Tensions have been high since Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the Presidential Election in November. People are coping in a number of ways. Denial, anger, bargaining have all been present in the public discourse.
But it is time to move forward. The Trump Administration is preparing for the transfer of power and, just as importantly, narratives are being set that will carry us forward to the mid-term elections and to our collision with Trump in 2020. In the meantime, tens of thousands of local and state elections will take place throughout the country each year.
Charting a course forward necessarily involves a post-mortem on the campaign of the Democratic nominee and the choices of the Democratic elite and the Democratic National Committee. It’s not “sour grapes,” or “crying over spilled milk,” as I’ve heard from both Clinton and Trump supporters. It’s not about Bernie Sanders or any other individual in the political establishment. It is about how we learn and move forward together as a party.
Naomi Klein wrote in the New York Times the other day, “Trump Defeated Clinton, Not Women.” In it, Klein explains the importance of the narrative:
[Blaming sexism] lets her machine and her failed policies off the hook. It erases the role played by the appetite for endless war and the comfort with market-friendly incremental change, no matter the urgency of the crisis (from climate change to police violence to raging inequality). It erases the disgust over Mrs. Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street and with the wreckage left behind by trade deals that benefited corporations at the expense of workers . . . And that is the surest way to ensure that the Democratic Party’s disastrous 2016 mistakes will be repeated — only next time, with a man at the top of the ticket.
The Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and other members of the political elite all played an active role in losing the 2016 Presidential Election to the most-hated Presidential candidate of all time. It takes a number of things to break the wrong way to lose to a racist, xenophobic, sexist, political novice, especially when you have the superior political infrastructure and outspend that opponent by almost three-to-one. Unfortunately, the Democrats (1) ran a candidate that was also historically disliked (for various reasons), and (2) ran a campaign which seemed to intentionally disregard the concerns of working class voters in Swing States.
Yes, Clinton won more popular votes than any Presidential nominee in history aside from Barack Obama. But her 64,641,150 popular votes amount to only 25.7% of the voting age population — a figure which is the lowest of any Presidential Candidate since 2000 (Obama 2x, Romney, McCain, Gore and Bush all exceeded 25.7%). Her turnout rate was ordinary, at best, only superior to that of Trump.
We must be honest and admit why we lost, and then we must take action. That action involves purging the out-of-touch elites in the Democratic Party, it involves refocusing the party platform and priorities on issues that matter to working class people, and it involves rejecting identity politics in favor of a broad, inclusive coalition.
1. Hillary Clinton Lost Because of Hillary Clinton and the Type of Campaign She Chose to Run, Not Because of External Factors
Immediately after the election ended, Hillary Clinton blamed her loss on the intervention of FBI Director James Comey. But there have been no shortage of other excuses as well. You may have heard people blame the primary challenge from Bernie Sanders, Russian intervention, Voter ID Laws, sexism, biased media coverage … the list goes on. The only thing that these excuses have in common is that they have no merit. And even if they did have merit, they no longer matter as we attempt to move forward.
Ultimately, however, it shaped up to be a very close race, but a winnable one for Hillary Clinton. The popular vote currently stands at 48.0% to 46.6% in favor of Clinton, so the polls were correct that Clinton would win the popular vote. However in the weeks after the final debate and before the election, Clinton was losing ground.
The day before the election, FiveThirtyEight displayed the average of the most recent polls at 48.5% to 44.9% in favor of Clinton, but with an 80% confidence band that overlapped almost completely. Those blaming the Comey Letter (ok, the Daily Kos) point to the following:
But they purposely ignore the bulk of voters who decided prior to the last week and who went overwhelmingly for Trump:
Comey’s second letter wasn’t released until October 28, far too late to influence these figures. His first involvement in the campaign was on July 5th, when he stated that the FBI was not filing criminal charges against Clinton. Clinton won voters who decided before September by a whopping margin of 52-45. As for the polls we do have, it appears they were not influenced.
Those blaming Clinton’s failure on the Bernie Sanders primary challenge are equally off-base, as the coalitions that tended to support Bernie showed up for Clinton.
Bernie’s primary challenge to Clinton was perfectly normal. Overall, the demographic groups that voted for Sanders did show up to the polls and they did go for Clinton, just not in the same numbers as they did for Obama in the elections before.
