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The Democrats’ big pitch: we’re the party of family values now

Michelle Obama’s speech took Hillary Clinton’s much-mocked It Takes a Village — and made it an applause line.

Democratic National Convention: Day One
Michelle Obama addresses the crowd at the Democratic National Convention.
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Midway through her speech endorsing Hillary Clinton for president at the first night of the Democratic National Convention, first lady Michelle Obama made what’s ultimately a pretty remarkable statement for a Democratic convention, though it’s not one that will seem remarkable on its face.

"Hillary understands that the presidency is about one thing and one thing only," she said. "It is about leaving something better for our kids. That is how we have always moved this country forward — by all of us coming together on behalf of our children. Volunteering to coach the team, teach the Sunday school class, because they know it takes a village."

"It takes a village," of course, refers to the title of Clinton’s book about child rearing, of the same name, published in 1996. At the time of its publication, the book was much mocked — especially in right-wing circles — for its argument that, in essence, every one of us is responsible for the well-being of a child, even if that child is not our own.

In 1996, it was easy for the right-wing punditry complex to paint Clinton’s words as ridiculous. After all, in the '90s, the GOP owned family values. It was a central plank of the party’s platform, while the Democrats flirted with recognizing that, say, gay people exist. (It should be said they didn’t flirt particularly well, but they at least thought about it.)

But in 2016, "It takes a village" was a huge applause line — at least at the DNC. And what’s more, it signaled something wholly unexpected that’s happened in the intervening two decades: The Democrats have made a credible claim for being the family values party.

The Democrats embrace (modern) "family values"

If anything, that belief in progressive family values was the narrative of the first day of the DNC, which had a largely satisfying build and payoff, in contrast to the chaotic first day of the RNC. (The Republicans, to their credit, got better as their event went on, but this is the sort of thing you want to nail from day one.)

And the argument Democrats are making isn’t that they’ve co-opted Republican space on so-called family values, but that the country’s definition of family values has largely shifted to meet progressives where they already are.

In a country where the majority of people support marriage equality, for instance, it’s ludicrous to suggest that adhering to "true" family values means reversing the Supreme Court decisions making same-sex marriage legal in the United States. Even Donald Trump’s nomination acceptance speech left room for applause lines for LGBTQ citizens (though the party’s platform left no such room for LGBTQ rights).

But this idea was laced throughout the rest of the evening as well. Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders talked about making sure working-class people could make enough money to feed their families. A long succession of families who benefited from the DREAM Act talked about how it allowed them to stay together. And so on.

But it was Michelle Obama who most potently delivered on this theme, which may be why her speech served as the night’s emotional highpoint. Her speech positioned her own daughters — both eight years older than the young girls they were when their father stepped into the Oval Office — as symbols of an America that aims to raise up as many children as possible, regardless of their family background.

"So that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters — two beautiful intelligent black young women — play with the dog on the White House lawn," she said. "And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States."

The implication is clear: Electing a woman president for the first time won’t just be a historic moment — it will be a victory for every daughter out there, Republican, Democrat, or otherwise.

This pivot also made sense of the angry protesters

As someone who spent most of her childhood raised in a staunch Republican household that was so staunch entirely because of the idea of family values, I can’t tell you how strange it is to hear this particular suite of issues be applied to the exact opposite party.

What’s even more remarkable is that the Republicans barely even tried to make the argument for this particular vote at their own convention. Their own narrative — things are terrifying, Donald Trump is a great businessman, and we know how to protect you — didn’t really have much room for it.

I don’t particularly know if ceding this territory will pay off one way or another for either party. But it proved to be a key part of the Democrats' (perhaps accidental) strategy in helping overcome what might have been the first day’s dominant storyline: anger from Bernie Sanders supporters over both his loss in the primaries and the DNC email leaks that proved several within the party didn’t take Sanders all that seriously.

If political parties, or maybe even the country, are part of some weird, gigantic family, then, well, families can disagree about stuff. They can argue about stuff. They can even yell loudly at each other and realize they have more common ground than not.

It remains to be seen if this is going to lead to some sort of party unity — or even grudging acceptance of Clinton’s place as the party nominee on the part of Sanders’s most die-hard supporters. But this is the advantage of having a narrative for your convention: If it’s good enough, it can morph to pull in all sorts of dissension and rancor. Now the Democrats hope this narrative will stick.

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