By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
Even before Obama took the stage yesterday we were texting with each other from different coasts about the hopeful message of the Democratic National Convention and American optimism more broadly. Hope is everywhere, in the Love Trumps Hate chants, the Broadway stars’ rendition of “What The World Needs Now”, the cool video to “Fight Song”, Tim Kaine’s dad impressions, and Joe Biden’s strong speech. But of course no one expressed this message better than the greatest orator of our times, President Barack Obama.
If we thought this election was about experience, capabilities, feminism, immigration, race, guns, or terrorism, we didn’t quite get it right. Through his smart and very moving speech, Obama managed to decisively own the framing of this election: it’s about hope versus fear, stupid. So far, this is the most convincing case for Hilary Clinton, because America is a hopeful place. During the Great Depression America elected FDR, during the economic crisis of the late 1970s America elected Ronald Reagan and eight years ago America elected Barack Obama. The only exception to this pattern is the election of President Nixon. Trump looks to Nixon when shaping his message, but even Nixon combined hope in his message of fear. In fact, Trump actually resembles European populists far more than he resembles American presidents. It is no wonder that Europe’s populists lend him their support.
The optimism of American politics is unique: the speeches of both Michelle and Barack Obama were emotional appeals to the strength of the American dream. The US is dramatically different from Europe in this respect: here there is open access to patriotism across the political spectrum. It is unimaginable that German or French or Israeli liberal-leftists would chant their country’s name or speak of their country’s greatness with such ease. As we have pointed out before, most liberal Germans would not even think of waving a German flag: it is seen as bordering on Nazism. In most European states the national language and symbols are owned exclusively by the right. Yet the power of American liberalism is that it can credibly invoke national symbols. This is a powerful emotional asset that the left in Europe has long given up on, and it enables American liberals to broaden their coalition far more than their European counterparts.
But even Obama’s triumphant final message to the American people last night does not mean that hope always conquers fear. Trump’s uses fear mongering and appeals to quasi-fascist symbols because he knows they work as an appeal to the disenfranchised. One only needs to look to the worldwide trend of demagogues that use this message to stay in power. Hilary Clinton still faces a challenge ahead, and only a decisive victory will serve as a real rejection of the message of fear and hatred.
A couple of odds and ends
The DNC looks like a multicultural party compared to a very grim, very white RNC. There’s no question where one would rather spend an evening.
Can we please have some of President’s Obama’s skills for the classes we teach? The ability to clarify complex ideas in a sentence is truly admirable. “We don’t look to be ruled” is everything we’ve been trying to tell our students about American democratic history. Thank you Mr. President. In general.