I – Why Hillary Lost
Although I’m sure it pains many to hear it, the key reason Clinton lost was simply that she was a weak candidate. Weaker, perhaps, than any other candidate in modern memory – aside from Trump. Prior to 2016, no major party candidate walked into the election with negative favorability. That Democrats would nominate such a candidate is unprecedented.
The proof is in the pudding: no candidate should have been close to losing to Donald Trump. He did everything imaginable to alienate, embarrass, or offend just about everyone. Clinton, in contrast, had the entire entertainment and journalism industries actively supporting her, not to mention the establishment (of both parties!) and ridiculous PAC and fundraising advantage.
This weakness has multiple causes, of which I name only a few:
- Her chronic calculation. The Clintons’ governing strategy is to follow whatever holds public support at the time. That approach likely emerged as a “lesson learned” in Bill’s first midterm election. For his first two years, ’93-’94, Bill attempted to use his political capital on a broadly Leftist agenda, successfully passing the so-called Assault Weapons Ban while leaving Hillary to design a takeover of the health care system. These resulted in a swift right-wing backlash; after being decimated by Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Bill’s approach became more moderate. Unfortunately, it also taught both Clintons to be calculating in their support for particular policies, changing positions when politically expedient. Hillary’s “evolution” on gay marriage is a case in point. This fairweather friendship spoke to a perception that she was prepared to abandon supporters as soon as the wind turned, leaving her with a massive enthusiasm gap.
- Her fundamental untrustworthiness. Over time, her mercenary attitude metastasized, finally giving rise to e.g. her Goldman Sachs speeches, wherein she reassured investment bankers (hardly a sympathetic group!) that she didn’t really mean all of her radical-left rhetoric about closing off trade and freezing labor markets. Claiming, quite correctly, that “no one wants to see how the sausage is made,” she professed that a politician needed to have “public” and “private” positions. Some looked favorably on this candor, recognizing that the right policies are not always the popular ones. But most voters probably recoiled at the hypocrisy of championing democracy as a political system while showing utter disdain for their priorities.
- Hillary was seen as corruption incarnate. The Clintons’ original wealth came largely from questionable business dealings including predatory lease-to-own lending and (unproven) insider trading. When Bill was Governor, her law firm had close ties with the government of Arkansas; although not definitively proven, many expressed concern decades ago that they were padding their bank accounts with taxpayer money. When put in charge of Bill’s abortive health care reform, Hillary operated in secret, making backroom deals with insurers and pharmaceutical companies, writing in provisions that would give them captive markets. As a Senator, through the present, she cultivated close ties with Big Finance (which bankrolled her campaign). As Secretary of State, she approved deals – including weapons shipments to marginal “allies” like Saudi Arabia – coincident with massive foreign state donations to the Clinton Foundation. The Clinton Foundation itself has been accused of improper ties to business interests, serving as a mechanism to enrich wealthy supporters via lucrative contracts, while also providing lavish salaries to Clinton family members. Moreover, the Clintons famously maintain an “enemies” list that catalogues every petty offense or tribute given to the Clintons, allowing them to retaliate (or reciprocate) when given an opportunity. Her career has been marked by peddling influence and punishing dissent.
- She was the establishment darling. People may not like to admit it, but the American system is built on a culture of insurrection dating back to the Magna Carta. The fact that cultural elites ranging from media corporations to a sitting President supported her was no credit to her campaign. Americans love rebels, outsiders, scrappy underdogs. Clinton is anything but.
- Establishment support led Clinton and her supporters to see her as The Anointed One, who would take over Obama’s unfinished work and carry on his legacy. The mentality that any person is entitled, as a matter of right, to the world’s highest office is repugnant to a meritocratic culture – whether or not that person did indeed have the requisite merit. This further fed perceptions of corruption, as the Democratic Party establishment used every dirty trick and procedural maneuver possible to hand her the nomination.
- Clinton had no vision, and promised explicitly to be Obama’s Third Term. While many voters were undoubtedly reassured by that promise, for many others it exposed how insensitive Clinton was likely to be toward issues facing most of the country, particularly common people. While she and her supporters waxed on about abstractions like climate change and Citizens United, people in the Heartland, Rust Belt, and Deep South saw her systematically ignoring or dismissing the concerns closest to them.
The media, ironically, largely created Trump. Revelations from WikiLeaks revealed the Clinton campaign’s so-called “Pied Piper” strategy, wherein they would attempt to secure a victory by elevating Trump as the Republican standard-bearer, so that Clinton would face off against a straw man in the general election. This was a complete strategic failure. While it was successful at separating Trump from the Republican establishment (Rubio), libertarian wing (Paul), and arch-conservatives (Cruz), it also gifted him with an estimated $3 billion in free publicity. Both media corporations and rank-and-file Leftists failed to appreciate that every viral story about Trump’s latest offense merely thrust him into the public spotlight more, exposing voters to his message (which, recall, included that Leftists were conspiring to delegitimize him) and giving it credence.
