At its most rabid, the Republican National Convention resembled a witch burning. The Democrats in Philadelphia, when they take aim at Donald Trump, do so in the form of a sanctimonious anti-bullying public service announcement. This didn’t work for his Republican rivals during the primaries, but they were talking to Republicans, who may see bullying as a fact of life, feel a bit bullied themselves, and indeed nominated the candidate who sold himself as a national bully. The Democrats ask, do you want your children looking up to a president who’s a bully? Children are ever part of the equation in Philadelphia.
Before the convention could shift into a mode of Hillary Clinton hagiography, the supporters of Bernie Sanders had to be scolded, like children, for not falling in line. ‘To the Bernie or Bust people, you’re being ridiculous,’ the comedian Sarah Silverman, a Sanders supporter throughout the primaries, said on Monday night. At the Wells Fargo Center, it was hard not to feel a little beholden to capital as chants of ‘Bernie! Bernie!’ were rising from the floor to the nosebleed seats and the stage was being set for Paul Simon to sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, a number that’s always sounded better when Art Garfunkel performs it. Earlier in the day Sanders had been booed at a rally of his own supporters for telling them to vote for Clinton; there were more boos for Clinton in the convention hall; and on Tuesday a contingent walked out when Sanders himself concluded the roll call of states by calling for Clinton’s nomination by acclamation. In a line that Sanders supporters took to be addressed to them, Michelle Obama also got in on the act: ‘We cannot afford to be tired or frustrated or cynical. No, hear me. Between now and November, we need to do what we did eight years ago and four years ago.’ Left-leaning lack of enthusiasm for centrist Democrats is always cynicism, no matter that, according to one poll, as many as 90 per cent of Sanders voters already say they’ll vote for Clinton in November.
At meetings in advance of the convention, one activist told me, Sanders supporters had been sold a new rhetoric meant to solidify their alliance with the Clinton campaign. A Clinton administration would ‘rewrite the rules of the American economy’. Apparently Clinton has been calling to ‘rewrite the rules’ for many months (the source of the language is the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive Manhattan think tank), but the slogan hasn’t transformed her campaign into a movement for economic justice. In other words, those 90 per cent will have to trade in their revolution for the prospect of some mildly ameliorative technocratic reforms.
Some of them were crying as Sanders watered down his talking points both in substance (free public universities for all v. a substantial reduction in student debt; universal public healthcare v. a public option, the latter a promise Obama made and never delivered) and rhetorically: each policy item is now prefaced by the phrase ‘Hillary Clinton understands’ (and ‘is determined to create millions of new jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure – our roads, bridges, water systems and wastewater plants’). Perhaps Clinton understands all these things. She will have plenty of excuses (chiefly an obstructive Republican Congress) not to pursue them unless Sanders’s supporters continue to hold her feet to the fire. If she’s elected, this will require a challenger to her left in the 2020 primaries. Sanders has failed to leave behind an obvious heir, though on stage he was outstripped by Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who managed at least to speak to Sanders supporters as if they were adults: ‘Not voting is not a protest. It is a surrender.’
After the roll call vote on Tuesday afternoon, the proceedings turned to the life of Hillary Clinton. That on graduating from Yale Law School she had refrained from getting a corporate job and had instead gone to work for the Children’s Defense Fund was repeated like a mantra. Her work to expand children’s health insurance as first lady was highlighted, as were her efforts on behalf of 9/11 workers affected by the scorched air at ground zero. Her tenure as secretary of state was reduced to an overnight trip to Israel from South-East Asia to wrangle a ceasefire to the 'Pillar of Defence' assault on Gaza (the process took days) and her efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. Her orchestration of the intervention in Libya wasn’t mentioned.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the Democratic Convention so far is that after completing the rituals of lip service to Sanders dissenters and shuffling them off stage, it has treated the race as if it’s already been won. Michelle Obama asserted that Clinton had already broken the glass ceiling by being nominated. An air of self-congratulation pervades the proceedings, but the Democrats rest on the laurels of their inclusiveness at the nation’s peril. Bill Clinton was right, speaking on Tuesday night, that the choice was between something ‘real’ and something ‘made up’. The trouble is that voters may prefer Trump’s fictions to the real Hillary Clinton.