Where We Go From Here, Part 1: What Went Wrong?
Just about seventeen days ago, the 2016 presidential polls closed.
Since then, we’ve mourned the result — tacking between shocked stupor and resolve to act. We’re stuck somewhere between anger and depression, grittily resisting the complacency of acceptance.
How can we accept the celebration of American neo-Nazis; the appointment to positions of power figures like Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and Michael Flynn; the rampant conflicts of interest, spreading of misinformation, and unhinged and unsecured communication with foreign leaders by the soon-to-be most powerful man on earth?
[Ed: I began to write this post five days, ago; there’s a constitutional crisis’s worth of addenda I could add from just the short holiday week that’s passed. It’s too much to track — a Three Stooges Syndrome’s worth of galling corruption and bad judgment.]
Democrats in Congress and progressive advocacy institutions have responded full-throatedly, while everyday Americans are newly motivated to fight the many dangers of a Trump presidency.
As we decide how to best organize for the next four years — from deciding on leaders for the DNC and Democratic caucus in the House, to allocating our own time and resources in the fight to preserve American values and policy progress — there are a number of interlocking questions:
- How did this happen? Was Trump’s victory a failure of liberal policy or rhetoric? Was it “whitelash” against advances in equality, or backlash by the economically anxious who feel left behind by globalization? Was it Hillary Clinton’s fault, or Jim Comey’s? Robby Mook’s or Julian Assange’s?
- What do we owe the victors? If liberal elites, policymakers, and Democratic candidates have — over the last eight years or more — failed to hear the concerns of white working class voters who may be persuadable to our side, perhaps we can improve our electoral changes with empathy. If we understand Trump voters, can we win them over? What would that attempt at understanding unveil?
- How should the party adapt? Understanding why we lost and what we can learn from those who voted against us should help us generate a strategy on which to move forward. Do we abandon center-left incrementalism for populist revolution? Do we throw over Nancy Pelosi for Tim Ryan? Is “identity politics” a failed endeavor?
Over the next posts, I’ll grapple with these questions while trying to disentangle the threads.
First: What happened?
A Flawed Message
Hillary Clinton is winning a nearly unprecedented victory for the popular vote as a loser in the electoral college. Her vote margin, now over two million, is larger than Al Gore’s in 2000 — but also larger than JFK’s in 1960 and Nixon’s in 1968.
And yet she lost.
The takes have come hot and swiftly, sourcing the problem to the candidate’s inauthenticity as a progressive voice and the neglect of the concerns of the working class at the expense of narrow “identity politics.” (I’ll ignore the more peripheral theories that the election was hacked, or that third-party candidates did in the Democrats.)
Though Hillary won the popular vote and made substantial gains from 2012 in diverse (future) swing states like Arizona (+5.5 over Obama’s last margin of defeat), Georgia (+2.7%), and Texas (+6.7%), her losses in the Rust Belt midwest sealed the shocking upset.
She performed staggeringly worse than Obama in Ohio (-11%) and Iowa (-15.2%), and dropped significantly in the dispositive states of Pennsylvania (-6.6%), Michigan (-9.7%), and Wisconsin (-7.7%).
These are the states where the forgotten white voters live — the ones who are left out of the narrative of diversity and progress exemplified by Hillary’s identity politics, wracked by the weakening of labor and the rise of heroin.
When Mark Lilla rejected “identity politics” in his recent New York Times op-ed, these were the voters he was talking about:
The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns…
Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.”
If Lilla is right, then Democrats need a wholesale rehashing of their platform and their message.
They cannot support candidates with close ties to Wall Street who lack credibility on Main Street. They cannot foreground the fight for racial justice. They cannot focus on the protection of immigrants and gay Americans and Muslim-Americans and people with disabilities and women who need birth control and trans youth who need access to bathrooms that match their gender identity.
Hillary spoke passionately about her commitment to children and families; she spoke groundbreakingly about reproductive rights on the presidential debate stage; she featured disabled and undocumented and trans speakers at her convention; she made close cause with the Mothers of the Movement and Black Lives Matter. But this weaving of the American patchwork failed to cohere into a winning patchwork of American states.
