Can A New Democratic Party Rise From the Ashes of Clinton’s Defeat?

Mitchell Plitnick
Nov 17, 2016 · 12 min read

It still hasn’t sunk in for me. The notion that this country is going to be led by Donald Trump is tough to digest. But the fact is, he is our next president. Like so many of us, I’m left asking “how the hell did this happen?”

I am no different than a lot of other so-called experts and pundits who were confident that Trump couldn’t win. In my case, I don’t think I underestimated how much racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism or xenophobia there is in the United States. Rather I underestimated how many people were so disgusted with the Washington political elite that they would vote for Trump over Clinton despite Trump’s personification of all those traits in abundance.

This is a time for liberals, progressives, and all manner of those who consider themselves to be on the left to look inward. The one silver lining that I can see right now is that the lessons of this election are so stark that there is good reason to hope they will be learned and that a very new and different Democratic Party will be the result.

To help bring that about, I think we should take a long, hard look at what happened here. In my view, Hillary Clinton lost for a variety of reasons, but here are the ones I think are the keys:

1. She is the very embodiment of the elitist Washington insider

2. She is a neoliberal

3. She is a foreign policy hawk

4. She has been the target of right wing attacks for a quarter of a century, and in this election, too much of the left bought into the bogus attacks on her, often at the expense of some very real issues with her policies. Had those been the focus, it might have pressured her further toward a place where she at least could have avoided this disaster.

5. Plain old misogyny

Clinton’s policy views are out of step with the Democratic rank and file

The first three reasons are all of a piece, while I think the latter two magnify the others dramatically. In both the primaries and the general election, and among Democrats, Republicans and Independents, there was widespread expression of dissatisfaction with the “Washington elite” regardless of party. Trump exploited this while Clinton fell victim to it after gravely underestimating its power.

Despite repeatedly speaking about the struggles of poor and middle class Americans, especially women, Hillary Clinton couldn’t help but come off to many as being removed from those struggles. Many seemed to feel that she could speak the language, but the sincerity wasn’t there. True, many others experienced her differently, and that is reflected in her still winning the popular vote. But the election results on the whole show that she lost a good chunk of the key support that went to Barack Obama in the last two elections.

By contrast, Donald Trump, a man well known to have been born with a spoon that is not silver but golden in his mouth, spoke a language that resonated with many Americans. How often did we hear that Trump was a man who spoke his mind, and who “stuck to his guns” despite flip-flopping on issues with alarming frequency? He was routinely attacked as unqualified, but that argument was not as strong as the fact that people who voted for him, even those who didn’t identify with his racism, xenophobia and misogyny, did identify with his message of resentment for the “system.”

42% of women voters supported Trump. That’s astounding when you consider he was going up against the presumptive first female POTUS, and his campaign was dogged not only by accusations of sexual abuse, but statements, both historical and contemporary, made by the man himself that were shocking in their denigration of women. 28% of Latinos/as supported Trump, despite his anti-immigrant rhetoric that focused on Latino/a identity. He was even able to get a slightly bigger chunk of the African-American vote than Mitt Romney did, despite his implicit opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement and his clear support for racist police tactics like “stop and frisk.”

All of this speaks to Clinton’s image as a Washington “insider,” an image that is, of course, very well earned. That describes her as well as it does any politician. Moreover, she is a well-known supporter of free trade and globalization. True, she eventually agreed to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), but she did so quite grudgingly and half-heartedly, and only after it became clear how unpopular it was among Democratic voters.

This is hardly surprising. Clinton’s neoliberal economic views have been well known for decades. They served as much of the basis for Bernie Sanders’ campaign against her. Because she initially supported TPP and because she was more conservative in her approach to raising the minimum wage than Sanders was, she was unable to convince people that her economic views, while still fairly classified as neoliberal, are actually less market-oriented than either her husband’s (who was certainly the neoliberal champion and still is) or Barack Obama’s.

Clinton’s term as Secretary of State, wherein she embraced the role of the Realist hawk in Obama’s cabinet, also proved her undoing in this campaign. Hers was routinely the voice of comparative aggression, whether the issue was Libya, Syria, Russia, Israel or many others. Her support of the invasion of Iraq dogged her throughout her campaigns as well, even though 29 of 50 Democrats in the Senate voted in favor of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq and that a Senator from New York would have had an extremely difficult time politically opposing the resolution.

