Why she lost
In the midst of the revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, there’s been a resurgence of articles written on why Hillary Clinton lost the election. One of the themes that has been recycled has been the blame on Bernie Sanders and his supporters. As someone who supported Sanders in the primary, but voted for Clinton in the general (and donated to her campaign), I’m more than a little annoyed about this continued blame on Sanders, “Bernie bros”, and all of us feminists who somehow just weren’t smart enough to understand Hillary. I won’t deny that there were some “never Hillary” folks, but the vast majority of Bernie supporters that I know voted for Clinton in the general election, and on our behalf, I ask that the Bernie bashers stop, do a little self-reflecting, and that we move on together to try to rebuild the Democratic party.
There are a variety of reasons why Clinton was defeated in the general election: the antiquated electoral college, the ever evolving saga of Russian interference, Comey’s untimely investigation announcement, and outright sexism were most certainly important factors. But if we are ever going to get a Democrat in the White House again, if we are going to fight this assault on our democracy that is the Trump presidency, if we are going to reclaim the almost 1,00o seats at the federal and state levels that were lost over the past eight years, then we as Democrats and progressives need to face some inconvenient truths.
The first inconvenient truth that we need to face is that we suck at messaging. For far too long, the language of our civic debate has been framed by conservatives, and we play defense instead of offense. Some examples of how we could change the language include using the terms “gun safety” rather than “gun control”, “anti-choice” rather than “pro-life”, and “marriage equality” or “freedom to marry” rather than “gay marriage”. Changes like these allow us to frame the debate on our terms rather than theirs. If we want to win the debate, then we need to use language in a powerful and meaningful way. George Lakoff’s work is an excellent resource for learning more about this.
The second inconvenient truth is a tough one to swallow, but we need to face it now, and choose our candidates going forward bearing this in mind. Personality matters. It matters a whole lot. If you look at our presidential elections, we’ve run the gamut on political ideology, but the common factor in our two term presidents is their strong personalities and ability to engage voters. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were both charismatic, George W. Bush was the guy that people wanted to have a beer with, and Barack Obama channeled Abraham Lincoln with his rhetorical ability. When I think of the highly qualified nominees that the Democratic Party has put forth who lost (Gore, Kerry, Hillary Clinton), I believe that it came down to messaging, language, and a struggle to engage voters through these tools.
Now, I’ll be honest. It’s distressing to me that we have an apathetic, under informed, disengaged electorate that votes based on superficial factors. Donald Trump’s victory is the ultimate proof that it actually doesn’t matter what someone says, as long as it’s said with inflection. (Yes, I’m referencing Blues Traveler’s “Hook” here, and damn proud of it). But as we’ve witnessed over the past year, this problem is not uniquely American (though the voter apathy is). We’ve seen this play out in global elections and the Brexit vote. People are willing to vote against their own best interests if the message is packaged with the right language and a charismatic messenger.
So, progressive friends, we can be pissed off about the misogyny, the Russian interference, the Bernie folks who didn’t get on board. I am pissed about those things. What I’m most pissed off about is that I have to live in a country where Donald Trump is president. I am so pissed that I am willing to take a hard look at how our actions as a party played into that, so we can at long last begin to mount a credible, passionate, fierce offense against those who have perfected messaging and language. And if you want to win, you should do it too.