Take labor — a key group that failed to come out for Hillary on 11/8:
Nationally, exit polls showed Clinton outperformed Trump among union households by only 8 percent — the smallest Democratic advantage since Walter Mondale’s fiasco of a campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1984. In 2012, President Barack Obama won union households by 18 percent. Clinton’s support was especially weak in crucial Midwestern states. Obama won Ohio in 2012, besting Romney in those households by 23 percentage points. Clinton actually lost Ohio’s union households to Trump by 9 points, according to exit polls.
This swing is perhaps the best exemplar of Hillary’s weakness, of the weakness of the current Democratic message.
These voters flocked to Donald Trump because he didn’t just acknowledge their anger — he was angry too. He was change, he was disruption, he was rejection of the system. He spoke to them.
It is what Bernie Sanders meant when he tweeted soon after the election: “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”
A Flawed Candidate
Stepping back with the benefit of two weeks’ reflection — and twenty years’ reflection as a cognizant American man — I think tend to think that the above narrative is bullshit.
The Democratic message wasn’t flawed — it was expansive, it was uplifting. The platform spoke directly to the concerns of labor and to communities wracked and ravaged by heroin, just as it spoke to the coalition of differently disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups that make up much of the Democratic party and the American citizenry. The platform, and the candidate, spoke to all of these concerns — but voters didn’t hear.
Voters didn’t respond to Trump’s anger. They didn’t seek his change. They don’t love him, not most of them — the ones who don’t show up to his rallies, who don’t don his red hats. No, the key swing voters broke for him because of negative partisanship — they voted for him in spite of their dislike, in spite of their discomfort.
They voted for Him because he wasn’t Her.
I interchangeably referred to the candidate and her platform in the section above, but this election requires detethering of the two. This election wasn’t a rejection of Democrats or of nuanced, intersectional Democratic ideals. It was a rejection of Hillary Clinton.
A Pew poll released just before the election confirmed this: while most Clinton voters said they were voting “for Hillary,” the majority of Trump voters said they were voting “against” her.
As even her innumerable newspaper endorsements took pains to say, Hillary Clinton is deeply flawed — but I doubted the extent of her flaws until very early on the morning of November 9th.
Let me be clear: her flaws have almost nothing to do with Her and everything to do with Us. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
I can hear you now. Stop being so maudlin, so self-satisfied. She made too many mistakes, was too scandal-ridden; was too narrow in her message, too broad in the states she targeted, too inattentive to the working class and too attentive to wealthy donors.
But the reality is that Hillary has been torn down for decades, and she battled not just Donald Trump this fall — but the FBI, the press, Russian hackers and Wikileaks, and generations of entrenched American misogyny.
She ran against all of that, and, still, she won two million more votes.
Even where Hillary lost ground from Obama, the total margins were slim: the difference between victory and defeat currently stands at 1.2% in Pennsylvania, 0.2% in Michigan, and 0.8% in Wisconsin. This was not a wholesale rejection of liberal incrementalism, of the gains of the Obama years, or even of the exhaustive policy papers on Hillary’s website.
I have two relatives who voted for Donald Trump (that I know of), one in Arizona and one in Florida, with over fifty years in age between them. They did not celebrate Trump’s win as a win for the white working class — they celebrated the rejection of the corrupt criminal and the arrogant bitch they know Hillary to be. It’s a small sample size, but there are many others like them.
In the 500 days leading up to the election, the decades-old narrative (paradoxical and thin and hilarious as it is) was hammered in again and again — by Bernie Sanders, by media coverage of the email scandal and Wikileaks hacks, by James Comey and the FBI.
It all took its toll: 21 percentage points off of Hillary’s favorability rating.
Take another key group that Hillary wasn’t able to fully secure: millennials:
Relative to 2012, Hillary Clinton did worse among millennials by a considerable amount. They turned out to vote in their usual numbers, but a lot of them abandoned Clinton for third-party candidates. All told, I’d say this cost Clinton about 5 percent of the millennial vote, which amounts to 1–2 percent of the total vote. Trump, meanwhile, did as well with millennials as Romney did in 2012.
Why? I realize we’re all supposed to move on from this, but I blame Bernie Sanders. He started out fine, but after his campaign took off and he realized he could actually win this thing, he turned harshly negative. Over and over, his audience of passionate millennials heard him trash Clinton as a corrupt, warmongering, corporate shill. After he lost, he endorsed Clinton only slowly and grudgingly, and by the time he started campaigning for her with any enthusiasm, it was too late.
