Twenty-two speakers took to the virtual stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and fretted about the state of America’s “soul.” Hillary Clinton wants to “redeem” it, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) to “heal” it and Pete Buttigieg to “contest” it. Kerry Washington and Jill Biden wanted to “fight for” it. Five others, Andrew Cuomo, Colin Powell and Sally Yates among them, want to “restore” it. And another five want to “battle” for it, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Joe Biden, who, when accepting the nomination, asked Americans to join him in “the battle for the soul of the nation.”
Claims of American exceptionalism to the contrary, countries don’t have souls. They do, however, have collective histories. Historian Jon Meacham used his time at the DNC podium to describe two Americas. “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall dwell in the American soul,” he said. “But so do the impulses that have given us slavery, segregation and systemic discrimination.” He asked that we confront our history. “Often we’d prefer to hear the trumpets rather than face the tragedies, but an honest accounting of who we’ve been can enable us to see who we should be.”
“Who we’ve been” — our national heritage of white supremacy and chattel slavery — has been on full display since the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd. Yet, as the Republican National Convention neared, the Republican Party appeared to celebrate the legacy of what some have called America’s original sin. In his RNC acceptance speech, Vice President Mike Pence ridiculed Biden for saying that systemic racism exists in America and that the police had “an implicit bias against minorities.” Said Pence, “The hard truth is, you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Accepting the GOP nomination for president, Donald Trump did what he does best: gin up hate, sow fear:
If the Left gains power, they will demolish the suburbs. … We have to give law enforcement, our police, back their power. … We can never allow mob rule. … During their convention, Joe Biden and his supporters remained completely silent about the rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-run cities.
Trump said he is there to help: “We will take care of your problem in a matter of hours.” As for the white supremacists who can’t wait that long, they know they will receive not condemnation but praise from Fox neo-fascists like Tucker Carlson.
Are those fireworks we hear … or gunshots from Kenosha, Wis.?
The soul-invoking DNC speakers — who ranged from democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to conservative former Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) — framed the 2020 election as a moral choice. They called upon all Americans to let their better natures shine.
Given the horrors of the Trump era, that pitch for a return to decency may be enough to secure a Biden victory in November. But we are embodied beings with material needs, and we need not only roses for the soul but bread for the body. Progressives must insist on old-fashioned material objectives like Medicare for All, relief from student debt, universal child care, a Green New Deal and workers’ rights. We need concrete measures to protect Black and Brown citizens from state violence.
In a 1967 speech at Stanford University, Martin Luther King Jr. said:
[A] riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
In 2020 and beyond, we need a Democratic Party that hears the unheard and fights for justice and humanity — a party that speaks to the pain so many are feeling, not one that quiets them with bromides for our collective soul.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.