I remember the 2016 Democratic National Convention well, because it was the first moment it hit me that Hillary Clinton might actually lose.
The preceding year, after all, had doggedly failed to follow the script liberal elites had etched in their heads since the beginning of 2015, wherein a Clinton juggernaut would effortlessly steamroll the competition and cruise to an easy victory before Nevada. Instead, the improbable insurgency led by Bernie Sanders had played the party establishment right until the final whistle. In what was supposed to be a grand coronation, the only self-described socialist in the United States Congress had taken on the most powerful political machine in modern history and finished with more than thirteen million votes.
Clinton wouldn’t have her anticipated opponent either. In a presidential race widely expected to feature two orthodox, Beltway-friendly figures, developments on the Republican side had also thrown every pundit prediction for a loop. Jeb Bush, supposedly a shoe-in for the GOP nomination thanks to a slew of early endorsements and a campaign war chest that could have buried El Dorado, won only three delegates at a cost of $53 million apiece. In both form and content, Donald Trump’s victory seemed to have shattered every axiom of established political common sense — his quixotic venture succeeding despite relentless media censure and official condemnation from nearly every leader of the so-called conservative movement.
Whatever the bookies said, surely all bets were now off. Set against this backdrop, however, that summer’s DNC looked like something out of a parallel dimension in which the preceding year’s events had never taken place.
Save a few protests from frustrated Sanders delegates, the convention was a pristine spectacle of celebrity-driven, limousine liberalism at its most cartoonish and out of touch. No one expected a politician like Clinton to remake herself as a populist figure. But the four-day elite love-in — hosted, no less, at a convention center bearing the name of one of the world’s biggest banks — was so dripping with Ivy League pretension and Hollywood glam that it looked more like an awards show than a democratic appeal to the citizens of a republic. November was still three, potentially perilous months away, and — despite a year of unexpected populist insurgencies from both the Left and right — Democrats were already measuring the drapes for an indefinite future residency in the White House.
When November finally did come, their complacency would be punished with the single greatest political upset in modern history.
In more ways than one, this year’s DNC evoked an ominous feeling of deja vu.
True enough, the context is very different. This time, Donald Trump is the incumbent president and America is in the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Contra Clinton, the party’s nominee was merely the final centrist standing among what was this time a vast field of candidates rallying to neutralize Sanders — and, unlike its last standard-bearer, he was more the establishment’s measure of last resort than its first choice.
Notwithstanding these differences, the parallels between this week’s convention and the gilded spectacular of 2016 are difficult to overlook. Yet again, Democrats are headed into a consequential election with a Wall Street–friendly ticket raking in millions from financial concerns and doing its utmost to signal it has minimal interest in honoring key campaign pledges. As in 2016, party leaders feel they can openly flaunt their contempt for a progressive left that has nowhere else to go while putting their chips on anti-Trump Republicans and conservative suburbanites (to that end, John Kasich and Colin Powell were featured prominently on the schedule while the Democrats’ brightest star got just over one minute).
With the state of the country inarguably worse than it was in 2016, this formula somehow looks even more out of touch than it did four years ago. During a moment of national reckoning with racism and police violence following the brutal murder of George Floyd, Democrats opted to give the architect of stop-and-frisk a prime-time speaking slot. As the country’s social fabric is torn apart by evictions, record unemployment, and mass death, they decided to hold a virtual prayer circle for Republican senator John McCain. Despite giving a speech that exceeded most expectations, their tribune is a candidate whose ability to win is privately doubted even by the people who proved most critical to his nomination.
Though Trump has thus far shown none of the political dynamism he exhibited in 2016, he remains much too popular for comfort. The current Democratic strategy assumes that high unemployment, the administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic, and a palpable feeling that it’s time to replace the president will carry them over the line regardless — and in spite of Biden’s obvious vulnerabilities.
The absurd spectacle of the past week notwithstanding, this assumption may well be borne out in November. Trump, after all, is a dangerous menace, and millions of people rightly want him gone. Given the circumstances and the general atmosphere of crisis, that could be enough to get Biden over the line.
But let’s not kid ourselves. This year’s DNC suggests that Democrats have learned very little from 2016. We’ve seen this movie before, and the 2020 remake could have exactly the same end.