Over a week since the Democratic National Convention ended, I am still hearing ambivalence about it from friends who identify as progressive and left. Writer Maisha Z. Johnson posted on Facebook about her emotional whiplash during the DNC, which resonated so well that it went viral.
To a certain extent, I can relate. Like Elizabeth Warren, I have lingering concerns about transparency and accountability within the DNC process, and I hope that Donna Brazile will not only clean house, but build a better house altogether. (And she seems to be doing so.)
Nevertheless, I feel out of step with many progressives, because I actually felt buoyed by the DNC—and not just because Donald Trump has been imploding ever since.
I was ten years old when Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated to the Vice Presidency by the Democratic Party, which then went on to a major defeat in the “Reagan Revolution.” In the years since then, I watched Elizabeth Dole and Carly Fiorina vie for the Presidential nomination in the GOP and saw Sarah Palin attain on the Republican side the landmark Ferraro had reached twenty-four years previously.
Overshadowing the efforts of American women to occupy the top offices in the U.S. was the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, who resided at 10 Downing Street for over half my childhood, including a period of Anglophilia in middle and high school. Because of her, I feared that the woman who would break the highest glass ceiling in our nation would be a conservative. Surely any woman permitted within our sexist political system—a system that lagged behind so many other countries across the world to elect a female executive—to reach so high would have to reify existing hierarchies and power structures.
The recent selection of Theresa May as Prime Minister across the pond has brought these fears back to me vividly.
I went into the DNC knowing the ways Hillary Clinton has supported existing hierarchies and power structures during her career. From characterizing African American youth as “superpredators” as First Lady to voting for the Iraq War as New York’s Senator to her role in the 2009 Honduran coup as Secretary of State, Clinton is far from a progressive ideal. Yet I also knew that although Hillary Clinton is no Elizabeth Warren, she is closer to Warren than she is to Thatcher. For this, I was relieved, but not exactly pleased.
Over the four nights of the convention, my view of Hillary Clinton and her place within the political spectrum changed.
I was deeply impressed by the breadth of representation of the speakers. As a Huffington Post reporter pointed out, the first night of the DNC alone brought nearly as many people of color to the stage as spoke during the entire four nights of the Republican National Convention, and this diversity of voices was maintained throughout the convention. The audience heard Spanish seamlessly integrated into our national dialogue from the first night when Francisca Ortíz, an undocumented immigrant, addressed the convention, and over subsequent nights I heard it again, from DREAMer Astrid Silva, labor hero Dolores Huerta, recent citizen Lorella Praeli, and Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine, among others. The DNC’s YouTube channel also has many of the speeches translated into Spanish (the RNC channel does not). The prime-time programming included Sarah McBride, the first trans person to address a national party convention, a remarkable milestone unto itself—surpassing the significance of Caitlin Jenner’s address during an RNC breakfast—and out of sight of the broadcasted events, the first trans caucus also made history. (Mic reported that trans delegates at the DNC outnumbered African American delegates at the RNC.) During the delegate roll call, South Dakota’s delegation began with a greeting in Lakota, and Debra Haaland, the first Native American head of the New Mexico Democratic Party, delivered the count for her state’s votes.
Some may dismiss the diversity of speakers as “optics,” but to do so reduces ordinary people speaking up for their lives as unwitting pawns. The strength and convictions of the speakers belies this interpretation. For example, like most viewers, I could not keep my eyes dry while I listened to the Mothers of the Movement. Initially, I cynically wondered if Clinton had reached out to the Mothers to shield herself from criticism from some African American activists. But Clinton first met with them in November 2015, months before Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams confronted Clinton in February 2016 about her 1996 “superpredators” statement. The presence of African American mothers who had lost their children to police brutality and racist vigilantism up on the national stage was too visible and too heartrending for tokenism. By inviting them to that stage, Clinton has made a commitment.
This is the Democratic Party we have now. We have people of color, people from all religious backgrounds, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIAs, not just as spectators and voters, but candidates and organizers.
Within this context, I viewed the DNC as a triumph, as proof that we are winning. I had lamented in elections since 1996 that Democratic candidates would pander to independents and centrists, but not progressives. This year, thanks to Senator Sanders’ efforts in the face of formidable opposition, Clinton adopted some of his key progressive policy positions—and even his own language in her acceptance speech. The platform, Sanders asserts, is “the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.” Whether the platform is as progressive as it seems on its face, and whether Democrats will be able to implement the platform is debatable. Nonetheless in the confines of national electoral politics, it still represents a leap forward. We’re moving beyond pandering and into inclusion.
This hardly means I am naïve about what a Hillary Clinton administration might be like. During Barack Obama’s presidency, I wrote letters and signed petitions about his drone policy, his whistleblower policy, his record level of deportations, and the categorization of activist Assata Shakur as a Most Wanted Terrorist, amongst other actions under his name.
But I do not believe we, as progressives, can expect much better at this moment from the top of the Democratic ticket. I consider Obama to be the best U.S. President of my lifetime, but there’s a certain level of conservatism built into the office itself. A Presidential candidate will inevitably tack more to the center in a nation where the political spectrum spans from Kamala Harris to David Duke, Misty Snow to Mike Pence. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop pushing, but that we should recognize when we succeed within restrictive parameters.
As the GOP moves farther out to the fringes, our two-party system means that more conservatives left out in the cold now seek shelter under the Democratic big tent. The DNC hosted Michael Bloomberg on the stage as well as a group of Republican women for Hillary. In the ensuing weeks, as Trump has spun more out of control, more Republican politicians have stepped forward to endorse Clinton.
Who do we want a second President Clinton to be accountable to?
If we are to continue to effect change in this election, progressives shouldn’t pull back. We need to double down, because what we’re doing—that hopey changey stuff—is working. This does not mean we have to bend to a false “party unity,” but we need to balance participation and protest, elections and activism. We also need to focus beyond the Presidency. The left is struggling with supporting down-ticket candidates, and our funding, think tank, and grassroots system is not as organized or unified as the Republican side. Progressives are activists. This is in our wheelhouse.
Come October, I’ll be taking a trip to Nevada to sign up voters or knock on doors. I’ll keep going with making phone calls and writing letters. The DNC gave me a glimpse of the future, and it’s a future I’ll fight for.