How the black church transformed the Democrats into the party of optimism.

Infused With the Spirit of the Black Church, the Democrats Became the Party of Optimism

Infused With the Spirit of the Black Church, the Democrats Became the Party of Optimism

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 29 2016 10:41 AM

Bright Shining as the Sun

Infused with the spirit of the black church, the Democrats became the party of optimism.

583843118-president-barack-obama-and-democratic-presidential
President Barack Obama and his would-be successor Hillary Clinton acknowledge the crowd on the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA—At first glance, the closing session of the Democratic National Convention looked a lot like a Republican National Convention. Throughout the night, delegates chanted “U-S-A” to drown out any hecklers and waved giant American flags, visible from every seat in the arena. Speakers praised police officers for their work while veterans took the stage to praise old comrades and stress the need for unity. The father of a fallen soldier waved an actual copy of the Constitution in the face of the party’s opponent, Donald Trump, and in her speech at the end of the night, Hillary Clinton was careful to give her unqualified praise and support to those public servants who “run into danger.”

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is Slates chief political correspondent.

But that first glance is misleading. Look at Thursday’s events again and you’ll see the qualities that made the convention a distinctly Democratic affair. In this celebration of American strength and greatness, the faces were overwhelmingly black and brown. The father representing his son to the world and rebuking Donald Trump’s attacks? A Muslim American immigrant. The Medal of Honor winner speaking for veterans who might lose out in a Trump administration? Another immigrant. The parents honoring their son, a police officer who died on duty in Cleveland? They were black.

Advertisement

From Monday to Thursday, each night of the Democratic National Convention was marked by incredible diversity, represented by a wide array of colors and creeds. They weren’t just voices of normalcy—people who represent the extent to which Democrats have claimed the mantle of “normal” America, where normal includes nonwhites, unauthorized immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. They were also voices for optimism.

It was the startling fact of this entire convention. On Monday alone there was Michelle Obama and her forceful defense of America’s “greatness” and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s attempt to raise his profile with a soaring national speech. All week long, if you craved a message of optimism, your best bet was a brown or black face. But that makes sense. Despite deep problems of discrimination and racial inequality, it’s nonwhites—blacks, Hispanics, and other groups—who have the most optimistic view of the United States and its future. For them, the country is closer than not to its self-conception as a city on the hill, and for good reason. If you’re black, if you’re Latino, if you’re gay—life is unquestionably better now than it was in the past.

In the hands and mouths of underrepresented groups, these symbols of patriotism and national pride took on new meaning. This wasn’t a crude jingoism. It was an expression of pluralistic nationalism and deep civic pride, a progressive patriotism that acknowledges the nation’s failures but strives to overcome them.

What is remarkable is the extent to which this kind of patriotism—and much of the mood surrounding the convention—is rooted in black traditions of political and religious rhetoric. In ways small and large, the lifeblood of the Democratic National Convention was the black church. You saw this, in a literal way, with the stream of black politicians and black religious leaders who took the stage. The Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina preacher and head of his state’s NAACP who founded the “Moral Mondays” movement, gave a speech that was emblematic of the language on display, a language and cadence drawn from the traditions of the black church. “Now, my friends, they tell me that when the heart is in danger, somebody has to call an emergency code, and somebody with a good heart will bring a defibrillator to work on the bad heart,” said Barber in his thundering address. “[W]e are being called like our foremothers and fathers to be the moral defibrillators of our time. We must shock this nation with the power of love. We must shock this nation with the power of mercy. We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.”

Advertisement

Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver kept up this theme of defiant optimism in his peroration on Thursday. “They threw her down as the first lady, but she didn’t stay throwed!” he bellowed, referring to Hillary Clinton. “They threw her down as a U.S. senator, but she wouldn’t stay throwed! They threw her down as a secretary of state, but she wouldn’t stay throwed! They threw her down in this very campaign—this campaign—but she won’t stay throwed! No, she ain’t gonna stay throwed! She won’t stay throwed! She won’t stay throwed!”

It has become commonplace to say that the Democrats presented an uplifting view of the United States to contrast with the darkness of the last week’s Republican National Convention. It is tempting, even, to invoke Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” especially since Clinton used the phrase in her speech. But pay attention to the tenor of this optimism, to the rhythms of its expression. It isn’t the self-satisfaction of Reagan, champion of the status quo. It is hard-won hope, an optimism born of struggle. It’s the “Mothers of the Movement,” whose grief fuels hopeful activism. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and urging you to say their names,” said Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, who was slain in 2012. “We’re going to keep building a future where police officers and communities of color work together in mutual respect to keep children, like Jordan, safe.” It’s the difference between Reagan’s eternal lights “in this springtime of hope” and Maya Angelou’s “still I rise,” one of the refrains of this week.

This progressive patriotism wasn’t just a cudgel to use on Donald Trump, whose solipsism and fearmongering have exposed him to a Democratic attack on the basis of values and temperament. It was part of the bedrock of the argument against Trump and Trumpism—that he and his cause were fundamentally un-American, that electing him would deal an irreparable blow to the bonds of multicultural democracy.

And so we have Monday’s speech from Michelle Obama, which stands as a paean to that conception of democracy. We have Wednesday’s speech from Barack Obama, in which the president made a vigorous defense of American pluralism. “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,” said Obama, emphasizing the extent to which he views Trump as a threat to America’s democratic traditions. “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.”

Advertisement

And we had Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, which continued this theme of pluralism and patriotism and reinforced the idea that this election, more than anything, was a fight for democracy. “Remember: Our founders fought a revolution and wrote a Constitution so America would never be a nation where one person had all the power,” Clinton said. “Two hundred and forty years later, we still put our faith in each other.”

The Thursday session of the Democratic National Convention opened with a procession and color guard from Civil War re-enactors, who arrived on stage in full regalia. These weren’t any re-enactors. They were re-enactors of the United States Colored Troops, the regiments of free and newly freed blacks who fought for their freedom in the Civil War. Their courage and valor was one of the catalysts for the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery. Those re-enactors represented those Americans who took action to prove their citizenship—to prove their bona fides as Americans. And in turn, the effort to pay them their due inaugurated America’s great experiment in multiracial democracy, which has ebbed and flowed with the tides of history and circumstance.

It was in that display that you saw the broader mood and message of this week, one that harks back to the moment just before the War of the Rebellion, when the nation was on the brink of crisis. “Those bonds of affection; that common creed,” President Obama said, and I thought of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural, an argument for union and in defense of republicanism. “We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln said. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The Democratic Party believes that Donald Trump is a unique threat to American democracy—a threat to our experiment in representative government. At its essence, this convention is their first inaugural, their message to a country on the eve of a world-defining election. “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it,” said Lincoln in his address. Grounding themselves in an optimism born of struggle, Democrats are asking those people to continue the struggle for equality, the fight to make a “more perfect union.” To turn back Trump and assert the dignity of all Americans, hopeful that with hard work, the problems of today will give way to better prospects and a better future.