When Will We Learn?
During this despair and anxiety-laden past week, I’ve returned to a Benjamin Franklin quote that my dad often referenced as I was growing up. “Experience is a dear teacher but fools will learn at no other.” Franklin’s point, and my dad’s, was that you should learn from the mistakes of others.
I’ve been thinking about Franklin’s quote while grappling with this monumental mistake America has made. The most immediate question in our periphery is how grievous the scope of the mistake will prove to be. Will Trump be Schwarzenegger, Berlusconi, or Mussolini? Will he only be a lame duck who brings on a recession and gets to decide one Supreme Court seat? Or, as I fear is more likely, will he enable the destruction of the environment, entangle us in messy global conflict, leave us vulnerable to a 9/11-level terrorist attack, inspire riots by stoking the embers of racial and sexual resentment, and reverse the progress made on human rights through multiple court appointments? He could blow it all up, destroy American democracy — not to mention American decency.
The prospect is sobering and the mood in my upper middle class, college-educated New York circles has been somber. “It feels like someone died,” I’ve heard a few people remark. I’ve also heard a few people say, “Well, let them feel the consequences of their actions. The people hit the hardest by this tragedy will be the people who voted for Trump — the people of Florida who will soon be under water, and the working people in the heartland who will yearn for the days when their finances and their jobs were as secure as they were in the Obama years, back when they had health insurance. They’ll have to learn the hard way.”
They’ll have to learn the hard way.
Here’s the problem: They will not learn.
They will not learn because they are fools. And fools, recent history has shown, not only don’t learn from others’ mistakes, they don’t learn from their own. These are the same fools who voted for George W. Bush — twice. The same thing was said before Bush’s second term. “Let them bear the costs of this war.” Well, they did. They fought that war. They lost their jobs in the recession. The Bush Tax Cuts didn’t trickle down. And now they have voted for a bigger buffoon, a more explicit bigot, a man who could not be a less artful or more well-documented con man. Donald Trump will screw over the most vulnerable people in this country, in much the same way he screwed over the students at Trump University, and then those same people will re-elect him. Some of them may briefly realize their mistake, but it will not last: they will elect Sarah Palin or Alex Jones in 2028.
Oh, and the Democratic party will let it happen. Because the Democratic party too is a party of fools. The last four candidates that the Democratic party has supported have been Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton — Obama was not the establishment’s first choice in 2008. Forget wanting to get a beer. Which of these people’s State of the Union would not, by comparison, make watching the polar ice caps’ melting seem like riveting television? Coalition building is part of governance, so is wonkery and experience — and there’s probably never been a candidate more equipped in those departments as Hillary Clinton — but does inspiration count for nothing?
To the Democratic establishment, apparently it does not. The Democratic party got what they wanted. They wanted Hillary Clinton to be the nominee. They’ve wanted it for eight years — this was Hillary’s turn — and they practically guaranteed it this time. No, there was not illicit fixing afoot. But there’s a reason Hillary only faced two challengers in the primary. And there’s a reason that the party, with assistance from the media, marginalized Bernie Sanders and his supporters as wild idealists, sexist Bernie Bros, Bernie as a kooky socialist. I can’t count how many times a middle-aged person, guzzling the Kool-Aid, said to me, “We can’t nominate him, America would never elect a socialist.” No, America doesn’t know enough about socialism to reject it. Americans, at least the Ken Bones of the world, don’t give a shit about policy because they don’t understand policy. Seventy percent of Americans acknowledge that climate change is occurring, and yet the nation just elected a candidate who unapologetically insists that climate change is a Chinese hoax. With enough charisma and conviction a candidate could sing the praises of anything and convince the American people that it is the salve to all of their problems — for many, by the way, socialism actually would be. America will only reject a socialist if the socialist hides, or sidesteps around the fact, that they are a socialist.
This was Hillary Clinton’s biggest problem, has always been Hillary Clinton’s biggest problem. She lacks the courage of her convictions. That’s not a judgement, it’s a fact. Maybe it’s because of the signals the world sends to powerful women, but Hillary, time and again, has confronted disagreement with defensiveness. Listen to her respond to Terry Gross in 2014 when Gross asked about her changing views on gay marriage. Think back to the first debate when she tepidly rejected the merits of NAFTA. A lot of people — James Comey and the media first and foremost — deserve blame for overblowing the significance of Hillary Clinton’s email ‘scandal’; but Hillary did herself no favors in issuing hedged apologies.
The Democratic party knew about Hillary’s likability issues. Hillary Clinton knew about her likability issues. She was the second most unfavorable candidate to ever run (behind only Trump), and the lack of public enthusiasm for her had to have been expected. The Democratic party, and Clinton herself, deserves a lot of blame here. Counterfactuals won’t yield any certainties. We don’t know if Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump or if a candidate who didn’t run, like Elizabeth Warren, would have beaten Trump. But Tuesday’s results suggest that each candidate would have fared better than Hillary — though she did win the popular vote (Oy!). Trump received fewer votes than John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, respectively. He was thoroughly beatable. Many Obama voters in key areas, though, stayed home. Would they have stayed home if the Democratic candidate had set forth a compelling vision of a better America rather than building a campaign on subtly attacking the opposition and defending their own warts? You decide.
I fear that the lesson the Democratic party will take away from 2016 will be that America wasn’t ready for a female president. They’ll throw their weight behind Martin O’Malley or Tim Kaine in 2020, and they will enable Fuckface Von Clownstick to serve eight years. Nobody wants to talk about elections now — America is justifiably burnt out from this long slog towards dystopia — but if we don’t talk about 2020 now, when it comes we will forget. Our hindsight will be distorted. Male or female, black, white or brown, the Democratic party must choose a galvanizing leader in 2020. Someone cut from the cloth of a Elizabeth Warren or Michelle Obama (if not them themselves). A Strong, confident leader who will elicit pathos rather than apathy, who will counter the Breitbart Right’s outward hate and ignorance with love and reason.
To ensure that this happens, we, inclusive millennials, must learn from our own mistakes. If you or someone you know was not able to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary because of a state’s convoluted party registration rules, do not repeat the mistake. As tempting as it is to eschew labels and erect a veneer of open-mindedness, to remain independent is to voluntarily have less of a say. Register as a Democrat today. It need not be out of kinship with the party, but out of purpose. One side has chosen to unite behind hatred, pseudoscience and fear. If we do not join under one party and resolve to actively oppose those forces, we will not have a say. We will be left with more milquetoast candidates who do not speak for us.
Our parents’ generation has done irreparable damage to the world. The planet will not forgive their blunders — and make no mistake, they are more so their blunders than our own. But blame will do us no good. We must resolve to take action — by protesting injustice, by voting, by making elimination of the electoral college and strict environmental regulation pivotal issues in 2020. We must resolve to not repeat our own mistakes. And we must resolve to not repeat the mistakes of our fathers by heeding the advice of one of our wisest forefathers; otherwise, we too will be fools and the country will sink if it does not first burn.