It’s not easy to find reasons for optimism about the 16-month slog that has been the 2016 presidential campaign. But here goes: this election, for all its ugliness, unpleasantness, and downright nastiness, has done something truly unexpected — it’s highlighted the nation’s extraordinary social progress.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton has run the most progressive presidential campaign in the history of the United States.
Consider a few examples: while Donald Trump talks about banning all Muslims from entering the country, Hillary Clinton is running ads featuring the Muslim father of a young soldier killed in Iraq, decrying Trump’s anti-Muslim bias.
Trump is labeling Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and calling for the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants. Tim Kaine is delivering speeches in Spanish, the Clinton campaign is defending the dignity of illegal immigrants, and using Trump’s abuse of them as a reason for all voters not to support him. Considering anecdotal stories of record Hispanic turnout in Florida, Nevada, and Texas in early voting, Clinton’s strategy seems to be working.
Trump has received the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and has energized white supremacists. As for Clinton, she talks regularly about “structural racism,” has asked Americans walk “in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women,” and spoken of the need for criminal justice reform.
During the Republican primaries, Trump infamously mocked a disabled reporter; Hillary Clinton is running an ad in sign language and is talking about her agenda for helping disabled Americans.
Eight years ago, Barack Obama purposely sought to play down the historic racial aspects of his candidacy. This year Clinton has not just played up the fact that she’s the first female presidential nominee in American history; she’s embraced it. Rather than being concerned that the possibility of a female president would alarm some voters, Clinton has run a campaign that is striking in its use of feminist imagery.
Perhaps the most notable example of change is the fact that four and a half years ago, Obama was opposed to same sex marriage. He has since reversed that position and today, one would be hard pressed to find a single Democratic politician who doesn’t agree with him.
Beyond the social justice advances, Clinton is also running on a consistently progressive economic platform. She’s not talking about cutting Social Security benefits to balance the budget, she’s proposing increasing them. She’s supporting big spending initiatives, including more money for infrastructure spending, expanded preschool, quality child care, paid sick leave, and tuition-free college education.
This is not just happening because of Trump. These were all, largely, positions that Clinton took when she announced her candidacy in the summer of 2015. Indeed, for all of the focus on Trump’s unabashed xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism, there has been precious little focus on Clinton’s unabashed progressivism.
Why this is happening is perhaps what is most interesting — it’s in Clinton’s political interests to run this kind of campaign. For all the obsessive focus on white working class voters, the most important voters for Democrats are the 30 percent of the electorate that is non-white, the young millennials who are the most liberal demographic group in the country, white liberals and the college educated (particularly female) voters who supported Mitt Romney in 2012 and have begun moving into the Democratic camp this year.
None of this is meant to downplay the ugliness of Trump’s presidential campaign, which has reminded us of the racism, nativist and misogyny that still resides in broad swatches of America. But if Clinton prevails on Tuesday another lesson can be gleaned — America has become a more tolerant and more progressive place than it’s ever been before.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.