The political spectacle of the past year has turned the 2016 election into a chasm with profound historical significance. By nominating Donald Trump, the Republican Party has become the vehicle for an authoritarian, nativist nationalism that until now lurked at the fringes of modern American politics. Hillary Clinton has launched a mainstream progressive campaign, in an updated Democratic tradition that stretches back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is the choice Americans face – between alternatives as starkly opposed to each other as in any election in our history, excepting the one in 1860, which led to the Civil War.
This summer’s political conventions substantively and symbolically revealed the fate of both parties in this crucial election year. The Democratic delegates in Philadelphia looked as culturally polyglot as the party’s rank and file, affirming how much the party has changed over the past half century. The 1964 convention in Atlantic City that nominated Lyndon B. Johnson was roiled by the unsuccessful efforts of black voting-rights campaigners to seat a racially integrated delegation from Mississippi – the last stand inside the party of the old Democratic Solid South. Five decades later, the convention hall was a sea of brown and black and white faces as well as LGBT rainbows. And, of course, the convention was nominating the first female presidential candidate of a major party in American history – a connection that Clinton, who toned down the gender angle in her 2008 bid for the nomination, has now made central to her campaign.
Yet the convention also pulled its multicultural celebrations together into a patriotic whole, overcoming the inchoate diversity that has too often bedeviled the Democrats in recent years. As a direct challenge to the Republican nativists’ nationalism, the Democrats proclaimed their own pro-immigrant nationalism, at once of this moment and a reprise of traditional Democratic themes. The sight of Khizr Khan, the Muslim immigrant father of an American soldier slain in Iraq, pulling from his pocket a copy of the Constitution and then contemptuously but calmly asking whether Trump had ever read it stopped the proceedings cold and dramatized the Democrats’ rearticulated national pride. In the face of Trump’s isolationism, the Democrats celebrated America’s indispensable role in global affairs, not least in the NATO alliance, which elicited American flag waving and chants of “USA! USA!,” reviving the kind of liberal internationalism that was central to the party of FDR and Harry Truman but had receded in the aftermath of Vietnam. And throughout the convention, there were other reminders of a fortified living connection with the past.
The Democrats repeatedly entwined diversity and inclusion with their party’s old-time convictions about economic inequality and opportunity, convictions that have badly needed refurbishing and restating in the wake of the Great Recession, convictions that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ stunning primary challenge forced to the very center of the debate. There on the convention stage was Sanders himself, railing against “the 40-year decline of our middle class” and “the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that we currently experience.” There was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, explaining how the system is rigged for CEOs and predators like Trump. And there, too, was Hillary Clinton, proclaiming that “Democrats are the party of working people,” but the party needed to show it better; then saying, “Our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should”; and touting a government program funded by targeted tax hikes on the rich, the “biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II,” to rebuild America’s infrastructure.
Vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine pointed to the Democrats’ ownership of change and continuity in his acceptance speech when he talked of writing “the next chapter in our great and proud story,” from Thomas Jefferson to JFK and LBJ, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to Bill and Barack, and, finally, to Hillary Clinton.
The opposite was true for the Republicans in Cleveland. Unlike the Democrats’, the Republicans’ nearly lily-white gathering looked a lot like long-ago Republican conventions. Yet there was virtually nothing in the nobler aspirations of the GOP’s past, including the Reagan years, that Trump could hold up as his own. The negative tone of the speeches brought to mind instead the acrid paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan at the 1992 convention, vowing to “take our country back” from the forces of depravity, block by inner-city block. The closest that Trump came to quoting a Republican president in his own acceptance speech was his channeling of Richard Nixon’s fearsome, racially charged invocation of “law and order” from 1968. Clinton, however, in her acceptance speech, was able to sum up her case against Trump with the words of “a great Democratic president” at “a much more perilous time,” the founder of modern Democratic politics, Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In that rhetorical difference, and all clashing politics behind it, lies the essential choice Americans will face in November.
Politics, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, is divided between the party of Conservatism and the party of Innovation, a distinction that corresponds to deeper divisions in the human soul between the Past and the Future, between Memory and Hope. Emerson would have been appalled at the degradation of recent American politics, but we can still see in this year’s election, refracted, the eternal struggle between Memory and Hope. Yet Trump’s politics of Memory are hardly Conservative, apart from the turbocharged tax cuts; they are a concoction of bigoted, insular fantasies that Reagan-era Republicans repudiated. And Clinton’s politics of Innovation and Hope are not at all divorced from the Past – they are deeply rooted in the long traditions of her party.