That being said, Clinton gave no indication that her support for the resolution was reluctant at that time. On the other hand, she has clearly stated she was wrong. Yet that didn’t seem to help much, even though Trump, who also supported the Iraq invasion, consistently lied about it rather than admit what he did.

Why didn’t admitting she was wrong work? I believe in large part it is because she backed not just the intervention in Libya (an intervention that was called for by the Arab League and approved by the UN Security Council, as everyone seems to forget), but also the extra steps the United States took to oust Moammar Qadafi (which was not part of the Arab League request or UNSC approval) and for which we had no “day after” strategy. To many, this suggested that she hadn’t learned from her mistakes and it reflected a generally hawkish approach on Clinton’s part. So too did her role as the “pro-Israel” voice in Obama’s cabinet and her support for increased involvement in Syria.

Finally, it is my view, based on the reactions I have seen from myriad people in many contexts, that all of this was magnified by misogyny. We saw more than ample evidence of the misogyny Clinton encountered from the “Bernie Bros” in the primaries. And Trump’s constant hostility towards her being a woman was clear enough. Yet, somehow, 42% of women still voted Trump.

I could say a lot about the misogyny here and it’s important. But it’s a bit off the point I am trying to bring out here, and I have no doubt that others, particularly women, will be able to dissect that issue a lot better than I can.

Why did Clinton lose? Not why you think

We can all look at Trump’s appeals to fear and hate, and that is certainly a huge factor in his victory. As we have seen in many elections around the world, from the Brexit to Israel to Greece, that’s a winning formula in many cases. It is the right wing’s stock in trade. But that has long been true, and it is likely to be so for quite some time.

In a normal election, Clinton was a strong candidate. But this election was not the same as prior ones. It was, in both parties, a refutation of business as usual. The Republican establishment, already weakened from within by the Tea Party, saw the end of their party as they knew it. The Democrats didn’t collapse in similar fashion. Thus, the GOP, against every effort of the party elite, nominated Trump, while the Democrats still nominated the candidate who, by conventional measures, should have been the stronger one.

This brings us to why Bernie Sanders was not the Democratic candidate. Many argue that he would have beaten Trump. My own view is that I think Sanders would have lost, but for very different reasons than Clinton did. So I don’t argue that Sanders backers are wrong in thinking that Sanders would not have fallen victim to all if the things Clinton did.

But the debate itself is pointless. No one can ever know what would have happened. If things were different, as the saying goes, they would not be the same, but that doesn’t mean that everything changes, nor does it dictate what changes might occur. What matters is a realistic view of what happened, because many things that people believe about Clinton and about this whole race are not true. Basing theories on falsehoods or misperceptions leads inevitably to dysfunctional bases for action.

Some will point to the shenanigans at the Democratic National Committee, but the reality is that what went on there was simply intra-party politics that both parties have routinely engaged in for decades. There is always in-party competition, and when an established party figure is going head to head against an “outsider,” the establishment lines up on the side of their own. The difference is that in 2016 people had the means to expose it and that DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz completely screwed up by not recognizing that this increased transparency looked very bad for Hillary Clinton.

That caused a lot of liberals and leftists to see her as dishonest, even in the cynical context of politics as usual. In fact, Clinton was correct that she is probably the most transparent candidate in history (even though much of her transparency was forced upon her by hacked information, fact-checkers routinely showed her as being very honest in what she was saying), but since Americans have no way to know what previous candidates have hidden, she comes off as more dishonest instead.

Still, those shenanigans were far from definitive — Obama overcame similar obstacles in 2008. In fact, in ’08, the deck was even more stacked against Obama because back then, the Democratic Leadership Council was still functioning, and it was explicitly about one segment of the party — the moderates/centrists or more conservative wing of the party, however you want to label it. The DLC was a virtual Clinton machine, and it COULD work to influence the outcome in primaries, through fundraising and advertising and such. It did not have to do so clandestinely, since, unlike the DNC, that was what the DLC was created to do. It was dissolved in 2011, after it was unable to defeat Obama.

This is politics, and it’s unavoidable. Trump, for his part, didn’t just win his nomination fair and square, he overcame much stronger opposition from within the GOP than anything Sanders faced from the Democrats. It’s not even close.

In 2016, much that had been easily kept from most of the public about how party politics works was exposed this year. Unfortunately, because Russia and Julian Assange did much of the exposing, it was deliberately intended to hurt Clinton, and it worked. That doesn’t make it less true, but it does mean the exposure is disproportionate between the two parties. So Trump’s and his allies’ emails were not shared, but Clinton’s were, so she got hurt.

