Two Conventions – In One Nation Divided between Liberalism and Populism

Written by Nick Licata on 9/2/20 for Medium



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The party conventions televised a growing chasm in our nation.

Under Biden, the Democratic Party will pursue its tradition of being the liberal party: steadily moving policies forward to expand social services and individual legal rights. The Republican Party, under Trump, is now not so much a conservative force to maintain the status quo as it is a populist party seeking to break the status quo in reaction to the threat of liberalism.

Liberalism in America reflects the core philosophy of the establishment left. But liberalism is not socialism, as Donald Trump and Republican National Convention speakers would like the public to believe. Historically, liberalism is a rather steadying force. It is often seen as accommodating change, but not pushing radical change. In many other developed countries, the liberal parties are the most conservative party. In Japan, for example, the conservative party is called the Liberal Democrat Party, while the left party is the Constitutional Democratic Party.

Populism can swing either to the right or the left. As author John Judis notes in The Populist Explosion, “There is no set of features that exclusively defines … populist.” He believes that it cannot be defined in terms of left, right, or center. He believes populist movements arise when people see the prevailing political norms – those put forward by the leading segments of society – as being at odds with their concerns.

However, a populist movement can usher in either right- or left-wing governments. These movements may promote nationalism through emphasizing territory or abroad, diverse community. The Republican convention’s theme each of the four days was based on “Land of…”. Insert here: Heroes, Promise, Opportunity, and Greatness. By contrast, the Democratic Convention’s daily theme was based on “We the People…” Insert here: Demanding Racial Justice, Helping Each Other Through Covid-19, Putting Country Over Party, Recovering.”

The difference between liberalism and populism also affected each of the two conventions’ operations. Both parties were forced to make dramatic convention changes due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they responded differently.

The Democrats tried to adhere to CDC guidelines, while still attempting to elect their presidential nominee with traditional procedures. They nominated their presidential candidate through a televised roll-call vote by state. Video clips of Democratic delegates from each state gave their pitch for supporting Biden.

On the other hand, Trump’s Republican convention broke with the status quo in a number of ways. It began with a perfunctory vote to select Donald Trump as the presidential nominee. His nomination, the seconding speeches, and the roll call all remained in the original convention site, namely, Charlotte, North Carolina. The audience was limited, and no nationally televised coverage was solicited for the gathering.

In a similar vein, the Democrats kept to the tradition of releasing reports from the Rules, Platform, and Credentials Committees, even though the reports had been negotiated and voted on remotely before the convention. . Their reports were then presented with short speeches by the co-chairs of each committee on the convention’s first day.

At the Republican Convention, by contrast, there were no speeches regarding any of their committee reports. Their relevant committees did not meet, except for the credentials panels. Since the Republican platform committee never met, they simply adopted the 2016 platform again, which was largely shaped by Trump supporters.

The Democrats’ 2020 platform, to their credit, was a new one. In their case, it was a result of negotiations between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden delegates to maximize their voter turnout.

There was no need for negotiations within the Republican Party on the platform. Those who opposed Trump’s populist approach had already chosen to keep a low profile or leave the party. The number of Republican defections to the Democratic ticket is a very noticeable sign of this political migration.

Over 300 former staffers who worked for President George W. Bush, the late Senator John McCain, or Presidential candidate Mitt Romney have publicly come out against Trump’s presidential campaign in 2020. Most of them signed a letter saying, “We believe that decency in government must not be allowed to die on the vine and insist that it returns to the Office of the President.” They joined former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former US Rep. (R-NY) Susan Molinari, and Trump’s former homeland security chief Miles Taylor in supporting Biden for president.

Populism at its core is about disrupting the status quo and even removing institutions that are upheld by the current political and societal norms. It takes a different path than liberalism, which believes that the procedures and norms that keep the current institutions functioning are important to reform but not abolish.

At the Republican convention, this was manifested in the absence of delegate caucuses and council meetings; there was no mention of them. By comparison, the Democrats listed 17 caucuses and council meetings held throughout their four-day convention.