Bernie Sanders didn’t invent the narrative of Clinton Corruption, but his success was as much a reflection of it as a reinforcer. Millennials have been hearing about everything wrong with Hillary Clinton — that she’s too left-wing, or a Republican in liberal clothing; that she’s a feminazi, or a Wall Street shill; that she’s too earnest, or too calculating — since they were in diapers.
It’s no wonder they found something just…off about her peddling of her lifelong progressivism. Intersectional as they are, they were drawn to the untainted message of a pure white man — a man who reiterated, constantly, the taints of his opponent’s compromises.
And of course it’s not just millennials. Voters of all ages just don’t like her.
The “just” does a lot of work here, of course, because it fills in so many blanks. It assures us that given all the smoke there must be fire.
A Flawed Media
And there sure was a lot of smoke.
The Russian “fake news” machine fed grist into the Crooked Hillary mill that Trump propped up and that so many Americans have so thoroughly internalized since the early 90s.
And in spite of our inattention to the Wikileaks story, the hacking into Hillary’s emails by a foreign power and dissemination of those emails — with their unobjectionable content then covered endlessly by a complicit media — is a massive, insane scandal:
In assessing Donald Trump’s presidential victory, Americans continue to look away from this election’s most alarming story: the successful effort by a hostile foreign power to manipulate public opinion before the vote.
U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the Russian government actively interfered in our elections. Russian state propaganda gave little doubt that this was done to support Republican nominee Trump, who repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin and excused the Russian president’s foreign aggression and domestic repression. Most significantly, U.S. intelligence agencies have affirmed that the Russian government directed the illegal hacking of private email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and prominent individuals. The emails were then released by WikiLeaks, which has benefited financially from a Russian state propaganda arm, used Russian operatives for security and made clear an intent to harm the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
From the Russian perspective, the success of this operation can hardly be overstated.
Even beyond Putin’s successful playing of the press, the media’s priorities didn’t seem to be in the right place all year long.
Let’s take the other email scandal.
(First, yes, of course, “the media” is a diverse ecosystem of people just doing their job. Still, the collective blindness to proportionality this cycle — and the decades-long coverage that merits international headlines when we’re told that, hey, she’s not so bad! — was deadly.)
Here was the New York Times homepage the day before the election:
Hours before the polls opened, and still the email (non)story led.
Even the Washington Post editorial board was sick of it by September. They had good reason to be: “during the convention weeks, the press spent eight percent of its time covering Clinton emails and half that amount of time covering all of Clinton’s policy positions,” according to a study covered in Salon.
Matt Ygelsias summed it up nicely in an early November Vox headline: “The real Clinton email scandal is that a bullshit story has dominated the campaign.”
It led, and her lead bled.
If there’s one thing 2016 has taught us definitively, it’s the no one can deny the gross asymmetry in how Hillary Clinton is viewed by the press. Where others are given the benefit of the doubt, Hillary is guilty until proven innocent. And, even then, she is surely guilty — why have there been so many trials if she isn’t guilty of something?
Paul Krugman captured the insanity about the Clinton Foundation:
Step back for a moment, and think about what that foundation is about. When Bill Clinton left office, he was a popular, globally respected figure. What should he have done with that reputation? Raising large sums for a charity that saves the lives of poor children sounds like a pretty reasonable, virtuous course of action. And the Clinton Foundation is, by all accounts, a big force for good in the world. For example, Charity Watch, an independent watchdog, gives it an “A” rating — better than the American Red Cross.
Now, any operation that raises and spends billions of dollars creates the potential for conflicts of interest. You could imagine the Clintons using the foundation as a slush fund to reward their friends, or, alternatively, Mrs. Clinton using her positions in public office to reward donors. So it was right and appropriate to investigate the foundation’s operations to see if there were any improper quid pro quos. As reporters like to say, the sheer size of the foundation “raises questions.”
But nobody seems willing to accept the answers to those questions, which are, very clearly, “no.”
And Brian Beutler at The New Republic wrote it again and again and again:
The Media Coverage of Hillary Clinton Is Out of Whack: The problem isn’t the scrutiny of her emails or the Clinton Foundation, but treating such sins as comparable to Donald Trump’s.
Why the Media Is Botching the Election: The “false balance” coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is all about the press’s self-interest.
Shame on Us, the American Media: The press blew this election, with potentially horrifying consequences.
