Politics

The triumph of the Nostalgiacrats

Democrats enter the 2020 convention more united on questions of public policy than perhaps at any other time in modern history. Democrats nominated probably the most conservative major candidate in the field, but he’s running on the most progressive agenda of any nominee in generations. The limiting factor of what can be achieved if Democrats beat Donald Trump will be decided almost entirely by the outcomes of tough Senate races in states including Arizona, Maine, Alabama, North Carolina, and Iowa, rather than the identity of the nominee.

But in another sense, they remain a party bitterly divided.

Two camps have emerged in how they define their opposition to President Donald Trump. A restorationist wing, clearly identified with former Vice President Joe Biden and exemplified on a grassroots level by the kind of people who pass around photos of former first lady Michelle Obama sharing candy with former President George W. Bush, believes that Trump took the sheen off a United States that really was a shining city on a hill. A revolutionary wing sees Trump’s rise as a symptom of a much larger problem in America — the result of dark forces that were far too powerful already.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s promise of a “political revolution” was the ultimate articulation of the revolutionary vision, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “big structural change” also carried this meaning; in a different way, so have many of the Black Lives Matter protest marches across America.

During the 2020 primaries, debate on the merits of restorationist political themes tended to get flattened into a simplistic ideological debate. Either you went all-in with a total lack of political caution (associated with the left’s embrace of middle-class tax raises and decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing), or you went all-in on an anti-populist politics of elite consensus.

But the sense that the system isn’t working and that corrupt forces need to be brought to heel for the public good hasn’t been the exclusive province of the far left. A large and growing bloc, including many Americans without college degrees, simply see the world in more zero-sum, more moralistic, and less optimistic terms than the kind of college-educated professionals who mostly run political campaigns and the media.

Yet having gone to great lengths to placate the left on the level of policy working groups and white papers, Democrats are doing little to give a voice or a face to these populist sentiments in either their left or more moderate forms. Rather than try to present fresh faces who are working to bring change to Washington, Democratic officials are letting former President Bill Clinton extend an unbroken streak of Democratic National Convention speaking gigs that goes back to 1980. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will speak, but only for one minute.

The party is celebrating its past more than its future, and in so doing, making a very strong pitch for nostalgia. With double-digit unemployment and thousands dying per day of an incurable disease, there’s obviously something to be said for turning back the clock. But as the country faces swirling tides of discontent from multiple directions and historically low levels of trust in social institutions — and each other — there’s also a real danger in this path.

The Democratic speakers list celebrates the past

The keynote speaker on the DNC’s first night will be Michelle Obama. Another former first lady, Hillary Clinton (and former senator, secretary of state, and Democratic nominee) will also speak, as will their husbands, two former presidents. Jill Biden and Joe Biden, per tradition, will speak as well.

The top House Democrat will speak, of course, as Nancy Pelosi has continuously since becoming the top House Democrat 17 years ago, when this cycle’s youngest voters were in diapers. Former Secretary of State John Kerry will also speak, so the nominee from the 2004 cycle will join the 1992, 1996, 2008, 2012, and 2016 cycles with only former Vice President Al Gore left out in the cold.

Conventions often feature a highlighted speaking slot for a less-known figure who is being positioned by the party as a future star. That was Barack Obama in 2004, Julián Castro in 2012, and Bill Clinton in 1988. The 2020 convention doesn’t really have a slot like that. Ocasio-Cortez, surely the most famous young Democrat official in the country, gets a scant minute to speak because the party doesn’t want to highlight her somewhat marginal left-wing views as the future of the party.

And a lot of time is taken up not just with celebrations of past party leaders, but with the egalitarian notion that all the big names from the 2020 primary field should come back for a second bow. So we’ll get Sanders as a gesture of party unity, and Warren as essentially the same gesture of party unity, but also Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker, and even entrepreneur Andrew Yang and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

There’s only one speech where I’m genuinely curious what the text will say: the one by John Kasich, the former Republican Ohio governor who was a prominent conservative House member back in the 1990s. Highlighting Kasich is a straightforward pitch for the votes of the minority of Republicans who are deeply uncomfortable with the Trumpian revolution, and on that level makes perfect sense. But there’s strikingly little effort here to throw a similar bone to the large numbers of Americans who don’t like Trump but have some broad points of alignment with his general anti-system and anti-establishment attitudes.

America has become a more distrustful place

A common anti-restorationist sentiment, averred even by establishmentarian figures like Pod Save America host Jon Favreau, is the idea that “Trump is a symptom, not the problem.”

What’s often less clear is what exactly he’s a symptom of. One candidate in my view is a broad decline in social trust in the United States. We know that confidence in most American institutions has been declining for decades, including, crucially for Trump’s purposes, confidence in the media. What’s perhaps less well-known is that the General Social Survey shows Americans’ declining trust in one another as a broad social phenomenon.

The Trump Hotel in Washington is near my son’s favorite museum (the one with the dinosaurs), so I’ve had time over the years to ask several groups of MAGA-hatted tourists if it doesn’t bother them that their hero is openly collecting cash payments from people meeting with the government. By far the most frequent rebuttal is not that Trump is uncorrupt but that “everyone does it,” and critiques from the media and from Democrats are just hypocrisy. Trump has been a con artist and flim-flam man his entire career, but what’s brought him to the peak of his game is not a bunch of naive marks, but cynics who think that fair play is for suckers.

A Pew poll finds that 62 percent of the public believes that people “just look out for themselves” most of the time, and 58 percent agree that “most people would try to take advantage of you if they had the chance.”

