I’m old enough to remember when Republicans were anti-Russian, pro-free trade, and bullish on America. Since 1980, at least, Republicans were the party of optimism. “I know there will always be a bright dawn ahead,” Reagan assured us, even as he rode off into the sunset.
That’s not to say that politics is all sunshine. We reside in a shining city on a hill, not in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane. Anyone running against the status quo must make the case for change. What is more, our political leaders owe it to us to be honest about the harsh realities we face in a dangerous and changing world.
The best leaders balance these things. The equation is quite simple. It goes something like this: Things are bad, but I know they will be better. With your help, we will…make America great again. (Note: I have intentionally incorporated Donald Trump’s slogan so as to demonstrate how even Trump could work within this framework.)
Aside from the fact that this has proven to be good politics, I think that providing hope in the face of danger is actually a responsibility of our leaders. At the risk of sounding paternalistic, I am reminded of something that Dennis Prager says about the responsibility parents have to their spouse and children:
The notion that happiness (or at least acting happy) is a debt we owe to all those in our lives and even to society at large is foreign to the vast majority of people. Yet, the more time I have devoted to writing and lecturing on this issue, the more I have come to realize that this is indeed the case. Ask anyone who was raised by an unhappy parent; ask anyone married to a chronically unhappy person; ask any worker whose co-worker is moody what their life is like and you will readily understand the moral obligation to be as happy as one can be.
Putting policy aside, Donald Trump’s message is almost entirely negative. His Republican National Committee speech was at least 90 percent negative.
Compare that to President Obama’s convention speech:
America is already great. America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump.
In fact, it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election – the meaning of our democracy.
Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city on a hill.” Donald Trump calls it “a divided crime scene” that only he can fix. It doesn’t matter to him that illegal immigration and the crime rate are as low as they’ve been in decades, because he’s not offering any real solutions to those issues. He’s just offering slogans, and he’s offering fear. He’s betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election.
One of the more amazing feats of this election season has been that the Democrats have become the party that believes in America, as Republicans have ceded this ground. It’s amazing when the Democrats sound more like Reagan than the GOP.