The Democratic National Convention, like the Republican Convention before it, was a choreographed spectacle insulated from any kind of dissension and aimed squarely at motivating the party’s base.
Since the U.S. is so ideologically polarized, and voters are unlikely to change their position in the short term, the electoral calculations of party strategists dominated the proceedings. Compared to the Republicans, the delegates were noticeably diverse and their emotional response was palpable – “I want him to get us fired up again,” Colorado delegate Elizabeth McCann told the Guardian – and they rapturously applauded the performances.
There were a few vague references to the actual record of the last four years of the Democratic administration, but discussion of it was suppressed with the argument that Obama needed more time to fix the mess inherited from Bush.
The only crack in the appearance of party unity came over an amendment to the party’s platform to state that Jerusalem was the undivided capital of Israel. A sizeable group of delegates objected to their policy being determined by Republican criticisms, but their voices were steamrollered by convention chairman Antonio Villaraigosa, who held the vote three times. The elephant in the room – the ability of billionaires to buy electoral influence – was projected onto Republicans. The leverage of corporate funders was airbrushed out of the proceedings, if not from the logos on the conference credentials.
Michelle Obama’s speech had the goal of rekindling the social movement that elected Obama in 2008, and she did it by presenting the story of their life together from humble beginnings. E.J. Dionne pointed out the political messaging: “What she said directly is that Barack Obama understands people who are struggling. What she didn’t have to say is Mitt Romney doesn’t.” As the Guardian’s Gary Younge commented: “while Republicans expressed sympathy for those who struggled in the past, Democrats expressed affinity with those who still struggle in the present. Hard times they couldn’t claim for themselves they appropriated as their cause.”
Clinton, who was the most responsible historically for moving the party to the right, gave a polished performance raising the ghost of bipartisan cooperation and explaining that the country’s economic situation was so dire that Obama’s administration would need another four years to make any difference for the middle class. Like other speakers, he claimed that the country was better off than four years ago, even though people might not yet feel the recovery. Clinton and Biden both appealed to Reagan Democrats by competing with the Republicans for super-patriotism – with the execution of bin Laden a central motif in the rhetoric.
Obama’s speech itself fabricated an ideological web with shared responsibility at its core. Although ostensibly criticizing the super-rich who avoid paying taxes, it also carried the implication that we all have to sacrifice to dig the country out of its mess.
His masterful delivery distracted from the absence of a concrete basis for the promises he made. Obama claimed there was a “clear choice” between him and Romney, “a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.” “Over the next few years, big decisions will be made in Washington, on jobs and the economy; taxes and deficits; energy and education; war and peace – decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and our children’s lives for decades to come.” But he made no commitment that the decisions he would make would reverse the wholesale transfer of wealth from the middle class to the banks and plutocrats.
In fact, his record is the opposite. Naked Capitalism’s Matt Stoller points out: “Obama, through various programs centering on the Wall Street bailout, basically reinflated financial assets owned by the wealthy while foreclosing on everyone else. The data shows the result – inequality has gotten worse, faster, under Obama, than it did under Bush. There are new jobs, but they are sparse, and low-paying.”
“If you turn away now,” Obama said, “change will not happen.” With this turn of phrase he subordinated independent grassroots struggles for change to his re-election. He called for shared responsibility as citizens, “the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another.” Although the idea implies equality of obligations in relation to society, Obama denied citizens any agency in resolving social problems except to vote for him and allow him to take decisions on their behalf.
He appropriated the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement to support inclusivity and renewed trust in his presidency. “Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. … we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.” But noticeable was his omission of any reference to more recent struggles like the defense of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin or the Occupy movement.
As In These Times writer Theo Anderson commented, the institution that concretely embodies the party theme of “we’re in this together” got short shrift. “Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, got a speaking spot in the early-evening wasteland on Wednesday. We heard from a few union members who work in the auto industry, and the president of the UAW, Bob King, was given a spot in the 9 p.m. slot on Wednesday. … The Democrats’ best and brightest politicians, meanwhile, mentioned unions only in passing.”
Trumka had led the AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Obama despite his attacks on public sector workers. Mike Elk described organized labor’s objections: “In a famous speech at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2009, the president called for the getting rid of ‘bad teachers’; the next year, he endorsed the mass firing of unionized teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island. … Most recently, the president signed a bill in February making it more difficult for airline workers to unionize, which resulted in an unprecedented anti-union ruling by a federal district court that blocked 10,000 American Airlines customer service agents from holding an election.” But Verizon worker Norwood Orrick said he saw no other choice for union members: “Our decision to go with President Obama is more about who else are we going to go with?”
The labor movement was marginalized by the corporate Democrats who orchestrated the convention. It needs to assert its independence of the Democratic leadership and break free from the union leaders’ ideological prostration in the face of Obama’s perceived electability.
Whatever the result of the presidential election – and it looks like Obama stands a good chance – cuts in social programs will be implemented to get the super-rich out of the mess they themselves created. In practice, the difference is one of timing and degree: Republicans would legislate draconian cuts right away, while Democrats would enact them over a longer time period. This is not a negligible consideration, because resistance needs time to grow.
Moreover, the reforms Obama has achieved – like Obamacare – are real, if modest, gains. Voters in November should therefore vote Democrat, but with their eyes wide open, and be ready to continue the struggle at the grassroots.