When a crushing defeat occurs, a window of opportunity opens where criticism is more easily countenanced and reorientation is possible.
We’ll be talking about what just happened for the rest of our lives — why it happened, how it happened, and what the consequences were. It’s too big a thing to survey in a few days or months, if we ever really get a handle on it. But this is also a critical time, as political forces opposed to what Trump represents try to settle on a narrative about what happened and what to do.
It is very important that Democrats look Tuesday squarely in the eye, that they be made to look at it, even though it is unpleasant. There’s wave after wave of excuse-making circulating on social media, which is understandable, because the pain is great. It’s true that many individual factors were stacked against Dems this cycle — the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression in places like North Carolina, the FBI’s bizarre actions, etc., played an outsized role, just as it’s true that racism and misogyny were the cornerstones of Trump’s campaign.
But none of those individual factors explain the scale and size of the Democratic defeat — the millions of Obama coalition votes that were lost, the way the party was blown out of the water in winnable Senate elections, its annihilation in state legislatures, the loss of states that voted for Obama twice and for Democrats in the last six presidential elections. Smug takes from coastal liberals about how the people of Michigan are bigots have all the meaning of a wet fart. If you think that the main problem is that Jill Stein is an idiot, or that the media is dumb, you’ve clowned yourself. The excuse-making is tailored to help Democrats feel better, not do better.
When a crushing defeat occurs, a window of opportunity opens where criticism is more easily countenanced and reorientation is possible, but eventually the window closes, as institutional memory and momentum takes hold. It’s important for people to be loud in the coming days about what they believe needs to change in the Democratic Party.
Here are a couple things that have been floating around my brain — points that are in no way supposed to form a complete explanation for Clinton’s loss:
1) This wasn’t unpredictable, even though it was a shock. I have no special claim to clear-sightedness: I’ve been as dumb as most everyone else at least since the summer, when I finally embraced the conventional wisdom that Trump’s nomination, the president’s popularity, the economic gains, the Clinton campaign’s large get-out-the-vote operation and so on would push her across the finish line, even if she was losing certain working-class white voters who thrilled to the Sanders campaign. I refused to believe panicking media reports in the last few weeks, partly, I think, out of a desire to wall off unnecessary anxiety after an exhausting cycle.
But except for the most hagiographic pro-Clinton writers, nearly everyone saw some part of this coming, even if next to nobody put all the pieces together and kept with the thesis. Clinton’s potential weaknesses were obvious from the start, or should have been. In every presidential election since 1992, the candidate seen as less elite, the candidate perceived to pose a more significant challenge to the status quo, has won. In a year when unprecedented anger existed at the “political establishment,” Democrats nominated a person whose introduction to politics took place before the average American was born, a member of a prominent political dynasty whose family got rich off politics, with a thicket of ethical and policy problems, which, no matter the substance, we knew would be deployed aggressively.
When I wrote and said as much repeatedly last winter and spring, the response from Democrats was, more often than not, don’t talk about that, as if not acknowledging the problem would make it go away.
Sometimes the objection was, Who else do we have? Setting aside Bernie Sanders, the reason there was hardly anyone else in the primary is related to the reason that Clinton lost: Her strength with the dreaded “establishment.” Who would challenge the Clintons’ massive donor network — the great reservoir of Hamptons and Marin County money — and the support they could call on from the ossified bulwarks of Democratic Washington, such as the Center for American Progress, or the rapid response teams of the troglodytic and vile David Brock?
A new approach is needed — not just in developing candidates, but among the upper echelons of the party hierarchy in Washington. Too often these days, Democratic candidates hail from the donor class, from investment banks and the Beltway cocktail circuit — Evan Bayh in Indiana, Patrick Murphy in Florida, Phil Murphy in New Jersey. That has to stop.
2) The Democratic coalition is losing, badly, and it has been losing badly since 2010. I am continually mystified how little this comes up, and how little it seems to have sunk into the brains of prominent people. One piece described Trump’s victory as the Democratic Party being “decapitated.” But to be decapitated, the head must previously have been connected to a body. Since Barack Obama’s first midterm election, the Democrats have had the head — the presidency — and no body. Now they have nothing. If the goal of the Democratic Party is to implement policy — to control Congress and state legislatures — it is failing. It has been beaten to a bloody pulp in the last six years and the whipping it received last night is only an intensification of the trend.
Still, we focus relentlessly on the presidency. Eventually a Republican was bound to win it, though I certainly didn’t expect it so soon. Now, everything enacted with Obama’s executive pen will be gutted. Most people in professional politics and the media live in blue states with blue or purple legislatures, where the focus on the presidency might make more sense. But many Americans live in places where the local Democratic Party has dried up and cracked like a lakebed in a drought. Much of this is because of gerrymandering, sure. But that’s not an excuse. It’s something Democrats have a moral imperative to overcome.
Yes, Clinton won the popular vote, and came close to winning in some states. I don’t care. Even if she had won, Democrats still wouldn’t have had the ability to do much of anything at all in terms of helping needy people, which I was given to believe is the main point of the party in the first place.
3) Much of the above has to do with Democrats’ declining share of white voters. That turned out not to be a big deal in the last two presidential elections . But it’s a huge deal if you live in Wisconsin, or Texas, and you want to expand Medicaid.
Many have wondered in recent months whether racial polarization is inherent, or unbreakable, or if Democrats should be pushing harder for the support of poor whites or white people generally, with a renewed focus on economic populism. One view is that white Trump supporters are motivated primarily by racism, because they voted for a racist. It’s a waste of time to message to them, in other words, because truly winning them would require the Democratic Party to pander to white nationalism.
Democrats can never sacrifice their support for racial or gender equality, but the popular idea of an unreachable mass of bigots — a group that should even be punished, in some readings — is really bizarre to me. Some percentage are unreachable, of course. But I don’t think we have all that good of an idea as to why many people voted for Trump. Some significant number of people voted for Obama twice, and then supported Trump. Are they the racially enlightened working class, or are they fascists?
I remain completely mystified by most of the conversations I had with Trump supporters this year, and by the behavior of voters generally. Some number of them are pricks — schoolyard bullies. They’re authoritarians whose interest in Trump comes from a dark place. Many more are like the Hispanic woman I met in Houston on Election Day. Why vote Trump, I asked? She shrugged. “Shake things up,” she said. (Like most Trump voters I talked to yesterday, she declined to give her name.) The first diehard Trump supporter I talked to, some 14 months ago, came to his rally because she liked The Apprentice.
Is it depressing that a huge number of people in America voted for a fascist? Yes, immensely. Is it an indictment on the moral character of the nation? Yes. But let us not give the Klan and the Minutemen the false credit of having secured a mandate from the American people. To do so is to empower them more than we already have.
But it is also terrible politics. A great number of these people have a weak attraction to Trump and can be reached. Any thought, any effort, any take written in the coming years without the goal of putting together a coalition of people that can take back the Senate in 2018, make meaningful gains in state legislatures and with local parties, and the presidency in 2020 is wasted. The next couple years are going to be very dark, and that effort has to start now. Suit up.