The DNC bias toward Clinton was real but it did not, in any significant way, contribute to the defeat of Bernie Sanders. Indeed, the ability of the DNC to really affect the outcome is extremely limited. That said, all the officials of the DNC are party officials, and as such, have allegiances to different party members outside their DNC roles. So, yes, there’s politics and bias there, but it’s nothing new.

Sanders lost because, in the early days of the primaries he fell way behind largely due to a campaign that was poorly run (it got better as time went on) and a severe lack of appeal to people of color. By the time Sanders corrected those issues, he was too far behind Clinton to make up the difference.

We’re still left with why so many Democrats and Independent leftists bought into the “crooked Hillary” bullshit (and bullshit it was), buying into right wing distortions about the “missing emails,” the Clinton Foundation and even Benghazi. I believe misogyny is a very big factor there — I believe that people, men and women, find it much easier to excuse dishonesty in a male politician but not in a female one. The whole scheming woman stereotype, etc.

Still, it would be very unfair to say that a false, even a sexist, image of Clinton is the primary reason for this outcome. It is not the falsehoods that doomed her, but the realities. The Right got themselves a candidate who stood for what they want — white power, male power, more attention paid to poor whites in the middle of the country who have lost their livelihoods to globalization, hostility to immigrants, racism, the celebration of ignorance.

By contrast, the Left was offered a candidate who supported the TPP until it became overwhelmingly clear that such support would torpedo her campaign. They were offered a candidate who is such a hawk on foreign policy that she was getting strong support from neoconservatives. She’s good on social policies, but even that, in a way, worked against her because social policies are strongly associated with liberal elites. She seemed unsympathetic and coldly calculating on economic issues like raising the minimum wage. These are issues Democrats and left-leaning Independents want their candidates to be taking the lead on, rather than being pulled along by the voters.

The result, I believe, is that some people who did not respond to the messages of hate that Trump sent voted for Trump anyway because he was not the DC elite type that Clinton in fact is. I believe those people will regret their vote within a year or less, as I think some already are, but it’s done.

Rising From the Ashes: The Way Forward

Hillary Clinton’s defeat should illustrate the important point to Democrats that Bill Clinton was the anomaly and that a winning Democrat’s image and policies look a lot more like Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and yes, Bernie Sanders, than it does the Clintons.

The strength of someone like Clinton is that she can come up with policy plans that can potentially succeed in bringing about progressive change. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had to combat the fact that, while people may like their ideas, whether they be about border walls Mexico would pay for or about free university education, the actual plans they presented were widely seen, rightly or wrongly, as unrealistic.

Clinton and those like her can make things happen, but their policy ideas are not the ones that are moving Democrats and leftist Independents. The way to salvage the future, after what is likely to be a disastrous Trump presidency, is to emerge from it with a truly progressive Democratic Party that can deliver on its promises.

Early indications are that the Democrats may be getting the message. The move to have Keith Ellison chair the DNC seems to be steamrolling ahead, and Bernie Sanders, while refusing to join the party (which I think is a grave mistake on his part) is still assuming leadership in the incoming Senate and will continue to work to pull the Democrats to the left. Elizabeth Warren is also emerging stronger in the party.

Liberals, progressives and leftists need to learn from the right, including the Tea Party. They need to elect members of Congress, mayors, governors, and state legislators who reflect their agenda and pull the rest of the party along with them. Warren, Sanders, Ellison and other existing leaders can do a lot, but this change must come from the bottom up. Fortunately, those leaders are there to be fueled by that grassroots energy.

This is not just about a presidential race. Indeed, the 2020 presidential election is the last step, not the first. The Democrats must represent their rank and file — the liberal values of equality for women, anti-racism, LGBTQI rights, the shrinking of the wealth gap, and the basic human dignity of all. They must represent a foreign policy that promotes those same values. And it can, because these are the things the clear majority of Democrats believe in. They’re also things a lot of people who have refused to part of the Democratic party until now believe in.

Now that the more moderate or conservative tendencies among Democrats have let us down and failed in what should have been an easy task in keeping a radical, white supremacist-supported, inexperienced reality show star out of the White House, we can reverse years of drifting rightward toward the center and promote a party that embraces our values. It’s time to come together to get it done.

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