These kind of low-trust voters are something of a blind spot for the Democratic Party, which is run and funded by a group of people — cosmopolitan, diverse, well-educated, economically secure — who see the world in positive terms and who feel their personal concerns are frequently catered to by cultural tastemakers. As the pollster and data scientist David Shor explained to New York magazine’s Eric Levitz, the distrustful people on the margins of American society can even become invisible to public opinion surveys, unless the designers go out of the way to capture them:

The Clinton campaign hired pollsters to test a bunch of different messages, and for boring mechanical reasons, working-class people with low levels of social trust were much less likely to answer those phone polls than college-educated professionals. And as a result, all of this cosmopolitan, socially liberal messaging did really well in their phone polls, even though it ultimately cost her a lot of votes.

The demographics of low trust are interesting and important for Democrats to pay attention to. The low-trust electorate primarily backed Trump, which is why undercounts of the number of low-trust people hurt Clinton in 2016. That’s because trust is highly correlated with educational attainment, and Democrats have now become the party of more-educated voters. But on other fronts, Pew finds that young people have lower trust than older people, and whites have more trust than Black and Latino people.

Not coincidentally, pollsters find that this summer even as Trump is badly underperforming his 2016 results with white voters (especially women and college graduates), he’s doing a bit better with Black voters and with Hispanic voters. Upscale cosmopolitans seem to feel so deeply in their bones that Trump’s racism should be alienating working-class nonwhites that they experience psychological discomfort at contemplating the reality that it isn’t. Instead, polarization along lines of educational attainment and social trust is occurring so rapidly that it swamps the impact of Trump’s racial politics.

Democrats aren’t going to suddenly stop being the party of college educated cosmopolitans, and Joe Biden couldn’t reasonably campaign as a revolutionary outsider. But conventions are about choices and branding, and it’s striking that Democrats are choosing to dedicate so little time to highlighting voices who could speak to any of the demographic groups on the margins of their coalition — the diverse group of mostly young, mostly working-class people who feel the political system has lost interest in them.

Kamala Harris: The exception that proves the rule

Amid this nostalgia-drenched cast of characters, the one exception is Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential pick. A woman is still unusual on a VP ticket, and none has ever won. Meanwhile, given Biden’s age and Harris’s evident presidential aspirations, Harris is more than a VP — the intention is clearly to seat her in the Oval Office. With a Jamaican father and a Tamil mother, her candidacy is a watershed for multiracial people, and electrifying the West Indian diaspora as well as the Indian one.

What’s more, from a cosmopolitan standpoint the overall Harris family story — parents moved to America for PhDs, both had successful careers, raised two daughters who’ve been even more successful — is the true face of American greatness, everything Trump is recklessly throwing away about the country.

But this all further goes to show that while Harris is an exciting, dynamic presence in national politics, she doesn’t address any of the weak spots of the Nostalgiacrats’ tableau. She’s “young” at 55, compared to Joe Biden or Democrats’ octogenarian House leadership, but that still leaves her older today than Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, JFK, FDR, or even Lyndon Johnson were on the day they took office. She’s worked in the public sector since the early 1990s. And though she’s Black, as my colleague Aaron Coleman writes, many Black Lives Matter activists don’t like her very much. Rather, as Teddy Schleifer reports, the Biden-skeptical constituency she’s helped win over is Silicon Valley donors.

But to put the responsibility entirely on Harris’s shoulders is unfair. The striking thing is just how little the convention roster does to highlight the party’s younger talent, or figures who speak more to the edges of the coalition.

The desire not to go overboard on being the party of AOC makes sense. But what if instead of minimizing her presence, Democrats had counterbalanced her with more opportunities for other young members of Congress to round out the ideological diversity of the caucus?

Reps. Jared Golden and Ruben Gallego, two Marine Corps veterans representing two very different kinds of working-class districts, one in rural Maine and the other in Phoenix, could have made an interesting duo. Randall Woodfin and Chokwe Lumumba represent a younger generation of Southern Black politics that has important ties to the national left, but whose approach is tempered by the practical responsibilities of executive leadership and the need to operate in a Southern state.

But whatever the speaker roster, the more important thing is the message.

Beyond back-to-the-future politics

During the 2020 primaries, the debate on restorationist political themes was simplistic.

Leftists who were rightly critical of nostalgia politics tended to simultaneously embrace recklessness about the risks of running on unpopular policy ideas like broad-based tax increases or decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing. Conversely, moderates who wisely urged caution and attention to public opinion developed a post-2016 allergy to any hint of populist rhetoric or appeals to the sentiment that the system is broken.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton who, along with their wives, will dominate the 2020 convention airspace, ran for president as populist outsiders. Their messages in 2008 and 1992, respectively, obviously did not appeal to the notion that all was well in the pre-Trump era, and the main thing we had to do was bring back the interpersonal decency associated with the Bush family.

In 2008, Obama spoke of Americans “working harder for less” with “cars you can’t afford to drive, credit card bills you can’t afford to pay, and tuition that’s beyond your reach.” Problems he described as “a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush.”

Bill Clinton, 16 years earlier, complained that “people are working harder than ever, spending less time with their children, working nights and weekends at their job instead of going to PTA and Little League or Scouts, and their incomes are still going down, their taxes are going up, and the cost of health care, housing and education are going through the roof.”

“Our people are pleading for change,” he said, “but government is in the way. It’s been hijacked by privileged, private interests. It’s forgotten who really pays the bills around here. It’s taking more of your money and giving you less in service.”

These are themes that today would sound like a Sanders or a Warren speech. But the policies that backed them up were considerably more poll-tested, moderate, and politically cautious than today’s left. Also important is the notion that Democrats try to speak for and to people who feel let down by the system and the elite actors who dominate it — today’s mainstream Democrats sometimes seem like they are speaking on behalf of a system that’s been let down by Donald Trump.

It’s fine for Democrats to want to hear from the party’s elder statespeople. But to durably succeed, Democrats need to incorporate their practical wisdom and not just celebrate their successes.

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