From Populism to Nationalism: The Highs and Lows of Democrats' Big Finale

One observer said Clinton's DNC speech had Bernie Sanders' "fingerprints all over it." (Photo: Reuters)

From Populism to Nationalism: The Highs and Lows of Democrats' Big Finale

"We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all," said Rev. William Barber. "We can't give up on the heart of our democracy. Not now. Not ever."

The final night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) saw highs, lows, and abundant examples of party propagandizing. Here are some takeaways from Night Four:

'Our enemies will fear us'

Retired four-star Gen. John Allen was flanked by military officials as he offered one of most neoconservative speeches of the evening, promising "our enemies" that "we will pursue you as only Americans can."

"To those acting against peace, acting against civilization and the world order, we will oppose you," Allen said. "And to our enemies, we will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us. And to ISIS and others, we will defeat you."


The general's aggressive speech "did not merely emphasize Clinton's competence and experience," as Vox points out: "It touted her in terms that were, frankly, neoconservative in tone."

And when anti-war protesters began chanting "No More War!" in response to the war-mongering rhetoric, resounding "USA! USA! USA!" cheers rose from the stands to drown out the activists. TV cameras panned to those parts of the crowd chanting "USA!" and focused on people waving massive American flags, avoiding any footage of the peace-minded demonstrators.

The Nation's D.D. Guttenplan expressed the dismay felt by many progressives when Allen's promises of war were met with flag-waving and nationalistic cheers:

Maybe all that flag waving looked good on the home screen, but if I hadn't actually been in Cleveland last week, I'd have wondered whether I'd wandered into the wrong convention. Especially after listening to Gen. John Allen deliver a speech at least as belligerent, and militaristic, as anything I'd heard at the RNC. The sight of so many Democrats shouting "USA!"--as if the only way to show our patriotism, and keep our country safe, was to chant louder than the Trump Party--filled me with dismay. As did the brutal efficiency with which Clinton's floor captains shut down protest. Every time the California delegation started a chant of "No more war!" it was drowned out by "USA!"

Indeed, Clinton supporters' counter-chants were hardly spontaneous, journalist Matt Yglesias revealed, as he tweeted a screenshot of Clinton delegates' instructions to drown out "Sanders folks" throughout the night:

Even some right-wing observers were surprised to witness such a nationalistic display at a Democratic Party convention:

The right-wing case for Clinton

The evening veered rightward again when it featured two life-long Republicans, former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Doug Elmets and Jennifer Pierotti Lim of "Republican Women for Hillary," who both advanced the conservative case for Hillary Clinton and against Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Elmets spent much of his speech praising America's progenitor of neoliberalism, contrasting Reagan's legacy with Trump's right-wing nationalism.

"I haven't just voted Republican. I worked in President Reagan's White House," Elmets said. "I recently led an effort to place a statue of Ronald Reagan in California's capitol. I'm here tonight to say: I knew Ronald Reagan; I worked for Ronald Reagan. Donald Trump, you are no Ronald Reagan."

"If you, like I do, believe loyalty to our country is more important than loyalty to party," Elmets concluded, "if you want a president with a good judgment, a steady hand and the temperament to represent our nation to the world and our children--I ask you to join me in voting for Hillary Clinton."

Lim was also full of praise for the Democratic candidate: "I've voted Republican my entire life," she said. "I believe in the bedrock values of the Republican Party: liberty, equality, and the idea that there are individual rights that cannot be taken away. These are values to be proud of. And because the Republican party has abandoned those values this year, this Republican is voting for Hillary Clinton."

Indeed, many Republican voters on Twitter were somewhat aghast when they recognized rhetoric at the DNC as what was once the Republican Party line:

'Moral defibrillators'

But it wasn't all bad.

Rev. William Barber II, architect of the Moral Monday movement and president of the North Carolina NAACP, delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night that the Washington Post described as "just about the most engaging version of everything that every other speaker touched on over the course of the four day event."

Barber's "soaring speech was a call to action," Jack Holmes wrote at Esquire, "and a declaration that it was inaction on a range of issues--gun violence, the deteriorating relationships between police and communities of color, the climate--that had led to a kind of national cardiac arrest."

Indeed, the preacher called on Democrats--in the hall and around the country--"to be the moral defibrillators of our time."

"We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all," he said. "We can't give up on the heart of our democracy. Not now. Not ever."

Some observers noted that during a convention where Palestinian rights were largely ignored, Barber refused to shy away.

"When we love the Jewish child and the Palestinian child...we are reviving the heart of our democracy," he said. "Jesus, a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, called us to preach good news to the poor, the broken and the bruised and all those who are made to feel unaccepted."