And the conspiracy component did have credence. For one, a large fraction of his most offensive statements were grossly misreported. As Reason Magazine noted, reporting on Trump was marked by “absurd disingenuous literalness.” When he mentioned the high incidence of crime, drug trafficking, and rape among border-crossers – confirmed by organizations such as Amnesty International! – media outlets seized on the opportunity to brand Trump a raging racist by reinterpreting “they’re rapists” as referring to Mexicans generally. Similar instances applied to every group he offended. Comments about the economics of hiring women (who would potentially claim maternity leave and other benefits) were cast as “women shouldn’t be allowed to work.” His statements to veterans in support of expanding funding for PTSD and other mental illnesses were taken as him calling veterans “weak.”
The trouble is that while many criticisms leveled against Trump may be accurate, the reporting on them was clearly biased, finding “smoking guns” in every statement. It only takes someone watching the full context once to completely discredit a media outlet’s reporting on a subject.
Meanwhile, every Clinton scandal, from allegations of corruption within the Clinton Foundation, to mishandling classified information, to her poor physical health, was written off by the media as “nothing to see here.” That contrast reinforced the perception that the media wasn’t merely lazy and sensationalist, but actually had an agenda. The pro-Hillary propaganda machine blasted constant endorsements that somehow all hit the same talking points simultaneously. As one writer observed,
It always struck me as strange that such an unpopular candidate enjoyed such robust and unanimous endorsements from the editorial and opinion pages of the nation’s papers, but it was the quality of the media’s enthusiasm that really harmed her. With the same arguments repeated over and over, two or three times a day, with nuance and contrary views all deleted, the act of opening the newspaper started to feel like tuning in to a Cold War propaganda station. Here’s what it consisted of:
- Hillary was virtually without flaws. She was a peerless leader clad in saintly white, a super-lawyer, a caring benefactor of women and children, a warrior for social justice.
- Her scandals weren’t real.
- The economy was doing well / America was already great.
- Working-class people weren’t supporting Trump.
- And if they were, it was only because they were botched humans. Racism was the only conceivable reason for lining up with the Republican candidate.
Who would listen to such drivel after learning that the same media establishment had manipulated both parties’ primaries to set up an “easy win” between Clinton and Trump?
Attaching Herself to the Economy
Clinton’s explicit promise to be Obama’s Third Term might have gotten more traction, if Obama’s tenure had improved voters’ economic situations. For many, it did not. The US may have fair unemployment numbers now, but these statistics conceal a record low labor force participation rate. In other words, people seeking work can get jobs…but only because everyone else has stopped looking. In some States, the employment-to-population ratio has fallen below 50%, meaning the average worker in these States must support himself and another, whether through traditional channels (i.e., the dependence of children, spouses, or elderly parents), or through taxation. And because unemployment statistics make no distinction between unstable, low-pay, tedious work and stable, well-compensated, meaningful work, they are by nature blind to whether the workers can provide that level of support, even setting aside whether workers would willingly do so. On top of this, jobs aren’t as good as they used to be. These are deep structural problems that Obama’s cheerleaders have papered over in an attempt to preserve his image.
The Democrats’ economic agenda has not only failed to address any of these structural issues, but has also overlooked the moral/spiritual element to the economy. Meaningful work is one of the most important aspects of a dignified life, regardless of the income it provides. Rather than campaigning on creating such dignified jobs, Democrats have openly campaigned on an agenda of putting skilled workers out of business. Her promises to shut down coal mines did her no favors in West Virginia. Her opposition to international pipeline projects like Keystone XL contributed to her losing 2-1 in each of the affected States.
To the extent they have a positive economic agenda, it has centered on an increased minimum wage. However, they face opposition from both business owners and workers, who realize that a higher minimum wage will push people out of work, and discourage education and skill development by reducing the spread between skilled and unskilled work. Most importantly, they fail to appreciate that unskilled work – even if well-paid – offers none of the dignity of a skilled trade or profession. In pushing crass materialism in the form of economically-questionable policies, Democrats have shown their obliviousness to the values of the working class.
Beyond this, Obamacare remains an albatross around Democrats’ necks, having none of the affordability it promised. Stories abound of the explosive cost growth, and reduced coverage, of health insurance. This alone is swallowing many workers’ entire disposable incomes, and fostering a well-founded sense of economic insecurity. With employers and individuals both struggling to meet that law’s demands, the promise of even greater business regulation was another nail in her coffin.
Disrespect For Key Constituencies
Democrats took voters for granted and disrespected their key constituencies. As one commentary concluded,
The even larger problem is that there is a kind of chronic complacency that has been rotting American liberalism for years, a hubris that tells Democrats they need do nothing different, they need deliver nothing really to anyone – except their friends on the Google jet and those nice people at Goldman. The rest of us are treated as though we have nowhere else to go and no role to play except to vote enthusiastically on the grounds that these Democrats are the “last thing standing” between us and the end of the world.
First, they chose issues that most Americans don’t care about: the environment, gun control, and LGBT issues come to mind. This is a platform of coastal elites, not of the country at large. This choice of agenda put them at odds with industry and religious liberty, as well as alienating millions of avid shooters in the Heartland, who see firearms as a symbol of independence. Democrats persistently moaned about Citizens United, failing to appreciate that this means nothing to the average voter (and which, ironically, was about the Supreme Court ruling that the government can’t make criticizing Hillary Clinton illegal!). They wail about the Koch Brothers’ political donations “destroying democracy” despite the fact that Trump spent comparatively little – and, more importantly, was opposed by the Kochs!