The fury of the campaign has something to do with Memory (or, more exactly, Nostalgia) and something to do with Hope. But the creation of the chasm in 2016 has more to do with history. Trump’s rise depended on the hollowing out of the Republican Party over the past 25 years, beginning with the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich, in which successive waves of increasingly right-wing insurgents, backed by reactionary plutocrats like the Koch brothers, drove away the party’s moderates and rattled many of its traditional conservatives. Trump took the trend to the outer limits of politics by appealing directly to nativist and isolationist sentiments – and he handily defeated for the nomination both the remnants of the old GOP establishment, above all Jeb Bush, and fire-eating darlings of the Tea Party like Ted Cruz. Clinton’s candidacy, meanwhile, also has to do with history, in particular her role in the contentious evolution of the Democratic Party going all the way back to the New Deal era.
As much as Trump’s rise catalyzed the collapse of the Republican center, Clinton’s success marked the resilience of the Democratic center. Clinton won the primaries because vital, loyal constituents inside the Democratic base, above all nonwhite voters, backed her convincingly. Most important, she enjoyed the overwhelming support of self-identified Democrats, on the order of 64 percent to 35 percent. Although sometimes cast as a victory of the party establishment over a rank-and-file insurgency, Clinton’s triumph showed that she was the strong favorite of the party’s base.
Clinton’s politics were also in line with the main themes of the Democratic Party’s as they have developed over the past 80-odd years. Assembling various strains of reformist politics, Roosevelt’s New Deal expounded a greatly enlarged conception of federal power to address the emergency of the Great Depression, to attack economic inequality and the power of those FDR called “economic royalists,” and to expand public works for public benefits. Successive Democratic presidents adapted New Deal principles to the changing situation of a more affluent America after World War II, and put their own stamp on FDR’s legacy, from Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal to John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
There were important continuities over the decades, none more so than the prolonged battle for universal health care insurance begun by Truman, which LBJ advanced to the point of enacting Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Democratic programs regularly included key elements such as raising the minimum wage and expanding aid to education. And there were historic changes as well, most importantly on racial equality and civil rights. Starting with Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, liberal Democrats pushed their party hard to renounce its segregationist past – in Hubert H. Humphrey’s words, “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights, and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” LBJ’s embrace of the civil rights movement and his alliance with Martin Luther King Jr. produced the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. The party of economic egalitarianism was now the party of racial egalitarianism as well. And with the passage in 1965 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, overturning 40 years of narrow quotas, the Democrats reasserted their role as the party of immigrants.
Democrats suffered through their own crackup in 1968, badly divided over Johnson’s war in Vietnam and battered by white defections to the Republicans over civil rights. The conservative turn begun by Nixon augured the rise of Ronald Reagan and a political ascendancy premised on a repudiation of the Great Society and the entire New Deal tradition. Although they still controlled a majority in the House, the Democrats were crushed in three successive presidential elections. The party seemed adrift in national politics, a collection of special interests without purpose or direction.
To the shock of the Reagan Republicans, though, Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, then won re-election in 1996, the first Democrat to do so since FDR. Clinton embarked on his own updated version of the New Deal tradition, advancing a domestic program he called “Putting People First,” and devoting enormous energy to securing the comprehensive health care reform envisaged more than 40 years earlier by Truman. Clinton also tried to adapt to changing times, reforming what he considered outmoded government programs, taking account of the unsettling realities of a post-Cold War global economy and dealing with pressing new problems like a pandemic of drug-related violent crime.
The defeat of Clinton’s health care reform paved the way for the election in 1994 of a more ideologically driven conservative Republican House majority, led by the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich. Thereafter, Clinton would have to bob and weave in order to advance his reforms, while thwarting Republican efforts to gut existing social programs like Medicare – political necessities that his critics, seizing upon an insider’s term of art, condemned as “triangulation.” Clinton also faced ire from organized labor for moving ahead with NAFTA (with the assurance, he believed, that in the end it would help create American jobs by increasing American exports). The left vilified him for signing a welfare-reform bill that he himself knew was severely flawed and would later try to correct – but which did help move millions into paid employment, instead of what FDR called “the pauperism of a dole.”
Whatever its shortcomings and missteps, real and imagined, the Clinton White House rescued Democratic politics from the dolor of the Reagan years. It pressed forward on making the largest federal investment in education in 30 years, on strengthening environmental-protection laws, on protecting Medicare. When thwarted on comprehensive health care reform, Clinton secured coverage for 5 million children, the largest investment in health care for minors since 1965. The administration strengthened civil rights enforcement, salvaged affirmative action from fierce political and judicial attack and appointed a record number of African-Americans and women to the federal bench. It also oversaw the longest economic expansion in U.S. history, a reduction in unemployment to the lowest levels in more than 30 years, the creation of more than 22 million new jobs, and the fastest and longest growth in real wages since the 1960s. It accomplished all of this despite opposition from angry and increasingly reckless congressional Republicans who, after shutting down the federal government twice and incurring voters’ wrath, sought Clinton’s removal through an enormously unpopular impeachment drive.