You’ll notice, of course, that Trump did not do better than Romney — it’s just that Clinton did worse than Obama. Clinton won 18-24 year olds, 25-29 year olds, and 30-39 year olds by comfortable margins. In fact, more people aged 18-44 turned out for the general election (44%) than they did for the Democratic primaries in Massachussetts (42%), Wisconsin (43%), or Pennsylvania (36%) when enthusiasm was purportedly so high.
Blaming the Sanders primary challenge defies all logic. Sanders ran the cleanest possible Primary (remember, “people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails?”) even when Clinton attacked him personally (who can forget when Clinton blamed Sandy Hook on Bernie Sanders and Vermont’s gun laws?). Every general election candidate endures a primary.
I am belaboring the point, but only because it matters. If you ignore the facts, if you ignore the data, and if you deal in emotion and excuses, then you can not move forward with the urgency necessary to fix this.
2. The DNC/Hillary Clinton Disregarded the Concerns of Working Class Voters in Swing States and it Cost Them the Election
Now we can talk about why she did lose. It’s very simple. This is a map of counties that went for Obama in 2012 that went for Trump in 2016.
That’s the election in a nutshell, as she lost six states that voted *twice* for the first Black President: Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio.
The Clinton campaign strategy, if you could call it that, was foolish from the get-go, as it was demographically ill-suited to win in Swing States. She ran up the score in states that didn’t matter to the Electoral College (California, New York) or closed the gap in states that would not flip Democratic (Texas). In the states that mattered, she got fewer votes than Obama (Ohio, Pennsylvania) or didn’t match population growth (Florida).
Sam Stein of the Huffington Post wrote a great article called “The Clinton Campaign Was Undone By Its Own Neglect And A Touch Of Arrogance, Staffers Say,” in which he details the many failings of the campaign, including (1) how it had one-tenth the paid canvasser capacity in Michigan that John Kerry had when he ran for president in 2004; (2) how the campaign refused requests from operatives in Wisconsin for more funds; (3) how Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Michele Obama never set foot in or near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and (4) how the Democratic nominee’s risk-averse style led her to make only 87 appearances in the final 100 days while Donald Trump made 133, content to play defense and protect a lead that, it turns out, was illusory.
Instead, the campaign focused itself on identity politics and on a battle of personalities between Clinton and Trump. The main thrust of DNC/Clinton advertising completely surrendered her personal high ground (experience, competence, tenacity) and the popular elements of the Democratic Platform (minimum wage, jobs, healthcare) in favor of pleas almost exclusively aimed at the Obama Coalition and/or shots at Trump’s fitness to lead (a factor that was proven to be nearly irrelevant to many who voted for him). These strategies, in addition to her focus on “breaking the glass ceiling,” were often taken despite objective evidence that they were ineffective strategies:
Clinton’s major televisions focused primarily, if not overwhelmingly, on things Donald Trump said, best demonstrated by spots with tag lines like “Our Children Are Listening,” “Mirrors,” and “Low Standards”. The LA Times called it an election about “which candidate has said worse things about American voters.” Meanwhile, Clinton called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.”
Focusing on identity politics can’t win you an election, but it can lose you one, wrote Mark Lilla, a political scientist and professor at Columbia University:
[T]he fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. (NYT)
Liberalism has become a race-to-the-bottom. It is no longer quite so much about progressivism and the crafting of a More Perfect Union for us and our neighbors. Instead, it has become a beauty contest, a marker of our own worth. If you’re not the most progressive, you are bad and/or stupid. Lilla explains:
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. . . 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.
Clinton focused on identity politics in favor of minority groups, and she eschewed the actual, real-life concerns of the vast majority of voters in the Swing States that she needed to win. Almost any other campaign delivers Clinton a victory.
3. The Democratic Party Must Return To Its Roots as the Party of the People and of Workers and of Families
Winning elections is quite simple. First, get the people who are members of your party and who are normally active to actually to turn out and vote. Second, appeal to independents and to people in your party who do not typically vote. And third, don’t do anything to help your opponent to get out the vote.
This election, like all elections, was about the economy, with 52% of exit poll respondents listing the economy as their #1 issue. That figure may be even larger in areas facing deeper economic recession, like the Swing States (discussed below). Although Clinton won among those who listed the economy as the most important issue, she did not win by enough.
It also goes without saying that this was also a change election (discussed below). It’s not good enough to say that a candidate should simply stand for change for the sake of change, but it is clear that many of the people who turned out to the polls were so desperate for a little hope and change that they were willing to take the wild card over business as usual.
