Viewing the delegates through C-Span’s unfiltered lens, it is apparent that the Democratic Party represents the face of America.
According to a N.Y. Times/CBS News poll, except for a statistical tilt towards affluence (though not great wealth), the delegates closely reflect the diversity of the American people - not only in terms of age, race, religion, gender and sexual preference but, also, as reflected on television, in individualistic and informal sartorial style.
In order to defeat George W. Bush in November, Democratic leaders have decided to position the Party towards the political center, framing its policies to appeal to independents, Republican moderates, and other potential swing voters. Determined to defeat Bush, delegates have accepted that discipline. The result is a tempered convention, drained of conflict and passion.
The Anyone But Bush strategy may, in fact, help the Kerry-Edwards ticket win the election (argumentatively, it may not!) But what may prove sufficient to defeat the Republicans will not be enough and provide the Democrats with a coherent direction to effectively govern the country.
Viewing the delegates and listening to the toned-down speeches, I nevertheless detected a theme that could guide the Party towards a progressive, inspirational and unifying vision.
I call it “A New Patriotism” but others might describe it simply as an updated version of the Party’s “government is a positive force” ideological tradition. The emphasis on an activist government protecting the rights and opportunities of all Americans was evident in the selection of Barack Obama as keynote speaker. The son of a black immigrant father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama wasn’t just spouting rhetoric when he declared, “black and white, we are all Americans.” The right of Obama’s parents to marry, it should be noted, was prohibited in 16 states until a 1967 United States Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia, gave constitutional protection to interracial marriage. Key to the new patriotism is the insistence that government advances and protects equal rights and opportunity for all Americans.
John Edwards also implied a new patriotism in his Vice Presidential acceptance speech when he called for one America working to end racial and class divisions. The theme was further reflected by gay and lesbian delegates who presented themselves not as representing a counter-cultural alternative lifestyle but as ordinary citizens who wanted the same rights and protections of heterosexual Americans.
A new patriotism theme is also inherent in the life of John Kerry. As a combat hero in Vietnam and then a leader of Vietnam veterans against that war, Kerry heals one of the great divides of recent history. Indeed, it’s possible that he shifts the division from hawk versus dove to a division between those who cared enough about the country to fight or protest the war and those (the “chickenhawks” - and need I mention their names?) who avidly supported the war but were happy to let other people fight it.
This divide also reflects the ideological divisions of the two parties. Democrats, when they are acting like Democrats, believe that government has a proactive role to play not only in protecting the country from enemy attack, but in assuring economic security for all citizens. As Obama, Edwards and others said, government can’t solve individual personal problems, but it can and should create opportunity so that all Americans can pursue happiness and have an honest shot at decent lives.
Republicans believe the opposite, that government has no role to play in economic affairs except that of encouraging a deregulated free market. Everyone is on his or her own; government has no responsibility to help those who fall behind.
When it comes to personal issues, the ideology of the two parties is reversed. Republicans, despite their rhetorical opposition to “big government,” propose government intrusion into personal lives. Democrats, on the other hand, insist that “Big Brother” has no role to play in defining the social relationships and personal choices of consenting adults. Democrats want government to regulate the boardroom; Republicans want government nosing around the bedroom.
Democrats are also the more ecumenical party, welcoming people of all religious and non-religious persuasions without favoring one theological position over any other. Republicans, as defined by the Bush administration, take a theocratic approach, attempting to impose right-wing fundamentalist views on the rest of the country.
“A New Patriotism” would have an affect on economic policy as well. Republicans would allow corporations -- beholden to their stockholders -- to set the rules of international commerce. Democrats, again if they’re true to their history, will insist that government -- beholden to their citizens -- govern international investment and trade. In domestic policy, this means an industrial policy encouraging energy independence and investment in domestic manufacturing. It also means health care for all, protection of the environment, and the right of workers, white-collar and blue, to organize labor unions -- at home and in negotiations with our global trading partners.
A new emphasis on patriotic governance could also mean a program of national service to get young people out of their ghettos -- of poverty and privilege and suburbia and slums -- to work in programs like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, a new Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as apprentice building programs to help construct affordable housing which the private sector can’t do on its own.
Democrats include; Republicans divide. The Democratic challenge to right-wing Republicans should be “put up or shut up.” There’s more to patriotism than waving flags and pledging allegiance. True patriotism implies people working together, doing what’s good for the country and all its citizens, not using the tools of government to promote and protect theocratic social rules and economic privilege.
But talk is cheap. Democrats, no less than Republicans, are dependent on corporate benefactors. To propel the Democrats forward, the country also needs a strong grassroots movement to push for political change, call it “A New Patriotism” or simply a more inclusive 21st-century version of the Great Society and New Deal.
Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column was written before John Kerry’s acceptance speech.