We Can’t Afford to Learn the Wrong Lessons from 2016 (Pt. I)
[This is the first of two articles. It deals with the proposed explanations for the 2016 election results, weeding out the bad or unhelpful explanations and fleshing out the better ones. Part II will take these explanations and apply them to possible responses and political action.]
I wrote last week that, in making sense of Trump’s surprising win, we need to work “to understand exactly what happened between the polls and the polling places, while pushing back against the ready-made (before Election Day!) narratives plenty of pundits will be all too happy to provide.”
Well, they’re here. Opinion Havers everywhere, of all political camps, are scrambling to give reasons why Trump won, and why so many election predictions got it so wrong. Of course, Trump did win, and the election predictions were (under better circumstances, laughably) wrong. So there should be reasons for us to find as to why that’s the case. What are they?
As I say, there’ve been many explanations given. Some are obviously correct, some are merely plausible, some are ridiculous and many, I’ll argue, are dangerously unhelpful. But all of them need to be considered, quickly and critically — we don’t have time to remain confused and ambivalent about this. What we decide this election was about is of paramount importance.
There are two criteria we should apply to all of these posited explanations:
- Can it explain the election results we saw?
- Going forward, can it be acted upon?
Both of these are important, given that, in a national U.S. presidential election, no single factor is likely to account for the entirety of the results (not a very tweetable take, I know), and so many explanations could be found to have contributed. If we find several valid explanations for the election results, but some present us with factors we can change going forward and others do not, the latter are not very helpful discoveries. If pointing fingers at an act of God is the best that pundits can do, they may well be right, but they are doing nothing to help the organizational efforts needed to respond to Trump’s election.
How we tell ourselves the story of this election will determine whether we can fare better in the next. So here are some of the proposed narratives (not ranked except that the ones I don’t think are helpful are listed before the ones I do):
Reason One: FBI Director Comey
Listen, fuck James Comey. I’m not about to defend the actions of the FBI director, and his involvement in this election does suggest a desire to have an impact on it. But how responsible could he have been for the outcome?
First, there’s the issue of direct influence: how many voters, having already heard endlessly about Hillary Clinton’s emails, likely changed their minds about how or if they were voting because of the letter he sent to Congress days before the election (or the follow-up letter he sent even closer to the election, declaring that the newly discovered emails were not relevant)?
My guess: not many.
Certainly, his actions brought her emails back into the news, and people who either payed too little attention to hear about his follow-up message, or whose cognitive dissonance is strong enough to trust his first letter but not his second (“He’s the one trustworthy man in a corrupt government!” to “He’s been forced into silence by his superiors!”) may have cared. But I doubt many of those people were still undecided by that time, let alone that the reemergence and disappearance of the FBI’s involvement was their deciding factor.
But more importantly: what can be done about it? That’s where I most take issue with the pundits who are spinning Comey’s involvement into the simple cause of Trump’s election win.
If we’re to buy this take — that the Democrats were in a perfect position to win the election but for Comey — what lesson are we left with? Focusing on his involvement — which, remember, was invited in the first place by Clinton’s own actions to avoid transparency and FOIA requests with a private email server — is a truly unhealthy deflection. Whether or not we think his involvement swayed the election, the issue of responsibility takes precedence: if only Democrats had some way of knowing that an FBI investigation into their nominee would come up in the general election! Democrats want to deflect blame instead of doing a proper post-mortem on the party’s truly pathetic showing this year. If you care at all about the party, you’ll look into how it — and not the FBI director — can change.
Similarly, Paul Krugman wants to blame the media for taking Comey’s bait:
God knows the media have their share of blame to answer for, and that will be addressed in more depth below. But did we seriously not expect that the FBI investigation into our nominee would be news? How should it have been covered? And, for that matter, exactly how differently should Comey have handled this? There have been arguments, not only that he had a legal obligation to inform Congress immediately, having recently testified under oath, but also that attempting to withhold the new information until after the election could’ve led to a leak, and an even bigger scandal involving, then, an attempted “cover-up” on top of everything else. Which is worse?
