Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Celebrating America: Reflections on the Democratic Convention

In no other nation is tomorrow so vivid, yesterday so pale. Where you came from yields to American rebirth. There is no real America to take back, as Trump insists, because America’s many-hued reality is a ceaseless becoming. It is a mosaic . . . the country where, as [President] Obama said in 2004, a “skinny kid with a funny name” finds his place. – Roger Cohen, The New York Times, August 2, 2016.
This past week brought the Democratic National Convention to Philadelphia. The city was invaded by the national press corps, political consultants, delegates from across the country, advocacy groups and activists of every stripe. It was a fascinating mix of Establishment elites in business attire and gruff, tee shirt wearing, placard waving protesters hoping to influence the future of the nation. As a long-time Democrat who takes more than a passing interest in the state of American political affairs, it was an exciting week. Philadelphia was vibrant and alive, intellectually engaging, and politically-spirited. Each day could be found panel discussions and issue-oriented talks addressing many engaging and important issues. Not since my senior year in college, when I participated in the Washington Semester Program at American University during the height of the 1980 presidential election, were so many politically oriented lectures and events so easily accessible.

The Democratic convention provided a stark contrast to the dark and brooding, deeply disturbing Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The Republican convention was a painful doom-and-gloom fest of negativity and lynch-mob cries of “lock her up,” with one Trump adviser publicly calling for Hillary’s execution by firing squad. For all of my past differences with the Republican Party and Republican policies, this election season is a sad spectacle. We are witnessing the decline and dismemberment of a proud political tradition. There once was a time when the Republicans were a party of ideas, expounding a philosophy of limited government, individual responsibility, and free trade, while also advancing an internationalist foreign policy. That has all changed. As President Obama noted in his speech at the Democratic convention, what happened in Cleveland "wasn't particularly Republican -- and it sure wasn't conservative.” Today the Republicans are led by an autocratic, narcissistic, demagogue who abides by the motto, “I alone can fix it.”

This is the most important presidential election since the dawn of the nuclear age, and certainly of my lifetime. At stake is the future of American democracy and the Constitution itself. Trump’s rhetoric and campaign is a horrifying display of intolerance, bigotry, fear and ignorance.  With increasing frequency I find myself speechless, paralyzed by disbelief, whenever Trump opens his mouth. He is temperamentally unfit to be president, a charlatan, lacking the most basic knowledge of world affairs, dismissive of our historic alliances. He possesses the emotional intelligence of a third-grade bully. He lacks any semblance of empathy or compassion. He is fundamentally dishonest, a man of poor character, morality, and judgment.

Although the Democrats produced a Broadway blockbuster compared to the Republican’s middle-school play, how the next 100 days will play out, what external events may impact the election, is anyone’s guess. The Democrats displayed a tremendous roster of star power, with inspiring and uplifting speeches from Michelle Obama, Corey Booker, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and President Obama, and solid performances by Hillary and her running mate, Tim Kaine. But the week’s most memorable moment was the emotionally powerful testimonial from Khizr Kahn, the grieving father of a Muslim American soldier killed in combat. Kahn told the story of how it felt to lose a son to war – an American hero who died fighting for the country he loved – and then be told by Donald Trump that, because of their religious faith, Khan’s family is not wanted here. When Mr. Kahn produced a copy of his pocket constitution and urged Mr. Trump to read it, the moment rivaled the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954, when Special Counsel for the Army Joseph Welch challenged Senator Joe McCarthy with the words, “Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?”

Joe Scarborough and others have suggested that the Democrats co-opted from the Republicans the themes of patriotism, love of country, and a belief in American exceptionalism. This is not entirely correct. Although the Democrats’ messaging in Philadelphia was far more positive and patriotic than anything that happened in Cleveland, the Democrats’ expressions of patriotism were neither new nor superficial. Yes, the Democrats talked a lot this past week about how great America is – with the Obamas in particular among the most enthusiastic cheerleaders – but this was done in part to counter Trump’s absurd claim that, if elected, he will “make America great again.” Trump and the Republicans presented America as a land of rampant crime and murder, helpless to acts of terrorism, a subject of international humiliation; a nation befuddled with a weak military, dysfunctional government, and incompetent leaders. The Democrats shined light on Trump’s darkness and countered the Republican convention with stories of uplift and hope, a celebration of American diversity, ideals, and values.

Contrary to what some on the right have implied, Democrats always have believed in American greatness. But we distinguish patriotism from nationalism. We believe in the promise of America, not its superiority; in equality, liberty, fairness, and inclusiveness, and that “all men [and women] are created equal.”

Democrats do not shy away from America’s structural and historic imperfections. We acknowledge that the United States has not always lived up to its ultimate promise and potential, and yet we aspire to achieve a “more perfect Union” and make our great country even better.

Unlike Trump and his dangerous bigotry, Democrats believe that an exceptional America is a welcoming, compassionate America. What makes us exceptional is our history of accepting immigrants to our shores and creating the conditions in which a black, half-Kenyan son of a single mother from Kansas can become President of the United States. America is exceptional when we fulfill the ideals of our founding principles, when we respect human rights at home and abroad, and allow all citizens, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or class, to achieve their full potential.

But this is nothing new. Ever since I began watching political conventions as a nine year-old boy in 1968, I have observed that much of what is said at Democratic conventions could easily be accepted and cheered at Republican conventions. Even this year, Republicans loved Melania Trump’s speech until they discovered that parts of the speech were plagiarized from Michelle Obama. Ivanka Trump’s talk of equal pay for equal work would have received an enthusiastic reception at the Democratic convention. Take away the specific policy proposals in most years and much of what is said about American democracy, the strength of our military, the importance of national security, the desire for good jobs and a growing economy, the beauty of our land and our people, is asserted at both conventions. The optics may be different, the speakers and their ideological dispositions different, but the dreams, aspirations, and love of country are the same. What is new this year is the extraordinary negativity, the anger and bitterness, the dark and dangerous rhetoric coming from the Republican nominee.

“So if it seems strange to you that these days Democrats are sounding patriotic while Republicans aren’t,” writes Paul Krugman in The New York Times, “you just weren’t paying attention. The people who now seem to love America always did; the people who suddenly no longer sound like patriots never were.” To love America does not require idol worship or blind trust in everything our leaders do or every war in which we are embroiled. It does require a genuine desire to search for the better angels of our nature; to strive for justice for all, for peace and widely shared prosperity; and to seek in the words of our beloved Constitution, a “more perfect Union.”

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