PHILADELPHIA – Dear Hillary,
Donald Trump has presented you with an amazing opportunity to become a world historical figure! If you crush him in this election, you could create a new Democratic majority and reduce the GOP to an ever-declining rump of ethnic nationalism. On the other hand, if you fail to beat Trump, you will go down as America’s most hapless political loser and be vilified forever for enabling an era of American Putinism.
No pressure! Have fun in Philadelphia!
To end up on the right side of this equation you’re probably going to have to resist three natural tendencies, two of them your party’s and one your own.
First, you’re going to have to fight your party’s materialistic mind-set.
This is 2016, not 1992. Over the past few years, economic and social anxiety has metastasized into something spiritual and existential.
Americans are no longer confident in their national project. They no longer trust their institutions or have faith in their common destiny. This is a crisis of national purpose. It’s about personal identity and the basic health of communal life. Americans’ anger and pessimism are more fundamental than anything that can be explained by GDP statistics.
Many Democrats have trouble thinking in these terms. When asked to explain any complex phenomenon, they instinctively reduce it to a materialist cause. If there’s terrorism there must be lack of economic opportunity. If marriage is declining it must be because of joblessness.
This materialistic mind-set means that many Democrats are perpetually surprised by events that involve cultural threats and national identity. Why don’t working-class Kansans vote for us? We offer them more programs. Why did the Brits leave the EU? It’s against their economic interest.
The mind-set is also reductionist. There’s a tendency to break national problems into small, interest-group-size chunks and then deliver pandering policy promises.
Look at your website. As Oren Cass points out in The City Journal, every demographic or interest group gets its own pander. If you’re a horse lover, the Clinton campaign vows to crack down on “horse soring, in which chemicals or other inhumane methods are applied to horses’ limbs to exaggerate their gait.”
If Democrats wage that kind of niche-targeted campaign this year they will lose. Voters are worried that the whole society is falling apart. If Democrats think a crisis of national identity can be addressed with targeted tax credits they are living in a different century.
To stand a chance, Secretary Clinton, you’re probably going to have to talk as adeptly about threats to personal dignity as you do about day care. You’re probably going to have to talk bluntly about the American civic religion. You’re going to have to show you understand the way members of your class have slighted people who are less educated and less cosmopolitan.
Second, you’re going to have to fight the Sanders tide, which on Day 1 of this convention was astoundingly strong. Many Democrats have grown hostile to capitalism. Sixty percent of Democrats are friendly to socialism, according to a poll by OnMessage Inc. and the American Action Network.
Of course, this is general election suicide. If you want a perfect way to turn off suburban service economy office park workers who will decide this election, then the Bernie Sanders route is it! The economic nostalgia of the left is as futile as the demographic nostalgia of the right.
Somehow you’re going to have to come up with an updated muscular Clintonism. For 30 years your name has stood for a Democratic governing style that is internationalist in foreign affairs, socially moderate and pro-global integration (while softening its edges). That open, optimistic approach has to be combined with a more aggressive and radical effort to help people compete in the new economy.
Third, you’re going to have to answer hatred with love. Your tendency so far in your career has been to answer hostility with distrust, and secretiveness.
You’ve ended up projecting coldness but also weakness and hurt. People who build emotional walls amid conflict do so out of fear, not strength.
Along the way you’ve made yourself phenomenally unpopular. The polls show that you are now just as distrusted by the American people as Donald Trump is.
The confident move is to break out of the emotional bunker with vulnerability. The sign of strength is to answer the “Lock Her Up” enmity with a confident honest account of what it feels like to be you – embroiled in the political combat, encased in this global celebrity role, but maintaining authenticity in a world that conspires against it.
Imagine if you displayed honest self-appraisal and even moments of remorse. You’d have the world rooting for you, not against you.
This convention is about resetting relationships: establishing trust between you and voters, restoring optimism that we can thrive in the modern economy, redefining a soul satisfying faith in the American project.