Though it shouldn’t be taken as a mark of praise, August’s two big political conventions were certainly an apt summation of the current balance of forces in American politics.
Last week’s DNC, predictably enough, sought to showcase the Democrats’ chosen image as the country’s safe and responsible managers-in-waiting. Complimented with the usual symbolic nods to inclusion, America’s liberals pitched themselves as the harbingers of a more civil and respectable order, their nominee Joe Biden pledging to “restore the soul” of the nation while a host of speakers made the case that a Biden presidency will reestablish the political and cultural equilibrium that was lost in 2016.
Beat for beat and note for note, it was a spectacle perfectly in sync with the guiding ethos of a party that is perennially generous in relation to elite donors and wealthy professionals and parsimonious toward its electoral base.
Though a very different sort of affair, this week’s RNC was a similarly apt reflection of the organization that produced it. Though the DNC often seemed tone-deaf (its program, among other things, platforming odious creatures like John Kasich and Michael Bloomberg), its Republican equivalent looked almost otherworldly: aesthetically gauche, ideologically contradictory, and full of dire warnings about the chaos, disorder, and economic disaster that will reign if Democrats reenter the White House. The current climate of chaos, disorder, and economic disaster — which the Republicans somehow never acknowledge that they themselves are presiding over — is offered as the reference point for what that terrifying reality could look like.
Striking the usual phony populist notes on trade and the president’s love for the American worker, the GOP delivered a smorgasbord of messages which seemed designed to cater to every right-wing grievance, no matter how bizarre. Bound together with a sinister “Dear Leader” presentation and incessant jingoism about border agents and cops, the RNC yielded more or less exactly what you’d expect from a party beholden to the reactionary minority that constitutes its partisan base.
While it obviously contrasted with the DNC in other ways, this distinction is key to understanding the sharp divergences in tone and emphasis separating the RNC from its liberal analog last week. Though visible at almost any moment, the 2020 convention season underscored in a way that little else could the profoundly different relationships each party maintains with the voters in its electoral coalition.
America’s conservatives threw endless red meat at every part of their base: white evangelicals, anti-regulation zealots, paleocons, nationalist ideologues, Q conspiracists, gun nuts, and everything in between. The Democrats, by contrast, offered four days of programming markedly different in both tone and ideology from the mostly liberal ethos of their recently concluded primary season.
The Democratic primaries served up a similarly addled blend of social justice and pro-corporate rhetoric, antiracism, bourgeois aspiration, progressivism, and deference to Wall Street all coexisting within the same party. But DNC 2020, like most DNCs, took pains to foreground an image of competent, bipartisan moderation that was clearly pitched to suburban voters and disaffected Republicans rather than the liberal constituencies Democratic candidates were largely addressing earlier this year.
It’s a distinction that explains much about the direction of travel in American politics. While conservative politicians are pulled ever rightward by an increasingly radicalized fringe, liberal elites try (and generally succeed) to discipline their base into accepting a message manifestly crafted for someone else’s consumption.
In 2016, Democratic strategists believed this formula would build them a voting coalition so ecumenical they’d win in a romp. It didn’t work. This year, they evidently gamble that economic crisis, mass death, and widespread hatred of a dangerous president will be enough to pull together conservatively inclined suburbanites and traditional liberal voters regardless of their obsessive emphasis on the former.
Come November, we’ll find out if they’re right.