A Party at War With Itself

Hillary Clinton is running as the candidate of continuity—but Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and most white Democrats think America is headed in the wrong direction.

Jim Young / Reuters

Many commentators, watching the two parties’ conventions, have noted that Democrats and Republicans seemed to describing different countries. But if you listened carefully last night, you heard two groups of Democrats describing different countries, too.

The night began with Michelle Obama, who said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, black young women—play with the dog on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.”

It’s not surprising that Michelle delivered a narrative of racial and gender progress. It’s the story of her life, and it doubles as a defense of her husband’s presidency. But it’s a narrative that’s also congenial to Hillary Clinton. Clinton is running the campaign her husband wishes Al Gore had run in 2000: a campaign about building on the progress a successful president has made.

But when Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders took the stage later in the evening, the convention began to sound much more like the campaign Gore actually ran: the dark and angry, “people versus the powerful.” Warren said: “I’m worried that opportunity is slipping away for people who work hard and play by the rules.” Sanders talked about “the 40-year decline of our middle class” (40 years that include the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), called American inequality “grotesque,” and said America was moving “toward oligarchy.”

Warren and Sanders didn’t describe America the way Donald Trump does: as a country that was nearly perfect under Ronald Reagan or Beaver Cleaver and has been eroding ever since. In a party filled with African Americans, feminists, and lesbians and gays, you can’t do that. But their descriptions were bleak nonetheless, and they illustrated the fundamental divide inside today’s Democratic Party: between Democrats who believe America turned a corner under Obama and Democrats who believe it got worse.

It’s no surprise that Clinton, who falls into camp number one, overwhelmingly won the African American vote. African Americans, like Latinos, are far more optimistic about America’s future than are whites. And it’s no surprise that Bernie Sanders’s supporters are mostly white. They appreciate the election of a black president, but it’s not central to their understanding of this moment in American history. Oligarchy is.

This is why the divide in today’s Democratic Party is deeper than it was when Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton. Back then, before the financial crisis, the Democratic Party didn’t have a revolutionary wing. Now it does. Back then, the party’s young idealists were rebelling against George W. Bush and the establishment Democrats too timid to confront him. Today, they’re rebelling against America’s economic and political system itself.

Hillary Clinton has no choice but to run as the candidate of continuity. Obama is popular among Democrats. She worked for him. And she’s an institutionalist, not an insurrectionist, at her core.

But the reason Donald Trump, despite everything, is tied with her in the polls is because most white Americans, whether they’re Sanders supporters or Trump supporters, don’t believe that we’re living in an era of progress. They haven’t seen much in the Obama era to give them faith that America’s core institutions are sound.

It’s a strange thing, given American history. Hillary Clinton’s problem is that most white people have lost faith in the American system. That’s not only true of most white Republicans. It’s true of most white Democrats, too.