Trump gave the stage over to seven citizens to give personal testimonials claiming they suffered and were victimized by Democratic policies. Four different individuals testified about members of their family killed by gun violence. The repeated message was that Democrats do not believe in law and order and — as a direct result — a family member died.

One couple that claimed victim status was featured for their toughness in standing up to the chaos around them “created by Democrats.” Mark and Patricia McCloskey pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who marched past the St. Louis couple’s 52-room mansion. The pair didn’t accuse anyone of stepping on their mansion’s yard. But the protestors’ chanting drove Mr. McClosky to say, “I thought we were going to die.” National network and cable news channels showed Mrs. McClosky waving a pistol and Mr. McClosky brandishing his semi-automatic AR-15 rifle. They have since been charged with one felony count each of unlawful use of a weapon.

The Republican convention also spotlighted eight citizen activists. There was as an anti-abortion activist who used to work at Planned Parenthood, two health professionals (a doctor and a nurse) who thanked the president for leading the fight against Covid-19, a small manufacturer who thanked Trump for his economic policies, and a dairy farmer applauded him for his trade policies. Even one of Trump’s White House assistants, who had been a socialist and voted for Bernie Sanders, testified to Trump’s greatness as a president for all.

The Democrats featured a few more citizen activist speakers. They spoke to issues that the Republicans did not.  Such as young activists talking about climate change, a Hispanic family talking about emigration hurdles, members of the George Floyd family talking about the need for love to overcome injustices, and survivors of domestic violence talking about protecting the safety of women.  The tone of their messages was not with anger but with hope for a greater understanding between people.

The Republican Convention did reach out to Black voters, despite Trump receiving only 8% of the Black vote in 2016. Two Black civil-rights activists were featured, speakers. Out of a total of 90 speakers at the convention, 13 were Black speakers, three of whom were women.

There was, of course, a higher percentage of Black speakers at the Democratic convention, with two of their four emcees, who rotated through the four days, being Black women. As for the percentage of women speakers at each convention, the Republicans ensured that 41% were female, not far behind the Democrats’ 46%.

Even both conventions showcasing citizen activists and providing entertainment, the Neilson viewer ratings were not impressive for either convention. A nightly average of live TV viewers was 21.6 million for the Democratic convention and slightly less at 19.4 million viewers for the Republicans. Both figures were roughly 25 percent below the 2016 conventions’ viewing rates.

The drop-off might be attributable to more viewers using online outlets and streaming services to follow live events. A poll from this past May showed that 70% of those aged from 18 to 34 years old currently subscribe to a streaming service, compared to just 49% of those aged 65 or above. If true, each party must adjust its outreach to better attract those younger viewers.
Since the GOP’s voter base is older and less likely to use streaming technology, Democrats could reach out to their potential younger voters who use that digital medium. They should harness their convention caucuses and councils to produce and distribute short personal testimonials through the internet.

National political conventions rarely determine who wins the presidency. But they do show how they go about choosing their leader. It was clear that each conventions’ political philosophy will guide Biden and Trump in leading our nation.

The Democratic party today, as in the past 80 years, embraces “liberal empathy,” while Trump’s Republican party resurrects the kind of “populist anger” as propagated by former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. One convention asked Americans to be responsible for a broader community for our common good. The other warned Americans that they must defend their personal safety and freedom from the broader community.

Love is not a word that is used often in politics, but both presidential candidates spoke of love in their acceptance speech. Biden proclaimed that we need “love for one another”. Trump said, “A new spirit of unity that can ONLY be realized through love for our country.” Which approach would lead to a stronger democracy? Biden said that a “great purpose as a nation… [is] to save our democracy.” Trump, in a speech that was almost twice as long as Biden’s, never used the word democracy.

A John Lennon quote captures the difference between the parties shaping our political life in a future America. “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. Evolution and all hope for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”

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