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When Hillary Clinton embraces her inner nerd, she wins

Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night was an historic occasion and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Here was America's first female Presidential nominee accepting her nomination, a moment that cracked the stoniest of hearts as it shattered one big glass ceiling. 

But here also was her best chance to respond to the right-wing caricature of her, and answer the essential question many voters have: Who is she, really? How might we best describe her?

Most of the speech ignored that frequent call for an easily-digestible narrative. But then came an essential paragraph: 

Bingo. Hillary had her chance to tell us who she is, and who she is is a policy wonk. A nerd, in other words. She knows the minutiae of politics the way some of us know the minutiae of Star Trek episodes. 

She gets passionate about the details. She praises the scientific approach. She can get all "um, actually" up in your face. Like most nerds, she's not a world-class public speaker. She can be both infuriating and brilliant. 

Once Hillary said that, a new narrative slotted into place for the 2016 election, and it would behoove her to stick to that narrative. It's one we're familiar with from hundreds of great American movies: The Nerd Versus The Bully. 

The Bully thinks he's a jock, and aims for the respect of jocks. He has just enough verbal dexterity to come up with punishing insults and nicknames. He's all talk, of course; fundamentally thin-skinned, self-contradictory, not the sharpest tool in the drawer. 

But his chief tactic — intimidation — often succeeds, because the law of the classroom is the law of the jungle.

The Nerd is seen as a loser so long as he or she stays quiet. Nerds do not always start the movie with the audience's sympathy; their infuriating parts are showing. But once the Nerd formulates a plan and takes a stand against the Bully, watch out. 

We're primed for this narrative, thanks to movies like The Breakfast Club, Back to the Future and Election, and classic TV shows like Freaks and Geeks and Parks and Rec. We like this narrative. And in November, barring unforeseen circumstances, America will almost certainly vote for this narrative. 

Marty McFly overcomes Biff Tannen in the end. Lisa Simpson outsmarts Nelson Muntz in the end. Leslie Knope refuses to be beaten by Jeremy Jamm (spoiler alert: it is strongly hinted that Knope becomes President after the end of Parks and Rec.) Even Election's Tracy Flick, whose name has become a byword for precocious, fastidious, no-fun politicking, is a winner in the end. 

In retrospect, the whole Democratic convention primed us for the Nerd vs. Bully narrative. On the first night, Michelle Obama enthused about Hillary's grasp of the difficult stuff: "The issues a president faces are not black and white, and cannot be boiled down into 140 characters," she said. "You can't have a thin skin or the tendency to lash out."

Is this a risky strategy? Could pointing out her smarts make Hillary too remote, too elite? Will the nerd mantle alienate her from the working-class whites the Democrats are losing in droves? Perhaps, but I doubt it. This is the nation that elected and re-elected Barack Obama, perhaps the only bigger political science nerd than Hillary.

This is, as we are repeatedly told, the age of the nerd. It is a time when everyone, from the C-suite to the shop floor, can argue for their favorite Game of Thrones fan theory. As the rise of fantasy leagues and the stardom of Nate Silver-style statisticians have shown, Americans have never been nerdier about sports. I have argued that the majority of us, billions of people around the planet, are to some degree Star Wars geeks. 

Nerding out is cool. Sweating the details is cool. You know what's not cool? Ignorant billionaire bullies. 

The narrative also has the advantage of being true. Whatever you think of Hillary's recent political liabilities — and really, who else but a nerd would have a scandal revolving around her own email server? — it's clear that she started her political life as an extremely nerdy student politician. 

You don't need Bill Clinton's oft-repeated story about meeting her in the Yale Law library to tell you that. Just listen to her commencement speech at Wellesley in 1969, where she was selected as the first-ever student commencement speaker.

That's the essence of 21-year-old Hillary right there. She may be more than three times that age now; her progressive instinct may have been blunted by years of scrutiny and compromise in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Washington. 

But that undisputed leader of her class is still with us. She's still trying to modulate her voice, still formulating overwrought sentences like this one in the video above: "The struggle for an integrated life surrounded by an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences." 

And she's still guided by that principle by which Nerds have defeated Bullies repeatedly over the centuries: "Fear is always with us, but we just don't have time for it. Not now." 

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