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OPINION | Democrats play hide the agenda as their convention kicks off

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CUTE kids in red, white, and blue T-shirts singing the national anthem.

Calls for unity and reminders that black lives matter. A citation of the Constitution. Michelle Obama exhorting us to be nice. Oh, and President Trump being blamed for the pandemic, because no other country has struggled with that. Welcome to the opening night of the Democrats’ convention.

 

Mostly unmentioned in this bubble bath of warm vagueness interrupted by occasional blasts of acid at Trump was the Democratic Party’s agenda. It’s unpopular. Democrats know it. Yet they’re stuck with it, because in order to energize their fundraising apparatus and activist base, both of which lay comatose as Joe Biden wrapped up the nomination last winter, they have to go hard to the left. If the opening night of the DNC is any indication, Biden’s plan is to stick his agenda under the sofa cushion when talking to the general public and limit himself to the following message: I’m nice, and I’m not Trump. Don’t concern yourselves, he is telling us, with what I and the person everyone expects will soon take over for me have promised the extremists we will do once we’re in power: ending fossil-fuel usage, rewiring the American economy to satisfy the whims of social-justice obsessives, packing the Supreme Court, deploying the nuclear option to end the filibuster, confiscating guns, and spending trillions dividing Americans along racial and gender lines.

 

The number one reason Biden supporters, if you can call them that, intend to pull the lever for Uncle Joe? A large majority, 56%, say it’s because he is “not Trump.” Second and third are the amorphous personal qualities — “leadership/performance” and “personality/temperament” — he intends to highlight. Way back in fourth place, only 9% of voters cite his actual “issue/policy positions,” according to this month’s Pew survey.

 

So not even one in 10 Biden voters is backing him mainly because of his policies? Say Biden wins a landslide, with 55% of the vote. That would mean that all of 5% of the American electorate voted for him because of his platform.

 

So the election looks like a referendum on Trump’s personality. But elections are about policy as well as who might be better able to regulate his emotions on Twitter. And because Democratic policies are highly unpopular, even Bernie Sanders sounded housebroken and failed to spurt exhortations to socialism all over the national carpet: “This election is about preserving our democracy,” Sanders said. Who could oppose that? Or cutting the price of prescription drugs, or free pre-K? (Sanders also said “Joe Biden will end the hate and division Trump has created.” Oh, so he alone can fix it?)

 

The star speaker of the night, Michelle Obama, stepped forward to claim that, “I love this country with all my heart,” forgetting that she never experienced the pride of being an American until age 44. Then she admonished us that “when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise,” shortly after a fellow progressive speaker accused Trump of killing her father.

 

Mrs. Obama’s most salient point was about empathy. Yet empathy is about as likely to deliver “unity” as six Margaritas are likely to deliver a stellar driving performance. Because you can’t empathize with more than one or two people at a time, and because empathy means being caught up in extreme emotions whereas unity means accepting that people can be different and still get along, empathy fuels loathing. It’s the kind of thing that makes people throw bricks through windows and light auto-parts stores on fire.  “On balance, empathy is a negative,” writes Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in his book on the subject. “It’s sugary soda, tempting and delicious and bad for us.”

 

For voters, though, especially women, deployment of the word “empathy” is sure to trigger positive associations — kindness, compassion (which means concern for others without actually getting wrapped up in their feelings). It’s the word educated people use when they’re trying to think of a fancy way to say “be nice.” Return to Niceness is the new Return to Normalcy.

 

Biden’s success in November will hinge upon whether he can successfully conceal from modestly informed voters that he has committed to doing much more than simply not being Trump. No doubt the media that doesn’t want democracy to die in darkness will take a few breaks from reporting on Trump’s real and imagined shortcomings and devote a significant proportion of its energies to illuminating the substance of what Biden and his president-in-waiting Kamala Harris have proposed. Right?

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