I’m inclined to copy-paste his entire last piece, but I’ll constrain myself to a key passage. Beyond “unearthing and relaying of facts,” a “key component of journalism is the framing and contextualizing of events and new information”:
Here, major media outlets failed abysmally…On any given Sunday morning, network news shows host panels of journalists, nearly all of whom are fluent in the esoteric details of Clinton’s email practices, but many of whom couldn’t tell you how Trump’s tax plan works. As a result, if Trump were to win, millions of people would expect him to enact a populist agenda, even as his own campaign promises to raise taxes on millions of middle-income workers, privatize roads, and deregulate Wall Street.
The press failed in its coverage, or lack thereof, of the candidates’ proposals. (Remember Matt Lauer?)
But much more essentially, it provided the ammunition and permission structure to hate Hillary. It provided the intellectual framework within which the xenophobic, racist, know-nothing, dictator-loving, conspiracy-theorizing, serial sexual assaulter is palatable just because he isn’t Her.
A Flawed Country
It’s almost mind-boggling how well Hillary performed considering what she was up against. Yes, she had popular policies and well-prepared debate performances, a perfectly executed convention, a massive ad spend, robust ground game, and a team of all-star surrogates.
Indeed, her campaign was overwhelmingly impressive. In hindsight, of course, Robby Mook and John Podesta would have made different decisions — but at the time, there was no need. They thought they were winning.
Hillary’s mistake wasn’t a “screw up” in messaging — a speech unmade or a state unvisited. Her mistake was being Hillary Clinton.
Of course, it’s a mistake that no path-breaking first lady, senator, secretary of state, presidential candidate, and major party nominee could avoid. Because she’s the only one there is.
Her loss was about her, not him; and, really, it was about us. Donald Trump’s election victory was not a victory of the forgotten working class, not if you look at the data. The working class isn’t all white — and nonwhite and low-income voters chose her by large margins. No, Trump’s was was a victory of well-off white voters who have little reason to seek a populist swamp-drainer.
The average Trump voter is not poorly educated or unemployed, nor does he live in a rural area. Back in May, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver punctured the myth of the “working class” being Trump’s voter base: In exit polls of 23 states from the primaries, all showed a higher median income for Trump supporters than the national average, usually around $70,000. Exit polls last week, while not definitive, reveal that both college-educated white men and college educated white women voted for Trump by much higher than expected margins.
They broke late for Trump not because he’s well-liked — he won with an unfavorability rating of 60%. Hillary was better-liked overall, but what mattered was that the Republican leaners who disliked him held their noses and voted for him anyway.
Yes, there was a definitive late break away from Hillary, but the message of American promise and progress, of equality and tolerance, of diversity and inclusion, still resonates from Manchester to Maui.
But scourges span the country, too. And the key overlooked factor in this loss is the one that has been overlooked for generations in America, the factor Josh Barro was loathe to give full due: sexism.
Long before the Billy Bush tape, political scientists found that one of the strongest predictors of Trump support was — you guessed it — sexism:
We found that sexism was strongly and significantly correlated with support for Trump, even after accounting for party identification, ideology, authoritarianism and ethnocentrism. In fact, the impact of sexism was equivalent to the impact of ethnocentrism and much larger than the impact of authoritarianism.
No, not all Trump voters chant “lock her up” while wearing “Trump that Bitch” t-shirts — but nor do they seem to have balanced concern for the Clinton and Trump Foundations; for the sexual assaults the president-elect committed and for the ones his opponent “enabled”; for Hillary’s email hygiene and for Trump’s destruction of emails and unsecured communication with foreign leaders.
Sexism. It feels too facile. It’s not very thinkpiecey. But the shock in the end was how many white voters broke for Trump in spite of their aversion to him. What they shared was a deeper aversion to her.
Sure, speaking more to populist concerns can help future Democratic candidates — and I’ll discuss in the next two pieces of this post-mortem how we can do that — but to pretend that this election was a referendum and rejection of contemporary Democratic policies and liberal political philosophy is to miss the story.
A “better, more credibly populist” candidate would likely have the same policies and rhetoric as Hillary Clinton. He’d just be a different person.
But, finally, let’s rejoice about this: even in defeat, Hillary has absorbed the shit of American misogyny like a black hole absorbing light. Thanks to the work she’s done to normalize female power-holders and power-seekers, a future Democratic candidate may be able to win on the same platform — even one with a vagina.