I, for one, am already sick and tired of hearing about Clinton’s damn emails. We knew this would come up — it already had. These deflections inevitably lead back to the party’s and the nominee’s failures if you follow them beyond any superficial level.
Reason Two: Russians and Wikileaks
As that Krugman tweet already suggested, the involvement of Wikileaks (specifically with regard to the Podesta emails) and their alleged collusion with the Russians to influence the election is a common refrain from Democrats wanting to cast blame outside the party. The Intercept has already done a lot of great work on the Democrats’ red-baiting and Wikileaks, so I’ll be brief here. If Russia and Wikileaks (or just the latter by itself) worked to undermine the Democrats, how was it done?
By leaking accurate information about the DNC and the Clinton campaign.
Donna Brazile — the person who, remember, had to take over as DNC chair for Debbie Wasserman Schultz after she was shown in emails to have favored the Clinton campaign in the primary—was recently found to have leaked two questions (one on the death penalty, the other on the water in Flint, Michigan) to the Clinton campaign in advance of debates and town halls in the primary. Her defense of herself has been, to say the least, unconvincing.
Could these revelations have swayed voters? Absolutely. But again, ultimate responsibility lies with the party — Russians, Wikileaks, or frigging extraterrestrials (I’m looking at you, Podesta) should not be able to smear the Democratic Party by leaking accurate information about the Democratic Party to voters! How can we move forward with this reality? Well, since Russia and Wikileaks (if not extraterrestrials) will both be with us during the next election, I’d say we should focus on the failures of Democrats that led transparency to be used as a cudgel.
Reason Three: The “Alt-Left”
This ridiculous term, as I’ve seen it employed, describes pretty much anybody on the left who’s critical of the Democratic Party. The play on the term “alt-right,” a euphemistic description of white supremacists, is meant to suggest comparable extremism on the left. Now the fact that this term exists at all suggests that, for the people employing the term, what’s really wrong with those alt-right white supremacists is that they aren’t mainstream enough; if they just voted Republican, they wouldn’t be “alt-” anything. Similarly, this is an extremely dumb way of looking at the left: linking concern for marginalized people to neo-Nazis is about as Orwellian as language can be stretched to be.
Nevertheless, groups that fall under this umbrella term — “protest” voters, whether they supported Jill Stein or didn’t vote at all — certainly had an impact on this election. How much of an impact is tough to say, but a lot of the reasoning behind placing the blame for Trump’s win on these voters is an unreflective regurgitation of the flawed reasoning behind blaming Nader for Bush’s election in 2000. In fact, I’m sure many of the people reading this right now believe that Nader cost Gore the election. He didn’t.
First of all, the Supreme Court decided that election, and voting errors in Florida likely left Gore at more of a disadvantage, had the recount been allowed to continue, than Nader voters. However, the 2000 election results hinged on more than this. People love to say, “If all of the people who voted for Nader had voted for Gore instead, Gore would’ve won!” Whether that’s true or not, “Gore lost 191,000 self-described liberals to Bush, compared to less than 34,000 who voted for Nader.” That is to say, a better way to frame that hypothetical would be this: if even some of the people who voted for Bush voted for Gore instead, Gore would’ve won. How does it make more sense to blame Ralph Nader for Bush’s election than to blame Al Gore for being a disappointing candidate (or Bill Clinton for tainting his image)?
Similarly, in this election, you can say that Jill Stein cost Clinton the election if you ignore the fact that two (count ’em!) third-party candidates were pulling from conservatives (Gary Johnson and, I want to say, Evan McGillicuddy? McLaughlin?) while Stein was pulling from the left — in fact, Johnson received more than three times the number of votes Stein received in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Who would Johnson’s and McNulty’s supporters had voted for? And of course, Donald Trump received many, many more votes than either of them. How did we lose those people?