Throughout Obama’s presidency, Democrats failed or actively betrayed their base despite having ample opportunity to fulfill their campaign promises. The anti-war Left disappeared in the face of Obama’s half-dozen undeclared wars. Doubling down on mass surveillance cost them civil libertarians. Failure to pass criminal justice reform – including legalization or rescheduling of marijuana – pushed away minorities, who too often get caught in the gears of the expansive penal state. Failure to address immigration reform both discouraged Latino voters and emboldened Trump.
If Democrats are to remain relevant, they will need to identify and support their key constituencies, in action as well as word. Their failure to do so resulted in plummeting turnout and easily cost them the election.
Another major reason for Clinton’s loss was the focus of her campaign, which inadvertently acted as a foil to Trump’s. For anyone who was paying attention, Trump’s entire premise was that self-serving elites were systematically usurping, subverting, or outright destroying everything good about America.
Glenn Greenwald, in a characteristically astute piece, noted that Trump was
dispatched on a mission of destruction: aimed at a system and culture [voters] regard — not without reason — as rife with corruption and, above all else, contempt for them and their welfare…
Instead of acknowledging and addressing the fundamental flaws within themselves, [elites] are devoting their energies to demonizing the victims of their corruption, all in order to delegitimize those grievances and thus relieve themselves of responsibility to meaningfully address them. That reaction only serves to bolster, if not vindicate, the animating perceptions that these elite institutions are hopelessly self-interested, toxic, and destructive and thus cannot be reformed but rather must be destroyed.
Clinton did not even attempt to dispel this notion. Her campaign was premised on elites taking command, imposing from Washington a range of policies about what kinds of jobs people were allowed to have and how their children should be taught, all while disparaging religion and guns as the pastimes of rednecks, racists, and other undesirables. As one post-election commentary put it, she pledged to be “a technocrat who offered fine-tuning when the country wanted to take a sledgehammer to the machine.” Rather than suggesting tearing down Obamacare – which burdened most of the country with high premiums for insurance they couldn’t afford to use – she proposed tinkering at the margins. All of this reinforced the perception that faraway elites sought nothing more than to move Middle America around like pawns on a chessboard. In particular, her enthusiasm for immigration and trade – broadly good policies, but losing arguments during a bad economy – combined disastrously with her promise to dismantle the Heartland’s heavy industry, from West Virginia’s coal to the Dakotas’ shale oil. No one wants to hear a promise to destroy good, skilled jobs and give the remaining tedious and low-paid unskilled jobs to someone Not From Here.
From there, she committed a fatal error of electoral politics: she made it personal. Contrast each side’s core slogan: for Trump, the message was “Make America Great Again.” For Clinton, it was “I’m With Her.” The former was about the benefit Trump would provide the country; the latter was about the benefit the country would provide Hillary. This spoke again to her sense of entitlement – that the country owed her the highest office in the world. It distracted from the issues. And it focused the country’s attention on her, personally – including her unflattering stiff demeanor and her decades-long record of dishonesty. Moreover, by subtly highlighting her gender, it sent the message that being a woman was somehow not only relevant, but significant. In so doing, it signaled affirmation of identity politics, a massive turn-off for independent voters. (Sticking with “Stronger Together” would have been a much wiser strategic move, but even that speaks to a collectivist attitude unpopular in the Heartland.)
The personal touch worked for Obama because he was enough of an unknown, and enough of a speaker, that voters could project their hopes onto him. It doesn’t work for a despised figure of the establishment.
Finally, Hillary crossed the Rubicon by describing Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” and other undesirables. Insulting voters is a cardinal sin; disparage policies or candidates, but never insult the voter. Dilbert creator Scott Adams had this to say:
Her side has branded Trump supporters (40%+ of voters) as Nazis, sexists, homophobes, racists, and a few other fighting words…The Clinton message is that some Americans are good people and the other 40% are some form of deplorables, deserving of shame, vandalism, punishing taxation, and violence. She has literally turned Americans on each other. It is hard for me to imagine a worse thing for a presidential candidate to do. I’ll say that again. As far as I can tell, the worst thing a presidential candidate can do is turn Americans against each other. Clinton is doing that, intentionally.
Which brings me to…
American political culture, which largely leans to the Left, is extremely hostile to both whites and conservatives. The in-group is characterized by adherence to “a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture.” Too many on the Left are incapable of imagining how people unlike them think, or how they perceive their own interests. Part and parcel of that Correct Culture is the ritual dismissal of conservatives and rural America as lizard-brained, backward cretins.
The “hicks” are the bread-and-butter of every East Coast comedian’s lineup, the perennial victims of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and the target of every public intellectual and right-thinking politician. For decades they’ve been demonized as racists and oppressors. Their successes are chalked up to unearned “privilege” – nevermind their lower-than-average education, income, and life expectancy – while their failures are theirs alone to bear.
(NB: To some extent this is a misreading of Leftist notions of “privilege.” However, the Left bears responsibility for its willful miscommunication to an audience with a radically different understanding of the word. It may be true that a black man in Alabama has a harder time than a white man in substantially similar circumstances, but for urban elites to tell unemployed, undereducated rural white voters that they’re “privileged” solely by virtue of race is the surest way to breed resentment. No one wants to hear how good they’ve got it when they feel like they have less than nothing. Moreover, the Left seems to have forgotten the lesson of President Carter: no one wants to be scolded to have and be less.)
