What Democrats should learn from 2016

Shortly after the election, David Roberts of Vox published an analysis of the words most commonly appearing in Hillary Clinton’s speeches. Rebutting the then-common argument that her loss (despite her victory) was linked to the Left’s so-called obsession with “identity politics,” Roberts found that “identity politics” was almost nowhere in the words that Clinton actually uttered. Instead, the focus of Clintons language was economics. Here’s Roberts’ graph:

David Roberts for Vox

Despite her best efforts, however, her actual words were not what the public heard. Instead, citing Gallup, Roberts demonstrates quite effectively that the message received was quite different. As he summarizes the data:

Virtually everything the media said about Clinton was about corruption, one way or another. None of it was about policy. None of it was about her actual priorities, as reflected in her speeches and her agenda.

There are two ways to read this certainly-factually-correct statement. One is as a criticism of “the media.” (As if their job is simply to parrot what the candidates say and they did a bad job of that with Clinton.) The other is as a criticism of the Clinton campaign. And because I fear that we on the Left (like they on the Right) are so obsessed with blaming our problems on “the media,” let me offer yet another pitch for why, regardless of what you think of “the media,” we should understand this statement as a criticism of Clinton — or more precisely, of her campaign.

The context for this yet-another-pitch is an extraordinary report published just after the election by the Voice of the People project: Voter Anger With Government and the 2016 Election (pdf). Drawing on an extensive survey of close to 2,500 voters, the study shows that the single, central issue that united Democrats and Republicans in this election was the one issue that had nothing to do with Clinton’s “actual priorities, as reflected in her speeches and her agenda” — the corruption of our government. As VOP summarized the study, the survey

conducted in the midst of the election finds that Trump’s victory was buoyed by a broad-based, nearly universal crisis of confidence in how the federal government makes decisions.
The central critique voters express is not about policy or ideology: it is that government ignores the people — both their interests and their views — in favor of special interests, campaign donors, and their parties. Among Trump supporters, these views are especially intense.

VOP found that 9 in 10 voters agree with the statement “Elected officials think more about the interests of their campaign donors than the common good of the people.” That is, VOP concludes, a “profound dissatisfaction with government” that has “reached new heights” in America.

Asked whether government ‘is run for the benefit of all the people’ or is ‘pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves’ in the 1960s only a minority said that it was run by big interests. In recent years this number has risen to eight-in-ten. In the current study this leapt to an unprecedented 92 percent. Among angry Trump supporters, 99 percent said the government is run for big interests, rather than the people.

If VOP is right—and after a decade on the road talking about this issue, their survey certainly confirms my own impression about the attitudes of the Americans I’ve spoken to—then what “the media” was talking about was precisely what Americans were caring about. And if that’s true, then what’s striking—indeed, malpractice-level-striking—about the Clinton campaign was its studied refusal to engaged about an issue so central to Americans. Her platform was fine — indeed, as I had commented, great—on the issue. But America had no clue about the platform, because Clinton had left the field to Donald Trump. He in turn picked up the ball (“drain the swamp”) and ran. And thus, while, as the New York Times reported, Clinton dominated Trump on every policy-wonk dimension, Trump dominated Clinton on the one dimension that was actually linked to this “unprecedented” public anger — the likelihood of being an agent of change.

What’s so frustrating about this fact, of course, is that had she taken him on, Clinton should have been able to blow Trump out of the water. Trump attacked Jeb Bush because of the conflicts of interest created by SuperPACs. But what about the conflicts created by billion-dollar enterprises strewn across foreign lands? Or hundreds of million dollars in debt to foreign banks? A million dollar contribution to a SuperPAC causes concern, no doubt, but millions in debt to German or Chinese banks does not?

Trump talked again and again about the corrupting influence of money in politics, but, unlike Clinton, never once did he identify a single solution to that problem. Clinton had endorsed (and indeed, before Bernie Sanders) the one reform that could actually change the corrupting influence of money in Congress — the public funding of congressional elections. But of course, only policy wonks knew about that. From Clinton herself, any fight against “corruption” was totally invisible.

As I’ve written, maybe it had to be this way. Maybe the campaign did extensive focus group testing on an anti-corruption message. Maybe they determined there was just now way she could get above it, and use it to her advantage. Maybe it was impossible for her to pull a Johnson. If that’s true, I’m eager to read the story that retells that internal campaign struggle.

But if it is true, it again shows the cluelessness of the Democrats—because this weakness about Clinton has been obvious from the start. From before the beginning of this campaign, there was a loud and organized movement of people insisting that Americans were furious about corruption, and would elect candidates who would do something about it — at least if it seemed plausible that they could do something about it. This was the message of EveryVoice, Represent.US, Mayday.US, Rootstrikers.org. Here’s just one example of Robert Reich making the point that so many others had made as well:

The most powerful force in American politics today is anti-establishment fury at a system rigged by big corporations, Wall Street, and the super-wealthy.
This is a big reason why Donald Trump won the Republican nomination. It’s also why Bernie Sanders took 22 states in the Democratic primaries, including a majority of Democratic primary voters under age 45.
There are no longer “moderates.” There’s no longer a “center.” There’s authoritarian populism (Trump) or democratic populism (which had beenBernie’s “political revolution,” and is now up for grabs). …
If Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party don’t recognize this realignment, they’re in for a rude shock — as, I’m afraid, is the nation. Because Donald Trump does recognize it. His authoritarian (“I’ am your voice”) populism is premised on it.

Yet from the leadership of the Democratic party, there was only ever denial. Nancy Pelosi famously took to the Jon Stewart stage, to deny that the system was corrupt.

“There are corrupt people in the system,” she insisted. They just happened to be Republicans.

It is time for truth and reconciliation within the Democratic Party. There are inspiring young leaders in that party who see how central this issue is to Americans—John Sarbanes, most prominently. It is time for the party to acknowledge that their own reformers were right, and their leaders were not.

The only argument I ever heard for why embracing reform as central was a mistake for the party was that “the people don’t care about corruption.” The was the party line. That line, in part at least, helped sink the party.