Election Night, Javits Center
This one stuck with me. I heard it in the smokers’ section outside the press pit at the Javits Center, where the Clinton people had gathered: “This is the epicenter of the thunderstruck world.”
It pretty much summed up the evening. A few hours earlier, I was standing around with the crowd, taking it all in and waiting for the first results to come in. It was a party atmosphere. People’s biggest worries were 1) how late it would be when Trump conceded (if in fact he would at all) and 2) where the delicious smell of chicken parm was coming from.
And then the Florida returns. Within an hour it became clear the electoral firewall was being breached as North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin all looked grim for Clinton as well. She had a lead in Pennsylvania, but as the rural counties reported, that was sure to dwindle. Turn Texas blue? Laughable in retrospect.
Not long after that, it became clear that Trump was probably going to win, with The Upshot giving him an over-90-percent chance of victory.
I had been called a bed-wetter by many of my friends for even suggesting Clinton could very well lose, but though intellectually I knew she wasn’t the shoe-in people insisted she was, I realized I didn’t believe it deep down; my innate cynicism hadn’t been enough to prepare my consciousness for that kind of reality.
Upstairs the crowds were booing, but there was still hope that things would turn around. They were still fired up. After all, not a single major outlet had seen this coming as anything more than a long shot. While Five Thirty Eight had increasingly given Trump better odds of winning (30 percent), more than other outlets, Clinton still had owned a sizable advantage.
I went down to the press and campaign cafeteria. The scene was different. Heads were bowed and people were already talking about leaving Javits in disgust. One campaign worker said to me in no uncertain terms, “It’s over. We’re looking at the latest returns. She’s going to lose. I think I’m going to be sick.”
Back by the media pit, people were visibly shaken, in that they were actually shaking and fighting back tears. Some journalists and staffers made their way to the bathrooms, gagging and white-faced. The rest stood around, poleaxed, asking how this could have happened. Within the space of ninety minutes, the future of American politics, insofar as everyone in the Javits Center had understood it down to the base assumptions, had been demolished. I stepped outside for the smoke I promised myself I wouldn’t have.
Eight years of Obama, it seems, had blinded Democrats to the possibility of a world that could enable a Trump presidency.
We’ve only just begun
A full week has passed and in that time left-leaning social media have become a form of political hospice care. It is a grief-stricken, digital requiem mass of lamentations, rent garments, and gnashed teeth.
There are the recriminations from the Sanders voters. The lashings of the abstainers and Green Party-voters. The hot-takes blaming everything from misogyny to racism to the education system to white working-class disenfranchisement. Especially that last one. Suddenly everyone is an amateur James Agee, rhapsodizing the working class and failing to notice that the working class encompasses more than just white people. And there are the cloying assurances that now is not the time for blame or that love conquers hate. People make entreaties to Trump voters, as if anyone is listening.
Many in the media are caught in the similarly problematic habit of desperate, unsupported narrative-making—only with the added element of experts scrambling to salvage the credibility they lost in the eyes of many voters, particularly progressives, many of whom closed their eyes and swallowed the bitter, party-establishment li(n)e that only Hillary could win.
All which is to say, Democratic voters (and traditionally Democratic voters who chose another option) are still processing their grief and playing the What If game. For the first time in most Americans’ lives, the sense is that the core political norms that kept them relatively safe may be unraveling—that many have already unraveled and this regime change will have tangible, grave consequences in people’s daily lives. There is fear of retrograde, authoritarian rule: retributive trials, crackdowns on journalism, mass deportations, the return of even more aggressive broken windows policing, state-sanctioned ethno-religious persecution, nationalist-state-controlled private industry that will shun international trade and climate sustainability, an all-but-military-industrial disengagement from our already hawkish and spotty diplomatic strategy in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. If it wasn’t clear before November 8, it is now: the stakes are high and people’s quotidian lives may be drastically affected very soon; this is something that, for better or worse, doesn’t generally happen in American politics, not lately anyhow.
The struggle ahead for the Dems to mitigate this will ultimately hinge on how the party evolves—and how quickly. It first needs to figure out how the hell this all happened.