Conservatives and Republicans are attacked on a routine basis. During my own undergraduate years, College Republicans’ publications were stolen from their offices; students were shouted into submission before, during, and after lectures; some were even physically assaulted. Here’s a typical Republican college student at UC Berkeley right now:
During the ENTIRE election my label as a Republican – mind you, with no one even bothering to ask me who I’m voting for – gave me the luxury of being called the WORST names. The people calling me them were even my own friends. All they could do is make me into a party affiliation. My own friends.
…My heart hurts for those that do not feel safe in this country. The same way we cannot excuse those that commit atrocities and say problematic things in the name of Trump and the GOP, we cannot excuse physical violence and verbal and emotional abuse of [College Republicans]…
A few months ago, we had a Berkeley College Republicans member at the table on Sproul. While he was tabling not only was the Trump cut out torn apart, but he was sucker punched. You didn’t hear much about this, but why would you? Many of the comments people made about this incident said that he deserved it. Think about it. He deserved getting punched because he was sitting at his club’s table. Flip the roles. Could you imagine the outrage if this was done to a Bernie or Hillary table?
I was literally SCREAMED AT multiple times. My Facebook was filled with pretty nasty things about all Republicans – not just Trump voters…
Berkeley prides itself as being the beacon of free speech, but in my experience it only applies to those on the left and ignores those from the center-right on.
Conservatives are constantly characterized as either motivated by, or apathetic to, the grievances of ethnic and sexual minorities. When Hillary attacked voters personally, her supporters took her cues, inevitably making the issue about the virtues or vices of voters as individuals. On Facebook, viral posts proliferated, including “If you vote for Trump today, make sure to explain to your LGBT+, female, black, latino/a, Muslim friends why they don’t matter to you.”
Even trying to understand a Trump supporter is verboten:
“…you held my life and that of my daughter, and that of the millions of Americans who are now scared for their very lives, and decided we did not matter. We were not important enough for you to take a stand against. That’s what that Trump vote represents. If you didn’t vote for him, but just urge us to understand those who did, you are now joining the betrayal.”
These sorts of things may work for the subset of voters who are both left-leaning and deeply concerned with their social standing, but they are non-starters for everyone else. No one genuinely sees themselves as the Bad Guy, and nothing galls people so much as presuming to tell them what they “really” believe – especially when that is a caricature. And the people on the sidelines – the ones with family and friends who support Trump, personally known not to be bigots – are far more likely to side with the victims of these shameful attacks than those prosecuting them. (Moreover, the characterization of conservatives as racist also implicitly promoted the very identity politics the Right has been fighting tooth-and-nail for decades. There is really no better way to energize them.)
The fact is, Republicans can’t even go along with the Left’s agenda without getting smeared as oppressors. When Mitt Romney pointed to his earnest attempts to being talented women into powerful political positions, he was decried as sexist for using the phrase “binders full of women.” It’s no surprise that when the Left likened Trump’s supporters to Nazis, some number of them gleefully reaffirmed their support for “Literally Hitler”. After all, such accusations are nothing new:
What many of them are, I suspect, is tired of being told that they are racists etc because they do not completely buy into the (liberal) elite agenda. They are tired of being called backward because of their religiosity or their gun ownership. They are tired of being told others know better how to raise their kids than they do. They are tired of working hard, raising their kids, participating in their communities, and then being told they are the problem. And they tired of empty promises that they could keep their plan and see their costs go down.
Have some of them said racist/sexist/xenophobic things? I’m sure some or many have. But when they are continually told by elites that they are monsters, you can imagine their desire to lift a middle finger would be intense. Trump, to some degree because of his own unwillingness to accept the moral code of the elite (abhorrent as his behavior is and was…), became a vehicle for that response.
Surprisingly, it turns out that casually calling people racists, misogynists, Nazis, etc is not the most effective tactic. After crying wolf so many times, the village began tuning out. And this empowers and protects actual racists. Even if the label is accurate, people are rarely persuaded to adopt different views by being called names, however justified they may be.
The Cultural Establishment and Political Orthodoxy
While “political correctness” may be interpreted by the Left as basic consideration and civility, for conservatives it means elites – in politics, media, and education – dictating what may be said, and by extension, what may be thought. And Democrats possessed everything necessary to establish a regime of thought control. They controlled information via propagandist “journalism”; indoctrinated children via schools and universities; established social expectations via entertainment media; enforced it all via government. To their intended audience, Trump’s loud, offensive ramblings were as deep as anything any other politician had to offer – but he offered the advantage of presenting it in a way that indicated that he wasn’t about to capitulate to the Left’s demand for censorship, self-imposed or otherwise. Indeed, many saw his victory as a blow for free speech against enforced political orthodoxy.
(Although Trump was largely incoherent, his speeches were not especially lacking in content compared to most politicians. Few will admit it, but Obama’s campaign in 2008 was remarkably vapid by historical standards.)
