‘Incrementalism just means going along with the corporate, rigged system, and we’re done with that,’ she said. Like most Sanders supporters I’ve talked to, she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but feels disillusioned and betrayed. In November, she plans to vote for Jill Stein.
Listening to Democrats explain why they’re protesting their own convention, you realize the divides here may be even more significant than the ones in the GOP. The trouble for the party: for Hillary Clinton, the tricky act of unification has never been a major part of her skillset.