Morning in America

The first Presidential election I remember even a little bit was 1984.  In 1984, Republican President Ronald Reagan was running for re-election against Democratic former Vice President Walter Mondale, and Reagan crushed him in one of the most lop-sided contests in American history.  I was six, so I don't really remember lots of the details (for '88 I remember watching the debates and following the primaries), but when you don't remember facts you tend to retain feelings--almost like ghosts of the things that you can't quite recall.

What I remember about the Mondale campaign was a certain dour, pessimistic tone--things are bad, we are heading into a ditch, and only by kicking Reagan out of the Oval Office can be get this thing back on track.  By contrast, the Reagan campaign was positive.  Sure, there are problems and challenges, but we are working on them, and if we keep working on them we can fix them.  America is the greatest country on earth, filled with good, normal, hardworking people who can make things better.  And the folks that don't think this is true, like Mondale, were isolated, angry, out-of-touch, dangerous weirdos.  Regular folks understand that it was, to use the famous phrase from Reagan's campaign, "Morning in America."

Last night, thirty-two years and eight Presidential elections after the Reagan/Mondale campaign, I watched most of the third night of the Democratic National Convention.  More than anything else, last night demonstrated that the parties have completely switched positions relative to 1984.  Not so much on policy issues (though, the policy differences are not as great as some would make out, as Reagan would be a moderate by today's American conservative standards), but in terms of tone.  The three headline speakers--Vice President Joe Biden, Vice Presidential nominee Time Kaine, and President Obama--gave what were essentially "Morning in America" speeches, and more importantly adopted Morning in America personas.

Vice President Biden, a guy who has buried a wife and a child, came onto the stage to the Rocky theme and talked about how optimistic he was for the future.  Tim Kaine, who easily could be your kid's soccer coach on the weekends, channeled his small-business owning parents to suggest that deep down you can't trust Donald Trump.  And then there was Obama, who gave maybe the finest speech I've seen him give, making the case that Trump was a, well, an isolated, angry, out-of-touch, dangerous weirdo.  There was lots of talk about God and faith and the U.S. military (both Biden and Kaine have or had children that served) and regular Americans and how we can solve problems and make things better.  If you closed your eyes, last night could have come from the Republican convention in 1984.

Some pundits, Ross Douthat in particular, have questioned whether this was the right tone for a country that seems so angry and despondent over the state of things.  No doubt, lots of people are angry and despondent, both on the left and on the right.  But I do think this is the right tone for the Clinton campaign, for several reasons.  First, like it or not Clinton is taking on the mantle of eight years of the Obama administration, so she has to defend the status quo to some degree.  Second, and probably most importantly, I think this tone represents what the principals actually believe.  Watching the trifecta of Biden, Kaine, and Obama, you might not agree with what they said but I don't think you can doubt that they represented who they actually are and what they really thought.  Clinton, too, as she like her husband is a progressive incrementalist who believes that small changes can add up to genuine improvement.  This divide can't really be faked, lest you come off as cynical and manipulative, which people will spot that from a mile away (see, e.g., Cruz, Ted).

But the third reason I think it is a good strategy is that I think that Morning in America is basically true.  We were not a perfect country in 1984, we were never a perfect country, and we are not a perfect country now.  Real change needs to be made--especially in terms of income inequality.  But our problems need to be put into perspective.  By the vast majority of metrics, we are in better shape now as a country than we were in 1984, or even 2008.  Mass shootings are a terrible and preventable tragedy, but the homicide rate in the United States in 2014 is lower that it has been since in 1962.  Likewise, we should not be so naive to think that African-Americans getting killed by the police is some sort of new phenomenon--it seems to be a recent crisis because the general public knows and cares about it in a way that it previously did not.  We face the prospect of terrorism, but we no longer live in the very real shadow of nuclear annihilation.  Things really are pretty good, and I think most people will see that and vote accordingly.

What interests me the most is why the Republican Party was and is so willing to abandon Morning in America, when it was so successful for them.  True, the party out of power always has to make the case for why you should get rid of the current folks and put them in charge.  But the modern Republican Party, and especially this campaign, have gone all-in on the notion that America fundamentally sucks.  I lay a big portion of the blame for this at the feet of the Religious Right.  If you keep telling people that America is going to hell in a handbasket because of [abortion/gay rights/women's rights/fill in the blank], eventually people will start to believe it.  George W. Bush tried to square that circle when he was President, but post-2008 the Religious Right has been uniformly and unremittingly negative about the country, and I think that is a permanent state now.

The other issue, and I think this needs to be faced squarely and honestly, is that something big has changed since 1984.  If you were going to redo the "Morning in America" ad in 2016, you would not make all of your examples of the normal hard-working regular Americans white (at 0:43 of the ad, it looks like the kid on the left might be African-American, but everyone else is white).  We are not that all-white country anymore--truthfully we never were, but now that reality is impossible to ignore.  This election, and really the last eight years under Obama, has revealed that some people cannot accept the idea that it is Morning in America when America doesn't completely look like them.  Certainly some folks in this camp are overt and committed racists, but many don't believe they are racists and yet still can't make the imaginative leap to get to that place.  Complicating this problem is the fact that the genuine progress to lift up groups that were once held down (women, African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT folks, etc.) means that the white straight men have in relative terms suffered a demotion.  Saying that white straight men never deserved the privileged status in the first place is true, but it doesn't make it less of a demotion.  While in absolute terms I think things are better for the vast majority of white straight dudes, some folks have a real hard time with the relative dimension.

But, at the end of the day, that's part of what makes America so magical.  The core of "real Americans" was once limited to white, Protestant land-owners.  Then it became all white Protestant men, then women too, then folks like me.  This transition has never been perfectly smooth or particularly easy, but it has happened, and there is not a real reason why it won't continue to happen as new groups get incorporated into the broad American middle.  At every point in the journey, people have thrown up their hands and said that the core of what makes America America is being lost and will never be able to be recovered, and those people have always been wrong.  It's not that America has stayed completely the same as these new folks have been incorporated, but the core magic has always remained.  The convention speakers last night, each in different ways but especially President Obama, tried to remind us of that.

The day will come when someone will run an ad like "Morning in America" showing a Muslim family from Dearborn, Michigan and a Latino family from Arizona and someone that looks something like me from Ohio going about their daily business and doing American things in an American way and looking forward to the future.  When that day comes, no one will bat an eye.  Last night gave me hope that we are approaching that day.


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