Even the liberal media outlet Vox acknowledged in April the “smug style” of the Left, writing that they were guilty of “finding comfort in the notion that [the working class consisted of] disdainful, hapless rubes,” that they had created “a culture animated by that contempt,” and that they had adopted a “condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of [the liberal] consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason.” Consider Obama’s moralistic lecturing about how “the arc of history bends toward justice” – which is to say, his priorities. Opposition doesn’t come from a difference of values; no, it’s “bad faith” and “obstructionism”. Whenever tragedy strikes, the Left pleads for “honest conversations” – by which they mean falling in line with them.
The whole basis for democracy as a political system is the “wisdom of crowds” – the notion that while an individual or small group of people is incapable of getting the correct answer, the average of many people will approximate the Truth. Yet Democrats told voters that voting as they wished was quite literally a hate crime. To put it mildly, there’s a small tension between the beliefs in the virtue of democracy and that anyone who votes in an unsanctioned way is a criminal motivated by hate.
By casting Trump as the enemy of the cultural elite, Clinton and her supporters unwittingly bolstered his campaign. After all, his campaign was based on the idea that someone was telling them how to think; the more Leftists said “vote Hillary, we simply MUST stop Trump!” the more they incited a population fed up with being directed what to think and how to act by arrogant, sanctimonious, uncaring, and distant elites, and rallied them around the one person they saw as speaking for them. Democrats abused their cultural dominance, and that resentment was precisely what Trump fed on. Or as one commentary put it,
Put this question in slightly more general terms and you are confronting the single great mystery of 2016. The American white-collar class just spent the year rallying around a super-competent professional (who really wasn’t all that competent) and either insulting or silencing everyone who didn’t accept their assessment. And then they lost. Maybe it’s time to consider whether there’s something about shrill self-righteousness, shouted from a position of high social status, that turns people away.
Compounding this, cultural elites failed to appreciate that they inadvertently blinded themselves through their persistent bullying. Celebrities like Amy Schumer, exhorting people to vote for Hillary, asserted that anyone doing otherwise is “a steaming dump“. By making support for Trump social suicide, they turbocharged the Spiral of Silence. In so doing, they systematically biased polls in favor of Clinton as Trump loyalists either refused to participate or concealed their support. Who, after all, would admit to supporting Literally Hitler? That meant the Clinton campaign was unable to see how poorly it was performing. But – Greenwald again – “opinion-making elites were so clustered, so incestuous, so far removed from the people who would decide this election — so contemptuous of them — that they were not only incapable of seeing the trends toward Trump but were unwittingly accelerating those trends with their own condescending, self-glorifying behavior.”
Social Justice and Leftist Fragility
Another driver of Trump’s victory was undoubtedly a perception among conservatives that the Left has become, frankly, incapable of dealing with reality, let alone dissent. Last year, free-speech lawyer Greg Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt jointly wrote about the elevated sensitivity of students. Campus activists increasingly push for an institutionalized, militant form of political correctness that bans “microaggressions” (e.g. “the most qualified person should get the job”) and co-opts serious mental health issues like PTSD to underscore the extent to which students take offense (i.e., “I was ‘triggered’ upon reading classical literature”). Under the new regime, debate is stifled as unapproved ideas are recast as so offensive as to be unutterable, and conservative speakers in particular are subject to the “heckler’s veto,” being disinvited from campus for having views anathema to the prevailing culture – even if their speeches have nothing to do with those views.
Meanwhile, students have actively self-infantilized through their demands for “safe spaces” and other kinds of supervision and speech policing that would have outraged students of their parents’ generation. Those “safe spaces” come equipped with the stuff of infant day-care centers: cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, pillows, blankets and puppies.
That’s not to say that such attempts are categorically wrong. The colleges of yesteryear weren’t merely blind to students’ emotional problems; in many cases, they prided themselves on making students miserable. To many on the Left, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the like are welcome acknowledgments of the importance of mental health and the difficulty of the university setting, especially for marginalized people such as ethnic and sexual minorities.
But to conservatives, they indicate the extraordinary, hopeless fragility of a coddled generation that wishes to betray the very purpose of universities – to confront ideas – in their pursuit of emotional well-being.
Ironically, the reaction to Trump’s victory confirmed the reason for it. Universities collectively broke down. Even at top-10 law schools, midterms were postponed, classes were cancelled, and spaces were quickly designated safe. For many voters, Trump was more than a candidate or a set of policies: he was the repudiation of political correctness made flesh. And, understandably, many of them are now basking in the flow of “liberal tears.” They don’t see the reaction as evidence that Trump really is that bad; they see it as just another histrionic temper tantrum, a confirmation that Leftists are whiny, emotionally-stunted children upset at not getting their way.
The Left’s reaction goes beyond that, of course. In short, they’re afraid because they take Trump at his word. They worry about government agents coming for them and their children in the middle of the night in the form of ICE raids. They worry about the criminalization of religion and ethnicity, up to and including concentration camps. And they’re not wrong to do so: the precedent upholding the Japanese internment has never technically been overturned.
Many people are genuinely afraid in a way straight white males just can’t be. Members of the armed forces are afraid that his poor judgment and impulsiveness will get them killed. People are listing their friends as emergency contacts and granting them power of attorney. Trans people are scrambling to file paperwork to make sure their gender markers align. Undocumented families are going into hiding. Muslims and women are being assaulted in the street. Women are rushing to get IUDs.
