As I process what happened last Tuesday, and how I can help do something about it, I’m going to start an irregular series here where I lay out some of my thoughts. Maybe, hopefully, this will spur some discussion about how we–all of us who want to–can organize a real left opposition to what is basically unchecked Republican control of every lever of political power in this country. So here goes.
I think that it makes much less sense to talk about the 2016 election in terms of how Donald Trump won than it does to talk about it in terms of how Hillary Clinton lost. The numbers are pretty clear: Trump will finish the election with only slightly more votes nationally that Mitt Romney earned in a losing campaign in 2012, while Clinton will finish with a couple of million less than Obama earned. Overall, turnout dropped to a level not seen since the 2000 election, coincidentally the last time a Democrat won the popular vote but lost the electoral college. Yes, Trump mobilized some new demographics (well, one–non-college educated whites) to come out and vote for him, but the more striking detail is that Clinton…didn’t. Black voters didn’t come out in the same numbers for her, she did worse among Hispanic voters than Obama (which, given Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants, is shocking), and young voters didn’t back her the way they’d backed Obama. The operating assumption of her campaign, which seems to have been that Obama voters would turn out for her just Because, and that Trump’s awfulness would win her a whole bunch of new votes among Hispanic voters and disaffected moderate Republicans, was utterly wrong. Hell, if the exit polls are accurate, more Democrats wound up voting for Trump than Republicans for Clinton.
I think that the Democratic Party is spent as a political force. It has been fashionable among center-left types since Trump’s victory to talk about how a shift of only about 55,000 votes in three states (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) would have thrown the election to Clinton. This, and the fact that Clinton won the national popular vote by a couple of million votes, is important insofar as it shows that there was no broad national movement toward Trump and that Trump’s supporters are not in the majority–though, with voter turnout in the 50s, neither are Clinton’s voters. It’s important to keep in mind that Donald Trump was elected by about a quarter of the country’s eligible voters. But it’s also important not to let this kind of analysis obscure the degree to which the Democratic Party has been annihilated all over the country. To wit:
Those maps (OK, and one chart) paint a picture of a political party that is, if not dead, certainly being kept alive only by inertia. It’s completely locked out of power at the federal level and controls only a handful of levers at the state level. Having Barack Obama in the White House for eight years obscured what was happening at every other level of government in this country, but it shouldn’t be obscured now: Republicans, though they may not be in the majority, are running the country, full stop. Democrats can keep comforting themselves with talk about long term demographic shifts and the like, but in the meantime they might want to start winning some elections to keep the Republicans from wrecking everything.
I think that anybody involved in the 2016 Clinton campaign, or in national Democratic Party politics since, let’s be real, the 1994 midterm elections, should get on with their life’s work and stop overseeing the obliteration of their party. The goal of a presidential campaign is to win. The goal of a political party is to put its candidates in office. By almost every measure, the current leadership of the Democratic Party, and the leadership of the Clinton campaign, have failed, catastrophically. I know the typical pattern in Washington is that once you’re in the club you can’t fail out of it, but nobody has time for that crony shit anymore. It’s time for people who manifestly can’t get the job done to give way to people who, maybe, can. I’m just going by results here, but if you want a stronger case for wholesale cleaning out the party, then any of the myriad post-mortems recounting the massive number of stupid decisions made by the Clinton campaign should suffice.
I think that running against Republicans, rather than running for a real agenda, and “politics of the possible” are two core Democratic Party principles that need to be chucked in a dumpster just before it’s lit on fire. The Democratic establishment and its allies in liberal opinion writing get the vapors anytime somebody dares suggest that the liberal party actually get, ew, all ideological or whatever. The 2016 Democratic primary was a long case study in this phenomenon. But above all else, last week’s outcome was a total, stake-through-the-heart, let-us-never-speak-of-it-again repudiation of the idea that the Republicans could be so extreme, so grotesque, that Democrats can win simply by showing up and not projectile vomiting bile all over the voters. It was a total deconstruction of the myth that “we’ll be happy with whatever the Republicans will let us have,” er, sorry, I mean “incremental change,” is a philosophy that inspires voters to rush to the polls in the absence of a great candidate. Yes, in hindsight, the 2010 and 2014 midterms, at the very least, should already have made this point very clear. But they obviously didn’t.
I think that there’s no reason anybody needs to try to “appeal to Trump voters.” Despite the media’s best efforts to paint a pleasant face on Trump voters, which usually fail even on their own merits (“I’m a Trump voter who is not racist at all! Also, Mexicans need to get the fuck out of here and stop taking all the welfare!”), there is no doubt that most of these people were motivated by racial animus. So fuck them. The story of this election, again going by the data, is not that Donald Trump brought huge masses of new voters to the Republican Party. In two of the three real “surprise” states he won, Wisconsin and Michigan, he received only a sliver more votes this year–easily explainable due to population increases–than Mitt Romney did, in losing efforts, in 2012 (Pennsylvania is the exception; Trump 2016 significantly outperformed Romney 2012 there). It was the voters Clinton 2016 didn’t get (who either stayed home or voted third party), compared to Obama 2012, that were decisive. The question should be how you get those voters back to the Democrats, not how you peel votes away from Trump. If some Trump voters come along with a new, unabashedly left wing agenda, great. But if racism trumps (sorry) everything else for them, they can get bent.
I think that we need to stop talking about how Democrats have to appeal to the “white working class.” Democrats need to start appealing to the working class, period. Working class minority communities may predominantly vote Democratic for reasons specific to those communities, but the Democratic Party stopped being the part of the working class, broadly speaking, in the run up to the 1992 election, when the party decided the way to break 24 years of almost entirely Republican control of the White House was to embrace a pro-business agenda and win over some big money Republican donors. It ought to say something that Clinton won union voters by a smaller margin than any Democrat since Walter Mondale lost 49 states in 1984. It ought to say that the Democratic Party needs to get back to a pro-labor, pro-economic justice agenda if it doesn’t want to keep losing elections. A lot of establishment Democrats kept insisting before the election that working class voters didn’t matter to the Democratic Party anymore. I wonder what they’re saying about that now.
I think there’s nothing incongruous about supporting pro-worker economic policies, defending the basic rights and dignities of all at-risk minorities, and fighting for a stronger, less violent, more consistent foreign policy. Since the primary, I’ve frequently seen people advance the argument that leftists want to “throw [insert minority group] under the bus” in order to appeal to those “white working class” voters, who are all assumed to be irredeemable bigots. Well I don’t claim to speak for lefties everywhere, but to me that’s bullshit. I don’t want to appeal to bigots. If an agenda of higher wages, stronger social welfare programs, single payer healthcare, fair–not “free”–trade, and economic justice doesn’t appeal to white voters because they’re too racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, etc., to appreciate it, then screw them. But I’m willing to bet that a political party that makes protection of minority rights paramount but also embraces, wholeheartedly, an economic agenda that benefits the 99% instead of the 1%, can win elections, big league.
But, hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those things are incongruous, somehow, and trying to stitch them together would be an exercise in futility. But what’s the worst that could happen if we try? The Democratic Party will lose elections all over the country? Yeah, I don’t know if you were paying attention up above, there, but that’s already happened. When you hit rock bottom, it’s time to stop doing all the things that got you there and try something else.
I think it doesn’t take convincing Chuck Schumer that he’s been wrong for 20 years to effect a change in the Democratic Party. The establishment has been wholly discredited and there is a chance for real realignment. I want to play a role in that realignment. Who’s with me?