Non-voters, meanwhile, were a much more significant bloc, but how many of them, if they’d been forced to choose, would’ve picked Clinton over Trump? It’s hard to say. What we know is that they did not choose. And if half the country doesn’t participate in a vote, perhaps there’s a bigger problem with their options than with their intentions (though, to be clear, there can be a problem with both).
Reason Four: Media & Polls
My guess is that many non-voters who did have a clear favorite in the race were either comforted or discouraged into non-participation by the nearly unanimous consensus in the news media that Clinton would win. This election, as others in the past, was saturated with polling data, which we now know was pretty inaccurate. Indeed, Clinton’s campaign staff are now blaming polling and coverage of polls for her loss.
This is a valid criticism. The media failed us spectacularly in this election — whether through reporting and exaggerating polling data, or giving unforgivable amounts of free and flattering coverage to Donald Trump over more serious candidates (as in, every other fucking candidate), and to scandals and gaffes over more serious policy discussions. That is to say: entertainment over news.
News organizations like CNN often ran Donald Trump’s speeches at his rallies in their entirety — as “news,” somehow — and failed time and again to call out his racism and misogyny in the pursuit of some impossible and idiotic standard of “impartiality.” Every living room in America became, at some point in this election, a Trump rally. How could that not have an effect?
Add to this the spectacular failures of news organizations’ election forecasts — which, make no mistake, impacted voter behavior — and it’s difficult not to lay quite a lot of the blame for Trump’s win on the American news media.
We don’t need more and better polling and more accurate polling models—though I’m sure people are working on that right now. What we need is fewer polls and, especially, less obsessive media coverage of those polls and more public skepticism about their accuracy, relevance, and longevity.
At the same time, if corporate news media always errs on the side of ratings, which they do, then undoubtedly the American public is also to blame for the poor quality of our news sources. At some level, apparently, perhaps masochistically, Americans liked what they saw.
Reason Five: The Party and the Nominee
I’m really not sure how to convince people who don’t believe it already, but Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate to nominate this year. I don’t say this as a gloating Sanders supporter (though I am the second of those). Particularly once it became clear that the Trump phenomenon on the other side of the race was real, we should have seen (and many did) that Clinton had a weakness to offer all the strengths Trump’s supporters ascribed to him (misguided though those ascriptions were). A brash, vulgar, blunt billionaire (an invaluable label in the American mythos — billionaires “can’t be bought” and must have some inherent talents, right?) who gets in trouble for “saying what he thinks,” running against someone who’d been in national politics for more than two decades and was untrusted by Americans for her many strategic flip-flops and friendliness with corporate donors. (Disagree with any of that all you want, and I certainly do with much of it, but that is how many people viewed the choice before them.)
As I said, these problems were not unknown before the nominating process was over. Bernie Sanders is still the most liked politician in the entire country, and polling (though how much we’re to trust that is now in question too) consistently gave him significantly better odds at beating Trump (and Cruz, and Kasich, and…) than Clinton. Still, we were told that Clinton’s historically high unfavorables wouldn’t be a problem, just as we were told her email scandal wouldn’t be a problem.
So is Clinton the reason why Clinton lost? Supporters will point to her having won the popular vote (though voter turnout was down this year). But the Clinton campaign didn’t only learn about the Electoral College last Wednesday. And there’s evidence that plenty of the lower voter turnout rates can be blamed on the Democratic Party’s efforts, not just a lack of enthusiasm for their candidate. Shaun King of The New York Daily News wrote back in February:
As much as establishment politicians have broken for Hillary, young people under the age of 35 have broken for Bernie Sanders. Without fail, in each primary so far, in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, young people under the age of 35 have voted for Bernie by a margin of 85% to 15%. It’s not even close.