But conservatives can’t see these because the Left has made such a habit of isolating and ostracizing them. The Left will often claim that conservatives’ ignorance – such as it is – is the product of their self-segregation into niche subcultures. But who can blame them? People don’t generally go where they’re not welcome. Yes, conservatives have established cultural islands and insulated themselves from the mainstream – but doing so is the social equivalent of quarantine, a defensive measure against ubiquitous hostility. For the most part, conservatives have no natural source of exposure to issues like systemic racism. And, conversely, they feel like the Left has no exposure to their issues.
II – Political Lessons For the Left
The Left has a choice in the lessons it draws from this catastrophic failure. These are the two that stand out as the most significant:
The Role of Identity Politics
Many see Trump’s victory as evidence that racism and sexism is alive and well in the United States. This is undoubtedly true on one hand, and undoubtedly overwrought on another. Trump surely has a contingent of overtly racist and sexist supporters. Trump himself has said vile things about Mexicans, Muslims, and just about everyone else. To overlook that patent bigotry is to be complicit in it. But this election was not merely a referendum on Trump; Republicans swept through the country, claiming unified government in fully half the States and nearly universal gains. The places that were decisive for Trump’s victory – Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – turned out in droves for Obama in 2008. Trump won a significantly higher proportion of votes among Latinos than did Romney in 2012. As Tim Carney remarked, “Low-income rural white voters in Pa. voted for Obama in 2008 and then Trump in 2016, and your explanation is white supremacy? Interesting.”
The ugly truth is that Trumpism – that noxious blend of economic illiteracy and White Nationalism – is the predictable result of the Left’s identity politics and rhetoric. Democrats have long built a coalition consisting of a smattering of disparate minorities – often concentrated in urban slums – united under the aegis of wealthy coastal elites. The elites provided the vision, planning, and resources; minorities provided the mass. The coalition was preserved by the Democrats offering enough of the spoils of victory to keep their constituents happy – and by appealing to fears that if they refused to participate, they’d be left out in the cold.
Democrat strategists thought this arrangement would last forever. In 2008, blessed with a unified government, they crowed about “permanent majorities” and a new era of Progressive rule. They based that assessment on analysis of demographic trends that showed an inexorable shift toward minorities, coupled with historic minority allegiance to the Democratic Party. They further understood that identity politics generates incredible intensity and produces a strong loyalist core at minimal cost. And so, throughout at least the last decade, they stoked racial and gender resentments with tropes like the “War on Women”. Hillary Clinton made gender the centerpiece of her campaign, expecting that voters would be so enamored by the prospect of voting for two X chromosomes that they’d overlook all of her many shortcomings.
They didn’t anticipate the destructive nature of identity politics. As racial, religious, and other identities grow in importance, elections begin to resemble less a search for the common good and more an exercise in dividing the spoils of political plunder. Identity politics sharply raises the stakes of political battles, creating a new source of animosity and division. It creates intense opposition, hamstringing an identity-based majority’s ability to governing effectively. It stokes internal divisions; when group interests shift, these extremely motivated factions defect, thereby producing unstable coalitions and intraparty chaos. Moreover, when any demographic aligns too strongly with one party, it becomes voiceless whenever it is not in power.
More generally, identity politics makes for terrible governance. Identity groups are not monolithic; emphasizing e.g. the “War on Women” trope marginalizes the many women who feel loved and respected by conservatives and men, whose first concern is not access to abortion, and who may even actively oppose such policies. Additionally, such identity-based activism systematically insults, marginalizes, and drives out talent, especially among whites and males, leaving a leadership deficit in the wake of a short-term electoral victory.
More to the present point: the most significant identity in America, for better or worse, is whites. And Democrats excluded that critical demographic. For years, white voters were neglected, if not disparaged, by both parties. At best they were seen as useful idiots, the unthinking mass behind the policy warfare of their “betters” on both sides. But while they’re largely overlooked by both parties, the demonization of whites is a habit primarily of the Left; indeed, straight white males are the only demographic for whom casual insults are socially acceptable in so-called “polite company”. Unsurprisingly, the first response from the mainstream Left was that “the whites” – supposedly as one monolithic bloc – voted in Trump, against the will of every other group.
In cultivating these racial divisions, Democrats have sown the wind. Now they are reaping the whirlwind: what by all rights “should” have been a sweep for Democrats has instead resulted in a unified Federal government and near-complete State-level dominance of the Republican Party, with white identity politics at the very core.
If they want to remain relevant, Democrats must acknowledge that the interests of the Heartland, Rust Belt, and Deep South – “White America” – do still matter. That doesn’t mean becoming hostile to minorities (though it might mean reconsidering seriously what our immigration policies look like and whose interests such policies ought to serve). It does mean being attentive to problems beyond those of the Urban Coalition, with special sensitivity to rural America’s cultural emphasis on independence and self-reliance. Many of these problems are moral and spiritual, including a perceived lack of dignity originating in anti-industrial economic policy that prevents many from supporting themselves. Eight years into Democratic Party rule, and the employment-to-population ratio has dipped below 50% in some States, while Democrats pledge to bankrupt the industries those States rely on. Such bleak realities in turn tend toward learned helplessness, despair, and rampant drug abuse which together create a cycle of poverty and dependence. White America does not want a hand-out or a hand up: for the most part, people want to work honestly, look back, and know that everything they produced is theirs in every sense. (A few concrete suggestions: stop opposing mining industries, and liberate the health care market. Democrats might also stop trying to ban firearms, which are seen by many Americans as a tool and symbol of self-reliance.)
