Watching the Democratic National Convention last week was a refreshing antidote to the bile that has contaminated American politics this election cycle. Not everyone supports the party’s nominee (see: the antics of the “Bernie or Bust” movement), of course, but there is something inspiring about a convention that focuses on the positive rather than the negative. This theme becomes especially stark when you juxtapose the DNC with its Republican counterpart last week, which was essentially an unbroken attack on Hillary Clinton. After watching both, one is left with a clear sense of the choice before Americans in November.
We can start with Michelle Obama’s widely-praised speech on the second day of the convention, which attracted some controversy for its observation that the White House was built by slaves. Read the whole passage, though, and the First Lady’s important overall point is hard to miss:
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”
The tonal transition here is important. Although Obama started by reminding America of its ugly racial history, she did so with a distinctly optimistic goal in mind. The White House’s origins are referenced in order to illustrate how much progress has been made over the past two centuries. Clinton, America’s first female presidential candidate from a major party, is cast as part of that continuum of progress, a living rebuttal to Trump’s motto of “Make America Great Again.” As Obama argued, “This right now is the greatest country on Earth.”
A similar theme was apparent in Bill Clinton’s speech. Designed to humanize his wife while highlighting her policy credentials, he heavily emphasized her motivations for entering politics. “She’s the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my entire life. This is a really important point,” he observed. “This woman has never been satisfied with the status quo … She always wants to move the ball forward. That is just who she is.” While the former president must be frustrated by the repeated attempts to smear his wife’s character, he chose the high road in Philadelphia, and his speech was much more effective because of it.
Even the convention’s criticisms of Donald Trump were, notably, defined less by anger than somber concern. Although US president Barack Obama’s speech rightly concentrated on Clinton’s qualifications for office, his criticisms of Trump—ranging from his business career to lack of foreign policy credentials—were specific and non-confrontational. Obama observed that “our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump. In fact, it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election—the meaning of our democracy.”
Certainly, the Democrats have not shied away from anti-Trump rhetoric this election cycle. But whereas the GOP speakers last week seemed to draw its energy through hostility, the Democrats have seemed driven by their fear of what Trump represents—and what he might do in office. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg summed it up perfectly when he pleaded with Americans to “elect a sane, competent person.” Bloomberg, like vice president Joe Biden took no visible joy in tearing Trump down.
All of this culminated in Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech. It wasn’t the most remarkable speech of the week (Clinton has never been a stirring orator), but it managed to perfectly encapsulate the themes that had been present throughout the DNC.
To the disaffected Sanders supporters: “Your cause is our cause. Our country needs your ideas, energy, and passion. That’s the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America. We wrote it together—now let’s go out there and make it happen together.” In criticizing Trump: “Don’t believe anyone who says: ‘I alone can fix it.’ Those were actually Donald Trump’s words in Cleveland. And they should set off alarm bells for all of us.” On the historic magnitude of her candidacy: “Standing here as my mother’s daughter, and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come. Happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. Happy for boys and men, too—because when any barrier falls in America, for anyone, it clears the way for everyone. When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”
Most important of all, though, was what the speech didn’t do. For all of the hostility that has been directed towards Clinton, her speech didn’t vilify specific groups of people, or play to anyone’s base impulses. It may not have stirred souls, but it set an example.
Whatever you think about the Democratic party or Hillary Clinton, liberal candidates this election have consistently offered more measured, more complex agenda options. Yes, they want you to fear a Trump presidency, but they also want you to understand and support their specific vision of the future.
Ultimately, it’s easy to be spiteful and critical, and much harder to come up with viable solutions. Trump has run a campaign that eschews facts for fear-mongering. He hopes that if he creates enough chaos and division and doubt, no one will notice his own shortcomings. While on the surface, such bluster might seem like arrogance, it actually masks a profound insecurity. The Clinton campaign is far from perfect. But at the very least, last week showed the world that Democrats can articulate a vision for the future–whereas Trump doesn’t feel the need to think that far ahead.