In fact, exit polls revealed that the voters as a whole were in alignment with Democratic policies rather than Republican and/or Trump policies. Among those who responded, 54% opposed a wall along the entire Mexican border. 70% thought that illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered legal status. More people than not agreed that the justice system is unfair to people of color. 53% approved of the job Barack Obama did as President.
At the end of the day, however, although people may care about justice for strangers, or a wall far away, they care most about their families and about their future. People may want to vote for the first female President, but you can’t feed your family shards of a glass ceiling. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania have all been struggling. Consumers in Michigan are worse off now than they were in 2000. Wisconsin had the single largest decline of the middle class of any state, with a staggering 14% decline in median household income.
In June 2016, Bernie Sanders held a Town Hall in New York City and gave a speech entitled Where We Go From Here. I was lucky enough to attend and meet him. At the time, Sanders was being attacked by vicious partisans for not withdrawing from the race soon enough, although he was on his way to helping craft the Democratic Platform and officially endorse Clinton and help her get elected. As always, Sanders kept the focus of his speech the same as his campaign — how to make things better for working class Americans. A month later, he did the same thing in his speech at the Democratic National Convention:
This election is about which candidate understands the real problems facing this country and has offered real solutions. Not just bombast, not just fear-mongering, not just name-calling and divisiveness. We need leadership in this country, which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. We need leadership which brings our people together and makes us stronger.
How many times during this campaign did you hear either candidate mention anything which would improve the lives of working families, children, the sick or the poor? (Here’s another link to an article discussing Clinton’s ads, including her final ad)
Clinton’s final 2 minute ad features her saying “I,” “me,” or “my” 17 times. In the first fifteen seconds, she asks: “Is America dark and divisive? Or hopeful and inclusive?” It is emblematic of an election in which both candidates ignored the issues and hurled insults at each other at an unprecedented rate.
Sanders had a post-mortem of his own a few days after the election. He re-used his old title, calling it, “Where The Democrats Go From Here.” In it, once again, you hear the voice of a man whose entire focus has always been relentlessly on the issues that matter to the people.
Working families watch as politicians get campaign financial support from billionaires and corporate interests — and then ignore the needs of ordinary Americans. Over the last 30 years, too many Americans were sold out by their corporate bosses. They work longer hours for lower wages as they see decent paying jobs go to China, Mexico or some other low-wage country. They are tired of having chief executives make 300 times what they do, while 52 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent.
So indeed, where do we go from here?
The Democrats must return to their roots and represent the people. This is not to say that Democrats should stop advocating on behalf of marginalized groups, or the LGBT community, or women — as you can see from the Exit Polling above that those things are not mutually exclusive with concern about the economy, or understanding the day-to-day of Americans who live in homogenized areas. So here are the steps I suggest.
- Never ever lose your sense of outage.
- Stop insulting, disregarding, and patronizing people who are not Democrats, liberals, or progressives.
- Leave identity politics behind and focus on the issues that matter to all Americans.
- Continue to fight for a fairer, safer, more equal country.
- Fight back and stop surrendering the rhetorical battles (it is not just conservatives who “love America” or “protect the Constitution)
The political revolution must continue. We, the People, must purge the old and out of touch political elite who allowed our nominee to run a campaign that resonated with so few people outside of the liberal echo chambers of the East and West Coast and the cities.
We the People must not allow the powers that be, the entrenched political interests and the corporate media, to make excuses for themselves, to blame Comey, to blame luck, to blame racism, or to blame sexism, for a campaign that lost because democracy gets the last word.
We the People must take back the Governorships (there are only 18 Democratic governors) and State Legislatures (there are only 12 Democratic legislatures and 7 splits) in addition to the House of Representatives and the Senate.
We the People must stop putting other people into categories — “the Latino vote” or “the Woman vote” or “the Gay vote” because the most pressing issues of our time apply to all groups equally. When you speak to a group, you exclude all others. Latinos are blue collar workers. Women are gay. Gays are Republicans.
We the People must purge the party of the corruption that is wrought by money, special interest, and consultants — because everything I said above is obvious to regular people on both sides of the political spectrum, but somehow not obvious to those inside the Beltway.
4. The Trump Victory is Not Just a Rejection of Clinton’s Campaign, But Part of a Fundamental Paradigm Shift
The above is why the message of Bernie Sanders resonated so much with voters, especially in the Rust Belt, where he defeated Hillary Clinton in both Wisconsin and in Michigan. That is why voters flocked to Bernie Sanders once they got to know him, despite the fact that the corporate media gave him no airtime and didn’t take him seriously.
