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ICYMI: Frank Sharry on Medium: “The Axis of the 2016 Election Is Not Policy and Ideology, It’s Race and Demography”

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In a new Medium post, included below, America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry reflects on the significance of last night’s speeches at the DNC and looks ahead to tonight’s proceedings. 

 In addition to Hillary Clinton’s highly anticipated and historic speech to accept the Democratic presidential nomination, tonight’s lineup also will include several speakers whose remarks are expected to focus heavily on their families’ immigration stories, including Hillary for America Latino Vote Director Lorella Praeli and U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro.   

Read Frank Sharry’s new Medium post “The Axis of the 2016 Election Is Not Policy and Ideology, It’s Race and Demography” here or below.

“I think it’s fair to say, this is not your typical election. It’s not just a choice between parties or policies, the usual debates between left and right. This is a more fundamental choice about who we are as a people, and whether we stay true to this great American experiment in self-government. Look, we Democrats have always had plenty of difference with the Republican Party, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s precisely this contest of ideas that pushes our country forward. But what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republicans and it sure wasn’t conservative. What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other and turn away from the rest of the world. There were no serious solutions to pressing problems, just the fanning of resentment and blame and anger and hate. That not is the America I know.”

President Barack Obama, at the Democratic National Convention last night

The Democratic Party seems to have found its voice. Given the threat Donald Trump and Trumpism represent – to the American experiment and to the stability of the world – it may have done so just in the nick of time.

In this election cycle, the Democratic party faces a unique challenge: How best to engage the ideologically fuzzy, bullying blowhard with racist and authoritarian instincts? Democrats, long known as a chaotic collection of competing constituencies and issue priorities and faced with an unusual, unpredictable, and unprecedented opponent, have been scrambling to figure out how to respond.

Thankfully, they have thrown out the old rule book. In the past, Democrats relied on laundry lists of policy solutions combined with passionate advocacy for activist government. But the traditional axis related to policies and government is not at the heart of this election contest.

The fight this election is between two starkly different visions of America. Democrats see an aspirational America whose success comes from our ability to metabolize rapid demographic and cultural changes through the crucible of our founding ideals. The Trumpian GOP seeks to turn back the clock on these demographic and cultural changes in a nostalgic reach for the “good old days” of unacknowledged white privilege, lifetime employment and so-called “traditional” roles.

The axis, then, is not so much left vs. right as it is inclusion vs. exclusion; equality vs. bigotry; love vs. fear. It’s America rising vs. America in decline. It’s “yes we can” and “stronger together” vs. “we’re screwed, and your only hope is to put a strongman like me in charge.” To put it even more bluntly, the axis could be described as democracy vs. fascism.

This is how Brian Beutler of the New Republic captures this notion in his review of Obama’s speech:

Obama praised Clinton to the heavens Wednesday, of course, and in the same kind of positive terms he would’ve used if Clinton were running against Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz. But at bottom, his closing plea to Democrats is that she’s the only thing standing between our democracy and an unpredictable leap into an authoritarian abyss. “If you’re serious about our democracy, you can’t afford to stay home just because she might not align with you on every issue,” Obama said. Much more than his legacy depends on that message sinking in, and on motivating the country to do the same thing the last time fascism threatened democracy. “We don’t look to be ruled,” he said. “Anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”

Neoconservative stalwart Robert Kagan described Trumpism’s stew of intolerance and authoritarianism in a widely-read Washington Post op-ed published last May:

His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

He goes on to warn that the capitulation to Trump and Trumpism by the Republican Party could expose the weakness of, and do permanent damage to, our democratic institutions:

This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

Initially, the Hillary Clinton campaign struggled to figure out how to respond to Trump and Trumpism. To date, they have done a decent job of defining Trump as temperamentally unfit for the presidency. But if Hillary is to soar tonight – and throughout the rest of the campaign – she should learn from some of top speakers at the convention this week, as well as from other thought leaders, and counter Trumpism with a progressive and inclusive patriotism.

Here’s how Cory Booker did so:

Our founding documents were genius. But not because they were perfect. They were saddled with the imperfections and even the bigotry of the past. Native Americans were referred to as savages, black Americans were referred to as fractions of human beings, and women were not mentioned at all. But those facts and other ugly parts of our history don’t detract from our nation’s greatness. In fact, I believe we are an even greater nation, not because we started perfect, but because every generation has successfully labored to make us a more perfect union. Generations of heroic Americans have made America more inclusive, more expansive, and more just. Our nation was not founded because we all looked alike, or prayed alike, or descended from the same family tree. But our founders, in their genius, in this, the oldest constitutional democracy, put forth on this earth the idea that all are created equal; that we all have inalienable rights. And upon this faithful foundation we built a great nation, and today, no matter who you are – rich or poor, Asian or white, man or woman, gay or straight, any religion or none at all – you are entitled to the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

And here’s how Heather McGhee, Director of Demos, frames the challenge – and the opportunity:

Donald Trump by making dog whistles explicit … is signing the divorce papers for what has been an unholy marriage in the conservative coalition. My response is to respond to the false patriotism of Donald Trump with a true patriotism. I’m a very patriotic person — even though I’m a black, liberal woman.

I’m very patriotic because I believe if America is exceptional it’s because of the great diversity of our people, and I believe it’s time for a new story about who we are as a country that says our diversity is our greatest asset. That who we’re becoming demographically — a pluralistic nation with no racial majority — is not the unmaking of America but the fulfillment of it.

We are a country that is not united by race or creed or religion or any other identifying factor. So we have to stop denying that’s who we are and actually say that’s what makes us great. That requires a whole different set of social institutions, that building a sense of solidarity and community is itself work and should be the work of our politics. In his best moments, the president was able to do that — to wrap that plurality in the flag — and it’s not surprising you’re seeing a backlash with Donald Trump.

But this is the fight. This is absolutely the fight as demographic change helps America fulfill its destiny as a people. We can either say we’re meeting here to compete with one another or all the world’s people are meeting here to give lie to the idea of racial difference.

The battle lines of this election are now clear. It is not a traditional clash between competing platforms and ideologies. Rather, it’s an epic battle between those who have an expansive view anchored in our national motto E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One, and those who have a scarcity-bound view that pits us vs. them. Democrats view America’s ideals as strong enough and adaptable enough to turn the challenge of demographic changes into progress for all anchored in equal opportunity for all. The Trumpian GOP views America as in decline and so besieged by demographic shifts that it promises to keep the “other” down and out in order to preserve privileges and security for an exclusive “us.”

Let us hope that the Democratic Party’s willingness to engage the fight on this axis leads to victory. The future success of the American experiment may well depend on it.