Days after the event, I suspect that thousands of people who were at the Democratic National Convention are still thinking about it. The event itself, and particularly the final night, will go down in history as a moment when the political ensembles of left and right switched — but not with any clarity or exactitude. In four days, the Democratic party, an outfit dating from the 1820s, and one that has been through several changes, reconstructed itself once more, decisively ditching many of the “new left” features that it had taken on in the late 1960s.
This stunning and well-managed re-composition came days after the Republicans suffered a chaotic and badly managed de-composition, one that created a vacuum that made the Democratic transformation possible. To put it simply: the Cleveland convention, nominating Donald Trump, had the Republicans decisively ditch the “Reaganite” formula — one that fused free-market capitalism, power projection abroad, and traditional cultural values — and effectively hand the party over to Donald Trump and his retinue, whose “vision” is a hybrid and contradictory mix of protectionism, free-market theory, isolationism and imperial projection. The Republicans leapt from Reaganism to, well, nowhere stable, consistent or able to be simply projected as a stand-alone political position.
Two days after this extraordinary display, the Democratic convention began, in much the same style as it has for the past two decades: with a roll call of ordinary people from various race, gender and cultural identity groups, talking of the progress achieved, and the need to continue the push. Right-wing pundits noted the absence of American flags on stage, and the lack of any reference to national security.
Everyone noticed the cult of Hillary created over the first two days, culminating in her appearance on a vast video screen, at the end of a fast black and white montage of all previous presidents — a space opera sci-fi moment if ever there was one. The emphasis on Hillary and identity politics was deeply worrying for anyone leaning Democratic; were the party leadership caught up in a cult? Could they not see how grating this was on people who hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid?
Yes, they could, was the answer. On day three and four, the convention took that commitment to diversity, and surrounded it with an unashamedly militaristic patriotism, a move guaranteed by the appearance of LGBT veterans, and Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, and who asked Donald Trump if he had ever read the constitution — with Khazir waving a copy: “Here, I will lend you mine”.
The convention used Trump’s freewheeling contradictions — his enthusiasm for dictators, his veering between isolationism and power projection — to portray the Republicans as a party not to be trusted with national security. This was hammered home on the final night with speeches from generals, ex-Republican administration office holders — and Hillary herself, speaking amid an auditorium filled with flags.
Essentially, the Democrats fused the two sides of their politics together: cultural diversity and progressivism, with militarism and the confident projection of global power. The “New Left” formula created in 1968 — in which social and cultural campaigns around race, gender, sexuality, etc, were fused with an anti-imperialism abroad — was decisively ditched. Those who still held to it were part of the Bernie Sanders movement, decisively sidelined. This new formula — a new liberal-diversity imperialism — is being built on the basis of an existing core of old centrist Democrats who have never had any great objection to projection of power abroad and see the commitment to ever-more intersectional identities and rights as a continuation of the Democrats historic, post-1964, liberal role.
They are joined by cohorts of the young, drawn to Hillary rather than Bernie, whose late-teen political engagement began in 2006-2008 — years when the neocon supremacy was being decisively trashed by failure in Iraq, the economic crash, and the rise of Obama. Together, these groups form the core of the new Democratic base — black communities, Latino communities, college-educated/humanities-graduated, LGBT, the disabled and others — and the party leadership is increasingly confident that any form of internationalism within those groups is a minority.
There are, for example, people in Black Lives Matter who would link the way black populations are policed in the US to the way Palestinians are sequestered in Israel/Palestine — but they are a minority in relation to the movement itself and to the wider community. There are college-educated groups who are anti-war, and willing to name Obama’s “smart/drone wars” as the dystopian side of the digital revolution. But compared to the anti-war movement that flocked into the Democrats from 1968 onwards, they too are a minority.