That is why the main obstacle to people voting for Bernie Sanders was simply knowing enough about Bernie Sanders to make a judgment on him for themselves.
This is not to say that the Democratic Party needs to go drastically to the left, or embrace Democratic Socialism — it is to say that the Democratic Party needs to embrace candidates who speak truth to power, who take on special interests, and to make regular people feel like he or she is working for them instead of the special interests.
None of this is to relitigate the Democratic Primary, as I am sure critics of this piece will suggest. This is simply to say that the flaws in the DNC/Clinton strategy in the election were apparent, and not the function of hindsight. This is true even though Clinton earned more popular votes than Trump, and it would still be true even if Clinton had won the election.
Benjamin Studebaker, an expert in economic inequality and democratic theory receiving his PhD at the University of Cambridge, had this to say about the election results:
Politics in western democracies has been going through a period of ideological paradigm shift. The neoliberal economic model, introduced in the 70s and 80s as a response to stagflation, produced a severe economic crisis in 2008 and western economies have struggled to recover. Growth rates have been sluggish, wage growth has been sluggish, and the result is that people have lost confidence in this economic model and in the political class which continues to defend it.
Studebaker (and many others, myself included) identified this election as one of the last, if not the last, of the string of consecutive elections in which a traditional neoliberal centrist politician would win. In February, I questioned whether it mattered that Marco Rubio was emerging as the strongest “mainstream” Republican candidate (it didn’t). Studebaker wrote about it in the primary, but two of his more recent articles are also great:”The False Dichotomy Between Economics and Racism” and “How We Let the Orange Monster Win.“
People have begun to identify the source of their pain, and the embodiments of their rejection of the last 30 years of politics were embodied in Donald Trump (a right nationalist) and Bernie Sanders (a left egalitarian). Not only are the overall economies in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania mostly worse than they were in 2000, most of the gains since the recession “ended” in 2009 have gone to the top 1%. In Ohio, the top 1% gained 17.3% while the rest only gained 3.9%. In Michigan, the top gained 26.3% while the rest only gained 0.3%.
Income inequality is not a new story — it may be one of the oldest stories — but voters were clearly prepared in this election to reject the status quo and the people who have enabled it.
* * *
Wages have stagnated, and jobs have left the United States. The cost of housing has increased to unsustainable levels. Parents can’t afford childcare. Young people are being saddled with student loan debts that burden them (and the economies they participate in) for decades. Too many people cannot afford health insurance and are in danger of losing their plans. There is an opioid epidemic that silently takes the lives of more people each year (28,000) than murder (11,700) or suicide (21,175). Teachers have to spend their own money to buy children school supplies. State and local governments around the country resist police body cameras, restrict voting rights, and infringe on a woman’s right to choose.
We should be outraged that there are 2.5 million homeless children in America while individuals like Donald Trump don’t pay a penny in federal income taxes. We should be outraged that the average CEO makes more than 300 times more than the average worker when that same figure was 20 in 1965. We should be outraged that the financial crisis was put upon the backs of ordinary taxpayers while CEOs retained their gaudy salaries and bonuses.
We should be most outraged that a winnable election was lost. We should be outraged that the people responsible for that loss (primarily the higher-ups in the DNC like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Donna Brazile) are suffering no consequences and, in fact, have been rewarded. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and every one of these things, all of this human suffering, is the function of choices we have actively made. Every. Single. One.
The political revolution must continue. We will have to be courageous. It will not be easy, but it must move forward, in local elections, in state elections, and in Federal elections. It must move forward as candidates young and old, rich and poor, black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, men, women, transgender band together and say enough is enough.
When the people stand together, there is nothing we cannot do. This is the same country that defeated the British Empire to gain our independence; that endured a Civil War; that preserved the splendor of this beautiful country for our children and their children; that helped win the War to End All Wars; that persevered through the Great Depression; that gave the American people a New Deal that included Social Security and Medicare; that defeated the Nazis; that has been a beacon for freedom and democracy that has helped to mold the world.
Along the way in our experiment in democracy we have had huge bursts of progress as well as set-backs. We have tried things that have failed and we have gotten around to other things far too late. But, ultimately, the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, and we must always battle to close that gap.
“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1932.
We must, and we will, convert retreat into advance. We cannot fear-monger, but we must battle Donald Trump on the issues at every turn. We must stand together with marginalized communities and, at the same time, must prove to the middle class that we are the party that is fighting for them. I hope that you join me.