Flags, flags, flags and flags. Thousands of small paper ones, hundreds of larger ones, a shifting, shimmering sea of red, white and blue swirling in the whole auditorium. Thousands of tall “Hillary” signs waving in the air. Katy Perry in a shimmering silver-diamond dress doing “Roar” as the crowd swayed and sang along. A sweet and touching introductory speech by Chelsea Clinton, a slick stylish film, the voice of Morgan Freeman booming through the auditorium, and then the woman herself, emerging in a white pantsuit, as the roar rose and peaked.
In a thundering conclusion to the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton has accepted the nomination of the party as candidate for President, the conclusion of an evening focused on military strength and determination, combined with purposeful action at home, positioning the Democrats as the party of solidity and national interest — essentially as the conservative party. The convention heard from Khazir Khan, father of a Muslim soldier killed in action, who, wife by his side, damned Donald Trump for “never having given anything to his country”, pulled out a constitution, and offered to lend his copy to Trump. Also from General John Allen who assured them that Clinton was the only one capable of protecting the nation’s national security. Before that there had been, finally, a focus on workers, with low-waged people talking about their struggles, and the great Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers.
Hillary’s speech capped the evening. Though it was not a memorable performance of oratory — and even, it must be said, appeared to flag a little at times — it was solidly made, and pulled together all the threads of the convention and the campaign. Starting with a recap of sorts of the convention, a shout out to Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama, and all the people who got her there, Clinton segued into the themes of the convention — as it had emerged — unity, and working together. This had been a pretty clever structuring of the entire convention — perhaps too clever by half — as the diverse expressions of the progressive movement, of suffering, oppression and campaigning to change it, were drawn together in the last two days, and especially the last evening. There was an early hit at Trump:
“He’s taken the Republican Party a long way… from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America’. He wants us to fear the future and fear each other.”
And then it was into a long form of self-biography — her father’s family as solid, and her mother’s as a neglected child, her life devoted to public service. “We didn’t have buildings with our name on them,” being the vaguely Pythonesque takeaway.
After taking down Trump, and contrasting her appeal to everyone that “we have to do this together” with his “only I can fix this”, Clinton outlined a program of job creation, social investment, and student debt forgiveness which is far to the left of where it would have been had Bernie Sanders campaign not run. Combined with the commitment to military supremacy and authority it essentially recreated the New Deal and called on the spirit of FDR — a time when the Democratic Party had dominated the US for two decades. It exited into a renunciation of Trump’s cynicism, a commitment to being “stronger together” and an invitation to people of all parties to “join us in this project”. Thus a double move — the diversity within the Democratic party becomes a unity, and then the Democratic Party stands for the whole of the USA, as the Trump Republican party spins off yet further into apocalyptic self-obsession.
When it was over, ending on a curiously quiet note, some stronger closer lines squandered in the middle of the speech, the balloons came down, the thousands upon thousands in cascades with huge star spangled balloons bouncing across the top of the crowd, ticker-tape flying in all directions. Then audience members broke out special placards they’d been supplied with, transforming the entire audience into a vast red white and blue criss-cross American flag. It was an astonishing and overwhelming site. I recalled those colour photos of World War Two events that have recently been rediscovered, and felt for a moment as if I was at the 1936 convention, had slipped quietly into a moment of history.
The Democrats great bet is that this rhetorical, spectacular display will not only convince millions of wavering independents watching to throw in their lot with the party, but that it will set the tone for the campaign, and box Trump in. Should they succeed, the red, white and blue sky’s the limit. The party could take the White House, take back the Senate, appoint three supreme court justices and crack open the House years early. The Republicans would fall into complete disarray and even fragmentation. They have no way of being a modern society that is not based around myth and paranoia. What we saw this week was the Democrats new model of modernity; progressivism armed, to the left for the moment, but gutted of any real labour/worker content; a party which would happily invade — with bombs or trade treaties — such nations as it found necessary to, but would ensure that its occupying troops are provided with gender-neutral toilets. A party, and soon a country which has made a renewed commitment to a sort of social democracy, but only at the price of reasserting a notion of American supremacy, hegemony and exceptionalism that can only be a fiction — perhaps a very dangerous one for us all — in a multilateral world.
Having been there as the balloons came down, as the most leftward Democratic program of the last 75 years was announced, and yet knowing who these people on the stage are, their histories and connections, their past form and future prospects, I am far beyond the possibility of a unified and uncontradicted thought for the moment. A daughter introduced her mother as the next President of the United States and that woman then honoured her mother. At the heart of the empire, that may be a disturbance of power, of the idea of what power is, greater than we can yet get our heads around. We don’t get fooled again, but I’m not going to mistake churlishness for critical thinking neither. It is just possible that, if she gets the chance, and having been met with new forces that have set a new agenda, Hillary Clinton may be a great President. And that will have been what all the flags are for.