These groups are now “reliable”, in a way that allows the Democrats access to a “smart nationalism”, a claim on ideas of exceptionalism and power projection that they have had difficulty in dealing with, since 1968. They should not be mistaken for other, smaller tendencies that surfaced in the 2000s — the so-called “cruise-missile liberals”, who abandoned anti-war sentiment for an enthusiastic support of wars of global social liberation, blowing the burqa off with bombs, etc. The new progressives would still be opposed to big marquee wars such as Iraq. But they are increasingly relaxed and comfortable with a global projection of US power, and drone warfare — even with its shocking civilian casualties, its overarching terror and extra-nationalism — does not disturb them to protest.
This New Progressivism — as good a term as any — may well be a foundation that the Democrats build on for decades to come. It is a liberal imperialism, a diversity Reaganism, one with little use for a distinct left, or for the “New Deal” white working class, which once underpinned the party. Centred on the college-educated and minority community it can reject any serious challenge to the system, and focus on matters central to those groups — college fees, policing and gun control, secondary education. Had the Bernie insurgency not occurred, there would be relatively little mention of the minimum wage, or other class/economic measures at all.
The strength of the New Progressivism is in its internal consistency. It offers a politics of global dominance abroad, and progressive cultural transformation at home, which cuts with the grain of american exceptionalism. The steady advance — if there is any — of blacks, latinos, LGBT, etc, under a New Progressive administration would thus appear to be no more than the further fulfilment of American exceptionalism, the long-delayed promise of the founding, etc. In its rear-view mirror, much of the post-’60s anti-war and anti-imperialist politics will appear decidedly quaint. This formulation has the classic form of a successful political ideology: it is simplicity itself — “the US extends power judiciously to protect the ‘diversity’ society it has built/is building, in a world of collapsing democracies” — but can be extended in all directions.
This reformulation leaves the Republicans with very little. Donald Trump is neither a Ron Paul, to announce a decisive withdrawal from empire, back to a republic, nor is he a national-level Huey Long, to announce a patriotic protectionist policy and a turning away from the world on a “let the ragheads kill each other” mantra.
Trump’s success relies entirely on nostalgia for a very specific periods — particularly that of Keynesian post-war capitalism, when the US ran most of the world, and dominated industrially due to global underdevelopment — and projects it, impossibly, into the future. Thus the whole thing is contradictory, no stable position can be read off it, and it relies for its success on being oppositional and anti-systemic. Its bases are sections of the white low-income working class, the white South, some evangelicals, and some college-educated white men. That barely constitutes a base, more a series of excluded, bypassed and/or resentful groups.
The success of this ramshackle movement is due to two factors: the extraordinary degree of “anti-” — anti-elite, anti-politics, anti-black/latino — politics among such groups at the moment, such that a punk/Dada figure like Trump funds favour with them; and the widespread dislike and distrust of Hillary Clinton. That degree of disjuncture between the force of the New Progressives, the defects of its leader, and the insurgent appeal of the contender may still be enough to give Donald Trump the White House — though the numbers suggest it is unlikely.
The absolute asymmetry of the two parties in this new period can be seen by playing out the both win/lose scenarios. Win or lose, the Democrats now have a new ideology which has been stripped of many of the contradictions which dogged it for decades. Should they lose, it will be because they wrote off the white working class, simply gave them up as lost to Trump, by and large. They will then incorporate a protectionist, re-industrialising plank and sail on. Should they win, they are set up to sweep across the Congress and Senate over the next four years, appoint several supreme court judges, and cement in the New Progressive America.
Should the Republicans lose, they will collapse into a degree of infighting that will put the party at peril. Should they win, they will have to honour a series of contradictory and fantastical promises — the disappointment from the Trump movement would be such to shake the political system to its core. It is possible that Clinton v Trump 2016, as extraordinary as it has seemed, is simply the prelude to a process that will spill out of the narrow political sphere altogether.
And, of course, it is entirely likely that nothing that happens will resemble this projection in any way. But whatever the case, we have seen an extraordinary realignment in American politics this past fortnight, and there are still three months to go.