The Democratic Wigwam: Day 1

One of the country's first fraternal orders, named after a storied Native American called Tammend, developed a political wing and built a meeting place in New York that would later become synonymous with Democratic machine politics: Tammany Hall.

Occasionally forced into endorsing a political vision, in the main Tammany preferred to keep the machine running by operating as a gatekeeper for municipal contracts or, in the days of government chartered banks, government money. In exchange for exquisite constituent service, or perhaps access to the Tammany job machine, loyalists resigned themselves to supporting power without purpose, and access to national conversation without any great consequence.

In similar fashion the leaders of the Democratic Party opened their convention in the Philadelphia cheered by an arena of enthusiastic operatives--and a handful of noisy disruptors, eager to put their narrow politics and self-regard on display for the cameras. As I listened to the speeches--some exceptional, many good--they fell into an identifiable pattern: identify a premise (usually a problem); praise Hillary Clinton's position; deride Donald Trump's.

The most successful speech of the night, delivered by Michelle Obama, was also the only one to significantly depart from this pattern--or, one could also argue, adopt it with such conviction that the framework receded in favor of substance. Her disparagement of Trump was no less powerful for being implicit; her praise of Hillary Clinton more convincing because it was couched within (and confined to) her well-developed theme of the power of example in the Oval Office.

Taken together, the speeches of the night provided no great argument as to why voters should choose Democrats in the fall that did not also depend on character witness.

This strikes me a precarious and self-limiting posture. Those most susceptible to its persuasion are already Hillary Clinton supporters; for those who are not, no conceivable collection of public figures could vouch for Clinton, or defame Trump, in such a fashion so as to alter the balance of power.

Instead these voters search for a party defined by more than a belief in the relative superiority of one particular person. For those with no reservations regarding Hillary Clinton, this endeavor is intended to empower the Democratic nominee; for those like myself, who feel well-grounded in harboring reservations, it is intended to hold her accountable. Either pursuit is valid.

As yet, neither seems of interest to the Democratic convention. Even the specific policy positions recounted from the dais seem purchased by an interest group rather than grounded by an over-arching vision, and it is perhaps for this reason speakers left the field of foreign policy virtually untouched.

In the past I have bemoaned the fact that Democrats treat ideas as something to inoculated against. Day one of the Democratic wigwam, a parade of character references for Boss Tweed, ratified those concerns. Say what you will about the Republican Party--and of course there is plenty to say--a careful analysis of Day 1 of both conventions would find a cult of personality haunting both. To be sure, less pedigreed and far less gifted speakers made more overt assertions of the indispensability of behalf of Donald Trump. But they did so in the context of and with the benefit conferred by a party that has made a fetish of ideology. (I mean that quite literally.)

In contrast, on the Democratic side, a more talented set of individuals made less imaginative appeals, rushing to placate one interest group after another. In particular they failed to decry, as a Tammany insurgency once forced New York presidential candidate Martin Van Buren to do, that "the institution of government, intended as a shield, [has been] converted into a sword," used to benefit of the few at the expense of many. Maybe that is because so many in the convention hall stand implicated in that indictment.

I have nothing against an inductive rather than deductive approach to political reasoning--that is, premised on observation rather than theory. In fact, I support it; the latter leads to a puerile dogmatism that rears its head on both the right and now, with troubling frequency, on the left as well. But prioritizing the real circumstances of people above abstractions does not absolve one from the pursuit of ideas. If the Democrats want to move voters not already disposed to favor Hillary Clinton, I suggest they take an interest in an idea more substantive than her, and submit to a politics of persuasion rather than, as Tammany so often satisfied itself, a demonstration of all they control.