In short, they want to regain their pride. Cultural elites, especially among Democrats, need to start treating White America with generosity of spirit, accepting them as brethren with different priorities rather than demonizing them as a Problem to be Solved.
The Democrat Leadership Crisis
Democrats should reflect long and hard about why they advanced a loathsome septuagenarian like Hillary, even knowing how weak a candidate she was. Part of it, undoubtedly, was the Democrats’ capitulation to Clinton’s sense of entitlement. It was “her turn,” after all; that was the price she exacted for stepping aside gracefully for Obama.
But this speaks to a greater problem within the Democratic Party. The only two candidates on the stage were Clinton and an avowed socialist who explicitly stands against everything that makes America distinctive. Both are well past their prime, and this suggests that the Democratic Party has no better options, no rising stars. And that means it’s in trouble.
Really, who’s next in line? Joe Biden? Lincoln Chaffee? Elizabeth Warren? Andrew Cuomo? Jerry Brown? None of these can command a majority.
To a large extent, the Democrats’ catastrophic failure in this past election was the result of placing too much emphasis on the Federal government, expecting to make policy at the national level and employing Federal supremacy to trickle policy down to the States. To a large degree, this stems from the Left’s outright hostility to the Federal System – that is, the Constitutionally-ordained order by which the Federal and State governments have limited and enumerated powers within distinct spheres. In the short term, that approach bred the resentment that fueled Trump’s ascendancy: far-off elites dictating the minutiae of people’s lives is hardly a winning proposition when those people have a say in the matter. But in the long term, it has fueled a leadership crisis.
The Left, seeking ever to centralize power in the Federal government, has no real mechanism for developing and proving policy proposals. This partially explains why they haven’t had any truly fresh ideas for a century; “expand social security using the same financing mechanism put forth in the 1930’s, despite changing economics and demographics,” is hardly bold leadership. As a consequence, Democrat policymaking has been an unmitigated disaster at all levels. The “stimulus” has been discredited; Obamacare is tearing apart at the seams. The “trifecta” States – those with unified Democratic control – are fiscal and economic messes, as evidenced by their balance sheets and their population hemorrhaging. And, even more dangerously, the Left has made it a point to quash all dissent, which has stunted its growth and limited its ability to adapt.
In contrast, Republicans have created a powerful talent pipeline through their focus on down-ticket elections. Admittedly, Trump dealt a major blow to that pipeline as Republican thought leaders fled the Party in opposition to him. But by and large, the talent pipeline is still strong. Sure, people made fun of the chaos of an overcrowded Republican field, and the mechanism the GOP uses to select its nominee clearly needs improvement. But that proliferation of candidates is a tremendous asset: Republicans have at least a dozen potential candidates with national name recognition, representing a range of broadly Right-leaning ideologies. Among the libertarian wing, they have Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie; the Center-Right can offer Marco Rubio and John Kasich. They can draw talent from over 30 Governors, ranging from Scott Walker to Nikki Haley. That means that their platform will be more vibrant, dynamic, and responsive to voters. And when election season rolls around, their candidates will bring with them “nuts and bolts” management experience.
To be successful in the long term, Democrats will have to refocus their attention locally – which is extremely awkward for them given their ideological commitment to nationalization and centralization.
III – Policy Lessons For the Left
Beyond the dirty business of politics, Democrats also need to face the precedents they’ve set over the past eight years. Faced with a President they regard – perhaps correctly – as a tyrant and an existential threat, they need to come to terms with a number of issues:
- The role of Federalism – As noted, it was Democrats’ focus on centralization, among other things, that incited Trump supporters. Plus, if the Federal government is truly a threat, having a less powerful Federal government reduces that threat.
- The role of democracy – It was, after all, the common man’s vote that brought Trump to power; perhaps Democrats should be more circumspect about advocating democracy as an end in itself, rather than one among many possible means toward good governance.
- “Legislation” by Executive Order – Among Obama’s greatest affronts was his habit of acting independently of Congress to advance his agenda. Democrats will have to own their creation of that precedent, and hopefully begin pushing back against it. Sadly, they will be fighting an uphill battle given their hypocrisy.
- Undeclared War – Democrats have an opportunity to reassert themselves and join Congressional Republicans in reasserting the Congressional authority to commence war.
- Drone strikes and kill lists – Obama also pioneered low-casualty warfare and global assassinations even of American citizens. It may not be too late to revive the civil liberties movement.
- Mass surveillance – Though it started under George W. Bush, the surveillance state has never been more dangerous. Democrats need to acknowledge their complicity in preserving it despite having complete control over the Federal government under Obama.
- Using penal- I mean, taxes, to coerce behavior – The Obama Administration pioneered the novel legal theory that it could conscript private citizens into any economic transaction through punitive “taxation”. Now – when the objects of that “taxation” are different – is an opportunity to rethink that doctrine.
- Filibustering the Supreme Court – For months now, Democrats have argued that the Senate is under obligation to confirm a Presidential nominee. Now that they are no longer doing the nominating, will they stand for principle?