Consequently, party leaders (again, that’s code for Hillary supporters) have seemingly hosted fewer voter registration drives. Doing so, would, in essence, be drives for Bernie Sanders. In some cases, party leaders are just skipping them altogether in many states and at college campuses.
Similarly, Michael Sainato of the Observer writes:
In addition to failing to hold voter registration drives to the same extent they traditionally do, the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign did everything in their power to limit the pool of voters in the primary, as they would likely have favored Sanders over Clinton.
Justifying primaries closed off to independents, Democrats often asked why they should allow non-Democrats to choose the Democratic nominee — just months before telling non-Democrats that a vote for a third party was a wasted one.
So bias in the primaries, in addition to helping nominate Clinton in the first place, may have actually hurt her chances in the general election in several ways — reducing voter turnout, and giving legitimate fodder to critics worried about her transparency and trustworthiness.
Throughout the general election, a common talking point was tossed around: “Donald Trump is being graded on a curve.” People who said this meant that Trump was being praised too much for too little, and criticized too little over too much. The odd thing is, that’s not what the expression means. Being “graded on a curve” is to be evaluated in relation to your competitors — and in this election, who was consistently defended by virtue of their opponent’s vices? The answer is both, but I can’t help thinking Clinton received more of this kind of treatment (much of it justified) than Trump did: “Sure, Clinton did this and didn’t do that, but Trump is much worse!”
For instance, this incredible passage is taken from an article titled “Don’t call Clinton a weak candidate”:
I heard, for example, much about Clinton’s failure to address the Dakota pipeline adequately — which was true, and bad, but overshadowed by what we heard so little about: Trump’s million dollars or so invested in the pipeline and the guarantee he would use presidential powers to push it and every pipeline like it through.
Who exactly is being graded on a curve? Being better than Trump on almost any issue is an inexcusably low bar, especially when appealing to people who would never vote for Trump. Is she better than Trump? Of course. But when did we decide that’s how the entire country is going to see things?
The way Clinton’s campaign was run is also to blame. “America Is Already Great” — while not, I don’t think, an official campaign slogan — was widely asserted by Democrats and by Clinton herself. This definitionally conservative slogan is an affront to any Americans facing obstacles that have potential political solutions, particularly when coming, as it did, from the country’s center-left party. You can run on the legacy of a popular incumbent president without brushing the country’s problems under the rug. If it weren’t for Bernie Sanders constantly reminding us of how bad things were during the primary, the Democrats wouldn’t have had to commit to any changes or reforms whatsoever.
There are many people trying to claim now that Clinton ran a policy-oriented campaign that those on the left could be proud of:
That’s great, for the twenty voters who read the platform — which in many places, thanks to Sanders’ commendable picks for the platform committee (among them Rep. Keith Ellison and Dr. Cornel West) was considerably more progressive than the nominee even claimed to be. But for everyone who did not read the Democratic platform, what they saw was what Clinton said on the campaign trail: “I’m not Donald Trump.”
Here, again, is Krugman’s take:
Do modern campaigns have no knowledge of how the news media works? And for the record, policies did matter in this election. “Build the wall” mattered to people, dumb and bigoted as it was. TPP mattered to people, even if most of them didn’t know why. If Clinton wanted climate policy to be an issue, she should’ve stressed it. She didn’t. Republicans know how to play the media, and Clinton seemed only too happy to stay out of the news while Trump destroyed himself — a rational strategy, perhaps, but not a substantive campaign, and, ultimately, certainly not a winning strategy.
Krugman’s is such a frustrating take because Clinton really could have made policy front and center instead of just running as the anti-Trump. I wanted her to. Krugman and many others, meanwhile, were playing defense for her, filling in her silence on policy to placate Democrats who cared to hear more.
I can’t help feeling we deserved a better campaign from Clinton, and a better nominee from the Democratic Party.