The administration also persevered despite baseless vitriolic attacks on First Lady Hillary Clinton. A chief source of the character assassination, interestingly, was The New York Times, which legitimized the caricature of Clinton in the political mainstream, distant from the fever swamps of the right and left. William Safire, the former Nixon propagandist, filled his Times columns with anti-Hillary calumny, most notably in a column in 1996, when, with no apparent evidence, he blasted her over the Whitewater pseudoscandal, calling her “a congenital liar” who “had good reasons to lie; she is in the longtime habit of lying; and she has never been called to account for lying herself or in suborning lying in her aides and friends.” Under editorial-page editor Howell Raines, the Times became something of a whipping post for the Clintons. Maureen Dowd outdid herself and everyone else on Hillary (as she continues to do today), writing scores of columns attacking the Clintons as a couple – “like a virus or an alien that needs a host body to survive” – and Hillary above all, as a power-hungry cynic and a betrayer of feminism who with her husband had “chosen tactics over truth with such consistency that it’s impossible to accept anything they say.” Thus was established the abiding myth of Hillary Clinton as a deceitful harridan, a fiction that seems to have become hard-wired in our politics despite all the evidence to the contrary, including the recent report by the distinguished and authoritative fact-checking project PolitiFact that Clinton was the most truthful candidate, Democratic or Republican, in the 2016 primary season.
Where Speaker Gingrich and the House Republicans failed in overthrowing President Clinton in 1998-99, the conservative Supreme Court, in its Bush v. Gore ruling in 2000, succeeded in ensuring that Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, would not succeed him. Then, after eight disastrous years of George W. Bush, the results of 2008 marked a clear Democratic comeback, electing to the presidency an African-American pledged to securing universal health care, and enlarging the Democratic majority sent to the House two years earlier. But the epic financial collapse of 2008-09 clouded those victories. Modern Democratic politics were born in 1933, when FDR entered the White House and made a new start after the Great Depression had already been underway for more than three years. Barack Obama was elected, however, only six weeks after the Great Crash of 2008. From the beginning, he had to halt economic free-fall as well as pursue the agenda on which he had run. He had to do so facing a Republican leadership that, on the very evening of his inauguration, pledged at a private meeting to obstruct and if necessary sabotage the White House’s legislative agenda. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republicans’ new chief deputy whip.
Obama’s legislative successes in his first two years were remarkable: the historic Affordable Care Act, the comprehensive Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law and a substantial stimulus package. After the Tea Party midterms of 2010, though, the door would close on new legislation on a comparable scale, and would stay closed even after Obama (like Bill Clinton before him) surprised and infuriated the Republicans by winning re-election. Since then, when not fending off government shutdowns and threats of fiscal disaster, Obama has largely had to bypass Congress to get anything done.
After her term as Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton stood as the most likely Democratic successor to Obama, and the foremost public figure in the mainstream Democratic tradition. Her early career had schooled her in those politics, from her years of work with the Children’s Defense Fund and the Legal Services Corporation to her advocacy for education and rural health care as first lady of Arkansas to her spearheading of health care reform and then children’s health-insurance reform in the White House. As a U.S. senator from New York, she served on the Armed Services Committee, where she focused on expanding health benefits for veterans and their families as well as National Guard members and reservists; she wrote a law to supply grants to local and state governments to aid family caregivers; and while fighting for immigration reform, she introduced an amendment to expand health coverage for low-income legal-immigrant children and pregnant mothers.
In 2007, before the Great Recession had hit, Clinton called for new regulations to crack down on financial derivatives and subprime mortgages and reinforce oversight of financial institutions. In 2008, in her first bid for the presidency, she assembled a broad agenda that covered the gamut of domestic policies from health care to equal pay for women. As secretary of state, Clinton mixed emphasizing her long-standing credo about advancing women’s rights as human rights with an insistence on American leadership in foreign affairs.
Pressed to define her politics in 2015, Clinton called herself “a progressive who likes to get things done,” which makes her sound like a reliable but less-than-romantic incremental reformer. She worked well in the Senate with Republicans like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, affirming her skills at overcoming even the bitterest partisan divides to enact reforms. But Clinton’s political realism serves her political principles, including her bedrock view, inherited from previous generations of Democrats, that it is up to government, as she puts it, “to rein in the excesses of capitalism so it doesn’t run amok” and, every once in a while, “to save capitalism from itself.” Although as a Democrat she is certainly pro-business, her record puts the lie to charges that she’s a compliant tool of Wall Street. Her policy proposals in 2016 encompass a broad public imagination in the mainstream Democratic tradition, but adapted to our own time.