Watch his address below:

'You have sacrificed nothing'

American Muslim Khizr Khan also brought down the house Thursday night, directing a scathing critique at Donald Trump: "You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

The father of killed-in-action U.S. Army soldier Humayun Khan offered to let the Republican presidential nominee--whose anti-Muslim rhetoric has been a hallmark of his campaign--borrow his pocket constitution.

"Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution?" Khan asked Trump. Then, to loud applause and cheers, he pulled out his own. "I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words, look for the words, liberty and equal protection (under) law."

CNNnoted that Khan's "speech and reference to the Constitution came just minutes after Trump defended his stance to use waterboarding on terror suspects if he became president."

Still, Khan's moment wasn't without controversy, as FOX News drew criticism for failing to air the speech.

Watch Clinton's introduction and Khan's full remarks below:

'Credit where credit is due'

While protests against Hillary Clinton and what she represents peppered her nomination acceptance speech on Thursday and continued outside Wells Fargo Arena, some progressives saw her address as a chance to pat themselves--and Bernie Sanders' political revolution--on the back.

Even longtime Clinton critic Doug Henwood wrote on Twitter, "Who kidnapped Hillary and replaced her with a social democrat?"

And New York Magazine's Eric Levitz declared that Clinton's DNC speech had Sanders' "fingerprints all over it."

For one thing, Levitz wrote, Clinton appeared to embrace of "the energy and passion of a grassroots, left-wing movement." In addition, her speech acknowledged "that the central problem with the American economy is not an inadequate education system or a lack of innovation, but rather, the fact that the wealthy exert an outsized influence over public policy," Levitz argued.

"There remain a lot of significant ideological differences between Clinton and the left-wing of the Democratic Party--on tax rates for the upper-middle class, single-payer health care, financial regulation, and, above all, foreign policy," he wrote. "But thanks, in part, to Bernie Sanders campaign, the American left made its voice heard in Philadelphia, and not just through unintelligible shouts rising up from the floor."

Meanwhile, New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy analyzed the speech through a populist lens, having earlier in the day attended a talk by pollster Stan Greenberg, who laid out how--when it comes to the economy--"the 'rewriting the rules' framework produces a more positive response among voters, especially among certain key groups."

"For example," Cassidy explained, "when Clinton's policies were presented as part of an over-all effort to restructure the economy to make it fairer, the favorable response among millennials jumped by eleven percentage points, and by ten points among minority voters."

Cassidy wrote:

After attending the panel session, I was fascinated to see how Clinton's speech would fit into the framework that Greenberg had presented. In the event, it straddled both frames, but was ultimately closer to the populist line that Greenberg had recommended.

Early on, Clinton reached out to Sanders's supporters, pointing to the Party platform, which had been modified to include commitments to some of the Vermont senator's demands, such as a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, a skeptical attitude toward trade agreements, and a new Glass-Steagall Act. "We wrote it together," Clinton said. "Now let's go out and make it happen together."

[...] In addition, Clinton advertised her policy proposals, which, over the course of the campaign, have taken on a more populist and progressive slant, and, in some cases, have been borrowed from the Sanders campaign.

"In short," he concluded, "Clinton delivered a populist message, laying out a progressive policy agenda that reflects the fact that the Democratic Party has shifted significantly to the left over the past eight years. The question now is whether she will prove to be a credible messenger."

'Our military is a national treasure'

Still, Clinton's speech delved back into right-wing rhetoric when she touched on foreign policy, to the surprise of few.

Clinton specifically promised to continue the U.S.-led bombing campaign of ISIS targets--a strategy that has killed dozens of civilians in Syria so far this year--telling the cheering crowd, "we will prevail":

I've laid out my strategy for defeating ISIS. We will strike their sanctuaries from the air, and support local forces taking them out on the ground. We will surge our intelligence so that we detect and prevent attacks before they happen. We will disrupt their efforts online to reach and radicalize young people in our country. It won't be easy or quick, but make no mistake--we will prevail.

Now Donald Trump says, and this is a quote, "I know more about ISIS than the generals do...."

No, Donald, you don't. He thinks that he knows more than our military because he claimed our armed forces are "a disaster."

Well, I've had the privilege to work closely with our troops and our veterans for many years, including as a Senator on the Armed Services Committee. I know how wrong he is.

Our military is a national treasure. We entrust our commander-in-chief to make the hardest decisions our nation faces. Decisions about war and peace. Life and death.

When it comes to fighting for peace, however, presumptive Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein argued that Clinton's decisions have shown a lack of judgment:

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