Major differences between America’s political parties were evident in the way their conventions have dealt with unrest in major cities. The recent chaos and destruction, purportedly done in the name of racial justice, became a focal point for a larger discussion about the nation’s fundamental character. Either America is “not a racist country,” to quote former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley’s speech at the first night of the Republican National Convention. Or, as many Democratic National Convention speeches suggested, it is a nation unforgivably marked by bigotry.
The Democrats proved reluctant to criticize the protests, which many have tolerated. Their convention was noticeably silent about the riots and the rising violence in cities across the country—which polls show the majority of Americans now rate as “very important” to their vote in the 2020 election—while praising Black Lives Matter and emphasizing the imperative of policing reform. The Democratic Party has largely adopted the urban progressivism that enabled the recent violence. The party’s rhetoric on race and criminal justice increasingly seems derived from campus radicalism, not a meaningful understanding of how law enforcement interacts with urban communities.
The Republican National Convention’s tone was significantly more optimistic. Some of this, to be sure, is the nature of a nominating convention for an incumbent running for reelection; but the RNC was not entirely the Trumpian cult of personality that its detractors portrayed it as. In fact, the DNC was itself strikingly personality-oriented, consistently emphasizing Joe Biden’s personal characteristics over discussion of policy.
Criminal-justice reform was central to its messaging. In one notable moment, President Trump pardoned a former bank robber who had developed a nonprofit dedicated to helping fellow prisoners after his incarceration. And, despite claims that the RNC was “dog whistling” to its white voting base on the issue of crime, several African-American leaders spoke throughout the convention, with Senator Tim Scott’s keynote address on the first night being perhaps the best speech of the entire event. They touted the administration’s efforts on reformist legislation like the First Step Act. At the same time, many speakers emphasized the importance of resisting left-wing efforts to defund the police, noting the disastrous effect such a policy would have on low-income minority communities. Polling shows a significant majority of black and Hispanic Americans favor hiring more, rather than less, police officers.
The DNC presented criminal-justice reform as a desperate effort to transform a destructive institution within a deeply unjust country. The RNC, by contrast, framed reform as a way to expand the promise of America. To use Scott’s phrasing, “we have work to do, but I believe in the goodness of America: the promise that all men and all women are created equal.”
Two divergent Americas were thus on display in the respective conventions. One is a fundamentally decent place, where liberty and justice, while imperfectly distributed, can be extended to all with sensible reforms. The other is a racist country that can be saved only by pursuing a radically transformative political program that, in effect, begins America anew. In November, voters will have to choose one or the other.
Photos: Win McNamee (left)/Jessica Koscielniak - Pool (right)/Getty Images