Nearly everybody who reads this, particularly me, is too young to remember the 1968 riots at the Democratic convention. But there is not a single event in modern American history; not the assassinations of the 60’s, nor the Moon Landing, nor the Iranian hostage crisis, nor the fall of Communism, nor Bush v. Gore, nor 9/11, nor either the Vietnam or Iraq wars; which define everything in America which happened afterward more clearly than the 1968 Democratic convention.
As all conservative movements do, the conservatives of the late 60’s gained traction by promising a return to rule of law. From 1968 onward, Republicans have used variations on the exact same narrative that began at the 68 convention: “If Democrats cannot keep order within their own party, how can they keep order in their country, or in the world?’’
How could an event that seems so trivial to us today, like it happened in a distant solar system, have defined so much history afterward? People of my age can’t remember a time when Democrats were utterly confident that they were on the side of progress. The New Deal, the liberation of Europe, the Fair Deal, civil rights marches, the New Frontier, the Great Society, – this is all abstract history to us. But by 1968, it was utterly clear to many that the Vietnam War was wrong and that America was on history’s wrong side. After thrity-five years of unbroken moral certainty in the rightness of their causes, the Democrats faced an agonizing crisis of identity and were rent into multiple parts. How similar this feels to today’s republicans… In the case of fifty years ago, however rightly so many Democrats may have felt to splinter the party as they did, it damned liberals to nearly half a century of unbroken conservative rule.
Unbroken conservative rule?... Yes, unbroken.
Even when Carter or Clinton was president, theirs were presidencies whose possibilities were dictated by the demands of conservatives. They were southern governors, elected because their policies were palatable enough to the conservative base of the south to siphon off some of their more moderate voters. For all his later progressivism, Jimmy Carter was a southern governor quite late to support civil rights. One of his most significant policy decisions was deregulate the airline industry. The biggest decrease in capital gains tax came from the Carter administration – 49% to 28% in 1979.
Until Obama, Clinton was the only unambiguously successful Democratic president for the last half-century. There were far more liberal gains under Clinton than under Carter, but also far more liberal compromises. In order to pass the Brady bill that allowed for background checks on people who bought handguns, he had to sign two other crime bills which allowed for sixty new death penalty offenses, eliminated Pell Grants for prison inmate education, mandated that communications companies modify all their equipment so that federal agencies would be able to monitor whatever they wanted. To pass the Lobbying Disclosure Act which forced lobbyists to report their activities, he had to also sign the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, which got rid of a useful organization to regulate business. The list of laws Clinton passed and signed goes on and on, and they inevitably follow a pattern of a major liberal gain followed by a nearly as major conservative compromise. This – and impeachment – was the price of success.
(Barbara Jordan… what a shame that America wouldn’t elect a lesbian black president forty years ago.)
I was ten years old when Bill Clinton was nominated for president in New York, and as I was riveted to the coverage from my parents’ bedroom - vaguely but unmistakably thrilled by the sweep of an American history still beyond my understanding - I vividly recall their astonishment that Democrats were having a convention that went off without a hitch.
We like to pretend that modern conventions mean nothing – that the candidates are already elected through the primary process, it’s all just empty theater, and have absolutely no bearing on what happens in an election. In a certain way, this is correct. It is utterly empty theater, but because it’s empty theater, it’s all the more revealing than it ever was in the days of fraught, uncertain, conventions. By watching, we now know the priorities of each party, and we now know their competence at enacting their priorities. Because of the Republican convention, we now know that Republicans aren’t competent enough to stop an old man from yelling at a chair for fifteen minutes in primetime. And by watching yesterday’s convention, we know that Democrats are finally ready: Not only to believe again in the moral rightness of their party, but to persuade the country at large of that moral rightness.
Something miraculous is happening on television this week – a deliverance for which liberals have longed for half a century. The Republicans have already made their case for maintaining a conservative status quo, it was a bad case, and it’s now entrusted for the homestretch to an incompetent candidate. Republicans still may win, but it's not bloody likely now. It is the liberals’ turn to make their case, and Democrats can now articulate it with a force unseen since the days of John F. Kennedy.
What is amazing about this convention is that for the first time in my lifetime, in the lifetime of my whole generation, there is a liberal cause being articulated on primetime television - it's not being articulated perfectly; there are some errors in facts here and there which you can find on any factchecking sight, but it is a much greater case than conservatives have ever made. Every liberal should tune in immediately, because an unapologetic case is currently being made on national television for the benefits of government – for corporate regulation, for collective bargaining, for conservationism, for investment in education, for immigration amnesty, for women’s equality, for American labor – and it’s being made for the first time in our lifetimes. It’s being made better and more articulately than we’ve ever heard it, and made with the confidence that Americans are listening.
If you’ve wondered when the case would be made these past four years for liberal principles, turn on the TV tonight for Elizabeth Warren and Bill Clinton, and all night tomorrow night. The leash has been taken off. Nearly every major Democratic party spokesperson is on television instead of Obama operatives, finally finding the perfect moment to take the liberal case to the nation and speak their minds as liberal politicians have not in an entire generation. The Democratic party is a true party again. When will liberals stand up for themselves?