What Do Democrats Stand For? Everything and Nothing

What do Democrats stand for?

It’s an honest question because after days of watching the Democratic National Convention, a thorough reading of Democrats’ platform and Hillary Clinton’s campaign website, and listening to speeches given throughout the race, there seems to be no discernible unifying thread. Actually, that’s not completely true. As Emmett Rensin writes for the progressive magazine The New Republic, the answer appears to be that they want to be everything to everyone.

The delegates I spoke to paused, backed up, rephrased. In each case, they settled on general virtues: justice, inclusion, progress, the idea that the party was not so much associated with a particular program but with goodness itself, with a progressive sensibility that will, on the whole, produce virtuous outcomes.

This sense was reflected on the stage, as speaker after speaker appealed not so much to an agenda as an identity: a vision of competence and decency to be trusted with the management of the United States. It is what animated the speeches of Leon Panetta, Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren: figures who represent wildly different visions of American life, but who each asserted that Clinton and the Democratic Party were fighting for the good, whatever that meant to them. …

What program, what vision of the United States, can possibly contain all of that? What do the Democrats stand for?

In some ways, they stood for things that have traditionally been more associated with Republicans. Take Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech as a prime example.

“We have the most powerful military. The most innovative entrepreneurs. The most enduring values — freedom and equality, justice and opportunity.,” Clinton told the crowd. “We should be so proud that these words are associated with us. That when people hear them, they hear America.”

What they don’t hear is “Democrat.”

Conservatives don’t have a monopoly per se on patriotism, entrepreneurship and freedom, but it’s not like Democrats have ever pushed strongly to enter those markets. Instead, they’ve traditionally focused on fostering the notion that government can be the great arbiter of equality and progress. That it has the magical ability to take people’s money and then hand it to bureaucrats to weave into economic growth and diminished poverty, as if working for the government makes you Rumpelstiltskin.

Of course, a closer look at the myriad speeches suggest that Democrats aren’t just trying to appeal to everyone through fact-free pablum like we’re “stronger together,” they’re promising specific things to individual groups, with the hope that everyone will feel like something is is for them. That’s not unifying, it’s a subtle form of divisive identity politics. As Oren Cass writes for City Journal:

When I visited it in early June, Hillary Clinton’s campaign website featured about 30 issue-specific pages focused not on a nation with problems to be solved but on discrete victim groups with wounds to be salved. The site illustrates the Left’s descent into crass identity politics. The federal government is the heaviest of policy equipment, best used sparingly for big jobs; but for Democrats, it has become a courtesy car, always on call to drive chosen constituencies from one point to another. Put me behind the wheel, Clinton seems to promise, and I’ll put you on my route.

Framing issues as who instead of what leads to a governing model that would divide society by race, gender, sexuality, profession, and location, targeting policies to each defined demographic. A divide-and-conquer strategy may achieve electoral success, but it is toxic to good government. When politicians treat elections as exercises in log-rolling, each policy becomes tailored toward the special interest that cares about it most. Thus Clinton’s crime policy emphasizes a friendlier attitude toward criminals. Her immigration policy concerns itself primarily with helping those who have violated immigration law. Her education policy explicitly endorses the status quo for most students but promises to “listen to teachers.”

In many ways the party’s approach is like Clinton herself: Willing to be whomever the person in front of her wants her to be. But that still doesn’t answer the original question. What do Democrats stand for?

“Nothing,” one Sanders convention-floor staffer told The New Republic. “Whatever you want it to. Whatever you want to hear.”

In other words, nothing.