CLEVELAND/PHILADELPHIA – Raucous protests on the convention floor, walkouts during a roll call vote, rising party stars nearly shouted off stage – and people thought the Democratic National Convention would be boring.
It’s hard to compare the two, but on balance, the Democrats this week probably offered the appearance of a more divided party than the Republicans did one week prior. Delegates repeatedly booed at the mention of their nominee for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as rallies against her from the party base sprouted across the City of Brotherly Love.
There may be a simple explanation for this: Opposition to Clinton from her left actually attended her nominating convention in Philadelphia, while Republicans against Donald Trump, their presidential nominee, chose not to even bother showing in Cleveland.
Several GOP members of the House and Senate, former presidents George W. Bush and H.W. Bush, 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – who was hosting the convention in his own state – opted out completely.
Compare that to the sustained convention hall presence of Clinton’s chief primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who repeatedly called on his supporters to tone down their protests while at times seeming to relish in their vocal support.
Many of the delegates he secured in the primaries had to fund-raise to get to Philadelphia, despite his loss. They uttered slogans against Clinton identical to those heard in Cleveland: “Corrupt Clinton Machine,” “Rigged System,” “Lock Her Up.”
And liberals sure do love a good protest. Supporters of Sanders – himself not registered as a Democrat – broke out in cries against their nominee over her record on Iraq, Libya and Syria, her speechifying to bankers, her vacillation over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and her position on the past and future state of “Palestine.”
Journalists have a tendency to measure political momentum, optimism and frustration by the size, sounds and rhetoric of crowds, but the truth is that none of these measurements reliably gauge the mood of the country. Only votes do that. And unlike in the primary process, when we had the luxury of consecutive actual voting results to decipher and pick apart, the American people now have only one more chance to truly demonstrate their will in this election – on November 8.
But we don’t need any more data to definitively state that this country is divided – to such an extent, in fact, that those in attendance in Cleveland and Philadelphia were operating in different realities.
Supporters of Trump in Cleveland were angry about a political dynamic they feel is systematically stacked against the public interest. The governments of both Bushes, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton all presided over an economy that has slowly evolved from a reliance on manufacturing to information, and no one – Democrat or Republican – has succeeded in turning back the clock. Trump now promises an “America First” strategy: For the first time in modern history, a Republican nominee for president is opposing many of the country’s most historic, decades-old trade agreements and treaties with allies – pillars of global stability.
The audacity Trump has demonstrated in doing so is precisely his appeal: He won’t be part of the political wheel, but promises instead to break the wheel.
“It is finally time for a straightforward assessment of the state of our nation. I will present the facts plainly and honestly – we cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore,” Trump said in his 76-minute acceptance speech in Ohio. “We will be a country of generosity and warmth.
But we will also be a country of law and order.”
Supporters of Clinton in Philadelphia are motivated, in no small part, by fear of a broken wheel. They are keenly aware of just how difficult it was to secure societal dignity and civil liberties for American women, blacks, Hispanics and Latinos, gays and lesbians – together the foundational coalition of the Democratic Party. After seven years of enjoying a president they believe has bent the arc of history toward justice, they see a candidate on the other side with little regard for their incremental victories, if not outward hostility to the pluralism they so deeply value.
The fact that Clinton is a woman – the first to clinch a major party nomination for president in US history – highlights this distinction: She, to many, embodies the hard-fought Democratic victories the party now seeks to protect.
“Stronger together,” one campaign slogan reads. “I’m with her.” “Love trumps hate.”
In Washington – everyone’s favorite place to hate – legislators and consultants say that this election has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with two cults of personality. Others say the election is actually a race to the bottom, between a candidate with autocratic tendencies versus one with the stench of corruption.
Trump wants this to be a race between the ultimate political insider and a man who will crush the political system. Clinton wants this to be a race between a figure committed to liberal democratic ideals and an incompetent, petulant man who disrespects the democratic system.
On Wednesday night, US President Barack Obama argued that journalists presenting this paradigm are hiding behind a false sense of objectivity – that the real choice in 2016 is plainly and consequentially over whether America, the world’s oldest democracy, will “stay true to this great American experiment in self-government.
“It’s not just a choice between parties or policies, the usual debates between Left and Right,” Obama said in Pennsylvania.
“This is a more fundamental choice – about who we are as a people.
“Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order,” Obama said. “We don’t look to be ruled.
“Anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end,” he said. “That’s America.”
Whose narrative will emerge victorious now comes down to a single autumn day.
But in 2016, the clichéd adage is finally true: This is the election of a lifetime.