One example is Clinton’s proposal to fund infrastructure improvement. The dire state of our bridges, roads, airports, mass transit and essential-service facilities like wastewater treatment plants has become a national scandal. The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013 handed the country an overall grade of D+ on its infrastructure, reported an enormous backlog of overdue maintenance and desperate need for modernization, and estimated that it would take a total investment of $3.6 trillion by 2020 to fix all that needed fixing. Yet Republicans have been notably hostile to funding infrastructure improvements. In 2011, for example, Senate Republicans defeated a modest $60 billion infrastructure proposal, and then, four years later, they defeated a more ambitious $478 billion White House plan sponsored in the Senate by Bernie Sanders. Finally, with the federal trust fund for highway improvement on the verge of running out, Congress approved a $305 billion infrastructure package in 2015, the largest in a decade. And Trump, in one of his breaks from conservative Republican orthodoxy, shrewdly picked up the issue in the campaign, with a nebulous promise to spend half a trillion dollars on infrastructure overhauls, paid for with new debt and delivered “on time, on budget, way below costs, way below what anyone ever thought.”
“Even without a unifying title,” Clinton’s plan for her first 100 days in office “is a sweeping agenda.”
Clinton’s proposal, by contrast, is exact and, given the existing political climate, at once realistic and ambitious. With some adjustments to the federal tax code aimed chiefly at the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent of earners, $250 billion would be raised for the funding of roads, highways and airports. An additional $25 billion would fund a project that was central to Bill Clinton’s 1992 agenda and that as recently as 2011, House Republicans ridiculed as “dead on arrival”: an infrastructure bank that would leverage capital for more improvements. And that is just the start.
Clinton’s infrastructure improvements would also include making affordable broadband Internet available to every American household, while providing free Wi-Fi in public buildings and public transportation. They would include modernizing dams and levees, saving water resources and generating clean energy. They would expand efforts to work with local governments in order to ensure that low-income communities would have cheaper transportation routes. They would, in short, address a number of problems worsened by the neglect and supply-side priorities of the Reagan era. And they would create as many as 3.25 million new jobs over five years from the direct spending alone.
Clinton’s program for battling economic inequality is another series of reinventions in the broad New Deal tradition. Her proposals include middle-class tax credits to be covered by raising taxes on the very wealthiest Americans and by closing tax loopholes; raising the federal minimum wage by 66 percent to $12 an hour, while supporting a $15 minimum in individual cities and states; protecting labor unions’ collective-bargaining rights; and reducing child-care costs. To address the problems of climate change unimaginable to earlier generations, she has called for the installation of half a billion solar panels by the end of her first term, with the goal of providing clean renewable energy to every household in the country by 2027.
More implicit, but of crucial importance, are the progressive implications behind Clinton’s promise to remake the Supreme Court. In the 1930s, a conservative court dogged FDR’s New Deal; in the 1950s and 1960s, decisions by the more liberal court headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren advanced, in particular, racial equality to the point where “Impeach Earl Warren” became a right-wing rallying cry. The calculated conservative reconstruction of the judiciary begun by Nixon and Reagan has in turn produced a Supreme Court often dominated by legal views associated with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, which produced decisions like Bush v. Gore, Citizens United and Shelby County v. Holder (which struck down key elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act). Trump has vowed to appoint justices who think like Scalia. Clinton would create the first reliably progressive court since the 1970s.
All of this can sound like a laundry list of positions and proposals instead of a coherent philosophy of reform like, say, the New Deal or the Great Society. Indeed, since the advent of Reagan, successful Democrats have not affixed lasting labels to their administrations. (Bill Clinton tried, briefly, to call his administration the New Covenant, but mercifully that never got very far.) Yet there is also a great danger in overstating the coherence of the Democratic reformers of long ago. “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” FDR declared in 1932. “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.”
Hillary Clinton has already indicated what she would pursue in her first 100 days in office: launching her infrastructure program; investing in renewable energy; tightening regulation of health-insurance and pharmaceutical companies; and expanding protection of voting rights. She has also said that she will nominate women for half of her Cabinet positions. And not far behind these initiatives are several others, including immigration reform and raising the minimum wage.
Even without a unifying title, it is a sweeping agenda, the latest updating of Democratic reformism. Democratic politics at their most fruitful have always been more improvisational than programmatic, more empirical than doctrinaire, taking on an array of issues, old and new, bound by the politics of Hope pressing against the politics of Nostalgia. So it was with FDR and Truman, so it has been with Barack Obama, and so it would be with Hillary Clinton.