Reason Six: Bigotry
The big, undeniable, and not exclusively Republican elephant in the room. Trump’s campaign centered around hatred of women, of racial minorities and #BlackLivesMatter, hatred of immigrants, of Muslims, of Jews, of whomever it helped him week-to-week to hate. (Sure enough, his election victory has been followed by a wave of hate crimes against the people he claims not to have maligned.) The intersection of these various forms of bigotry had an undeniable effect on the election outcome, though in ways that are hard to parse out from each other — such is the nature of intersectionality. I’m not going to try to prove here to anyone who isn’t already convinced that racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homo- and trans-phobia, et al. helped Trump to win — though those arguments are going to have to be made to the many Trump voters who don’t believe their vote was motivated by these things. And it’s inexcusable to suggest that Hillary Clinton wasn’t treated more harshly, given less credit where due, and subjected to deplorable tropes and stereotypes because she’s a woman. Far from it, Trump’s campaign undoubtedly benefitted from the fact that it could use a woman as the focal point of all this hatred.
Carl Schmitt, the German political theorist, pretty accurately described how the Nazis would come to power years before they did. He himself became a National Socialist once they seized power, and his work was already filled with theocratic and authoritarian fever dreams — in short, a smart and terrible man. But if you want to know how something works, look inside.
Schmitt describes the gap left in even the most democratic-aspiring governments between the people’s control of that government and the government’s enforcement of the laws it generates in the people’s name — space enough for a sovereign power to be necessary, particularly in times of “emergency,” to provide the decisive and almost extra-legal force which parliamentary or congressional powers could not adequately provide. This Hobbesian view of a necessary sovereign can be left behind while finding value in his description of what that sovereign depends on for power: contingent (and thus, constantly needing to be renewed) emergency powers; and an enemy. Schmitt believed the basic political distinction was “that between friend and enemy” (pg. 26), and that, in a state of emergency, a sovereign could (and, according to Schmitt, should) seize unlimited power in order to deal with the threat of an enemy. That is to say, the dictator depends on the existence of an enemy — real or imagined — for power.
Trump has pointed the finger at many “enemies” (those from without and, in McCarthy’s phrase, those “enemies” from within) during his campaign, and has managed to convince many Americans of the unstable (emergency) nature of our present situation. The danger of this cannot be overstated, nor can the political force of this kind of fear- and hate-mongering.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, compare the following statements made in response to “emergency” situations (the first, to the firebombing of the North Carolina GOP office, the second to the Reichstag fire of 1933):
Reason Seven: The System Is Rigged (but really)!
The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz has already written a great article on this: “Nine Ways the U.S. Voting System Is Rigged But Not Against Donald Trump”. It details many of the ways in which American elections skew the results in favor of Republicans, from Election Day not being a federal holiday, to voter registration, to various kinds of voter suppression including the fact that current and former victims of the prison-industrial complex are disenfranchised.
Many have pointed to the Electoral College in the past few days, since Clinton won the popular vote. If the College itself has a function, it is an antidemocratic one — if not (that is, if faithless electors would never overturn the winner), it’s irrelevant; either way, it should be abolished. But the Electoral College system of vote-allocation is also anti-democratic itself: it discourages people who don’t live in swing states from voting, where their vote could still contribute to a national, popular tally. It encourages non-participation, as does nearly every item on Schwarz’s list. (Keep this in mind the next time you’re tempted to castigate non-voters en masse.)
But good luck abolishing the Electoral College now. Democrats are barely able to fend off proposed constitutional amendments from the other side (a truly horrific thought), let alone gain support for one of their own:
In summary, the first few reasons for Clinton’s loss floating around right now (Comey, Russia, Wikileaks, “Bernie Bros” etc.) are unfounded and unconvincing, or in any case do not do nearly enough to explain the results and offer little in the way of guidance. The other factors will be discussed at length in Pt. 2 of this piece, which will undoubtedly be able to end on a happier note than this — I’ll take the explanations we’ve found to be satisfactory and see how we can act on those more useful lessons of 2016.