- Gun rights – After condemning guns for so long, and now being confronted with the possibility of a true dictator, will Democrats rethink the wisdom of an armed population?
IV – Where to Go From Here
The most dangerous part of a Trump victory is probably not, as many would have it, a Trump Presidency. The nation has survived egotistical and power-hungry Presidents before, including Jackson, Wilson, FDR, and, yes, Obama. Though the possibility of a calamitous tenure looms large, the real danger is that the election vindicates White Nationalism. With it, the Republican Party – and the United States – may well have begun its final descent into identity politics and naked rent-seeking. The greatest threat is that we, as a country, concede that politics is no longer about competing principles, but rather about directing unlimited State power toward personal gain.
That is not to say that a Trump Presidency may not be horrifying. It may well be. But if it is, it will be the bipartisan consensus on executive power to blame. Consider that, under Obama, the President has the power:
- To summarily execute any person in the world – even an American citizen – without charge or trial.
- To imprison anyone, indefinitely and without trial.
- To torture anyone.
- To record and eavesdrop on all electronic communication without warrant or even cause.
- To start shooting wars without Congressional authorization or even American interest at stake.
- To start trade wars.
- To weaponize the tax code.
- To prosecute political opponents.
- To legislate via executive fiat.
- To enforce secret laws.
This is all the State infrastructure a despot would need, and then some. To date, the United States has counted on democracy to empower angels to wield these weapons. Now, we are confronted with the prospect that democracy will not always choose the righteous, if it ever did. Our first priority must be to tyrant-proof the White House. The Left is rightly terrified by the next President, but it shouldn’t matter who is in office. The fact that it does indicates that the President has too much power. As we build a new consensus around limiting Executive power, we should rely on the following standard: the government should be authorized only those powers we would be comfortable with granting to our worst enemies.
There is also the possibility that Trump’s election will incite the relative minority that is violently bigoted. Many such “hate incidents” have been reported, and they warrant investigation, condemnation, and prosecution. However, at least some of these have proven false, and some of the more egregious incitements of fear – such as raising Nazi flags or painting swastikas – have turned out to be Leftists protesting fascism. While the Department of Justice estimates a significant increase in hate crimes against Muslims in particular in 2015, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, in an all-around excellent piece, observes that there have been 1 reported “hate incident” per 500,000 Trump supporters. He goes on:
Oh, also, I looked on right-wing sites to see if there are complaints of harassment and attacks by Hillary supporters, and there are. Among the stories I was able to confirm on moderately trustworthy news sites that had investigated them somewhat (a higher standard than the SLPC holds their reports to) are ones about how Hillary supporters have beaten up people for wearing Trump hats, screamed encouragement as a mob beat up a man who they thought voted Trump, knocked over elderly people, beaten up a high school girl for supporting Trump on Instagram, defaced monuments with graffiti saying “DIE WHITES DIE”, advocated raping Melania Trump, kicked a black homeless woman who was holding a Trump sign, attacked a pregnant woman stuck in her car, with a baseball bat, screamed at children who vote Trump in a mock school election, etc, etc, etc.
Given the tensions on both sides, it behooves everyone to take any allegation of violence or intimidation seriously, to document any such encounters, and to investigate and prosecute perpetrators on either side.
In the medium-term, we need to re-examine how we got to this election. For the first time in American history, a major party nominated a candidate with negative favorability. One key reason it came to this was that American elections are conducted by plurality voting. In this model, the winner of an election is simply whoever gets the most votes. While that’s intuitively appealing, it has critical defects. While many of these are well-understood, one that goes unremarked is that it results in a kind of political hysteresis due to its tendency to produce a two-party system. Parties must clear a high bar before becoming “viable,” but once they do, they can retain voters by playing to a “lesser of two evils” argument. The weaker the candidates of the opposition, the weaker need be the candidates of the party. Over time, the quality of candidates offered by both parties steadily decreases; some candidates even win in the face of a majority opposed to them!
To ensure a more responsive government that maintains the support (or at least consent) of the governed and incorporates new ideas, we need to change how we conduct elections. That’s a subject for another time, but the Schulze Method is probably as close to optimal as we can get. If nothing else, we should be at least using a Condorcet-compatible method.
But most importantly for the long term, we need to remember that the losing side, and the problems, don’t go away after elections. There will still be raging bigots. There will still be grinding poverty among majority-minority urban slums and rural white towns, and poverty traps that preserve it. There will still be cronyism, and there will still be mass unemployment. There will still be rampant opioid abuse in White America. There will still be a broken health care system, made worse by continued economic illiteracy among policymakers. There will still be an education crisis, both in the quality of schools and the stratospheric debt burden on young workers.
We must always remember: we are all fallen. Almost everything is broken, but almost no one is evil.
Voting isn’t the hard part. The hard part is every other day. It’s a lived commitment to the values we hold as best and greatest in life. It’s putting time and money where your mouth is. It’s generosity of spirit; it’s listening as if the other person has something important to say; it’s reflecting on the consequences of our actions, seen and unseen; it’s committing to learn, as well as teach. It’s volunteering. It’s creating. The work of democracy doesn’t end at voting once every four years: it’s being worthy of self-rule, by being the best we can be, every single day.