This may not instill confidence in those on the left. After all, twenty-four years after the 1992 election, the party not only failed to do right by its supposed principles of social welfare and civil liberties advocacy, but it also utterly failed up and down the ballot simply to win, which was the sole purpose in the first place of abandoning/redefining the label of “liberal.” While much has been made of Hillary Clinton’s more or less left-leaning voting record in the Senate (using the benchmark of the party line) and her move to the left during the election as proof of her “practical” progressivism—not to mention her eventual adoption of the label “progressive”—, this says more about the centrist state of the party and the unexpected popularity of Bernie Sanders than it does about her own purported leftism.
All of that said, in the short term, the Democratic Party’s viability is still the last and only line of defense for both the center and the left. As much as many want to see the rise of a third party, that’s most likely a long-term goal. As Trump seeks to appoint Steve Bannon as his White House advisor and there are, as of today, hundreds of documented incidents of hate crimes being committed across the nation since Election Day, to achieve its goals of social justice, the left needs the Democratic Party now; and the party, to win, needs to earn the trust of the left again. In other words, you go to war with the army you have.
That is in no way to say that the Democratic Party doesn’t need to undergo some fundamental and drastic changes both for the sake of winning and for the goals of social welfare and egalitarianism. Both of those endeavors will need to go hand in hand.
A teachable moment
In sports, when you fuck up, they call that a teachable moment. You get pulled to the bench, a coach takes you aside, and—to varying degrees of temperament—explains how and why you just got caught slipping so you don’t do it again. If this is the Democrats’ teachable moment, they just blew a game-winning layup in Game 7 of the Finals and have to spend the entire off-season, regular season, and playoffs to make up for it.
Twice now the Democrats have tried to anoint Hillary Clinton as the party nominee and both times she lost. In 2008, Obama happened. But while voting for the country’s first black president could in itself be considered a progressive act by the Democrats and, eventually, the country, Obama turned out not to live up to his progressive branding of Hope and Change, particularly when it came to foreign policy, and across the board he was not much further left than the candidate he beat in the primary. While some of this is undoubtedly due to the obstructionist legislature he faced for six of the eight years, his extralegal drone wars, an open Guantanamo, and mass-deportations paint another picture. Still, supporting him felt like progressivism for many voters, even if a more accurate assessment is that he was left of center for a 21st-Century Democrat.
The party doubled down on Clinton for 2016. No one of consequence was running against her in the primaries, just three old cranks and a politician from Maryland whose fictional representation in The Wire was more famous than the actual man. Only, one of those cranks was Bernie Sanders, and to the party’s surprise and dismay, he tapped into people’s increasing concerns about rising wealth inequality, the disappearance of the middle class, and the disenfranchisement of the working class—things Obama did little to address. Sanders also eventually started to speak forthrightly about racial injustice when Clinton continued to hedge.
Though she eventually beat Sanders and people will continue to argue about whether or not Sanders would have beaten Trump (and polling suggests he’d have had a better shot than Clinton), he did prove that there’s a sizable contingent of leftist and progressive voters who would show up to vote and campaign—and that many of these voters had been out of the reach of center-left Democrats. Clinton, for her part, paid lip service to that undercurrent and tried to shift her platform left both in the primary and in the general election—though mostly her left shift seemed to consist of highlighting her accomplishments and Senate votes and rebranding them in an effort to claim that she had always been a progressive, which again says more about what passes for progressive since 1992.
The Dems banked on the premise that she was the smarter, more knowledgeable, most qualified candidate—essentially that she deserved the office, almost as if she were owed the presidency by the American people. It spoke to an arrogance that blinded the party to political realities, especially as they viewed the country through the lens of eight years of an Obama presidency, a view that told them that though there are a lot of deplorables out there, shifting demographics and a more enlightened populace would carry the day. This overreliance on demographics and party identity, the assumption that certain groups will de facto come out to vote for Democrats, was a major part of their undoing.
That arrogance caused the Democrats and Clinton to take a lot for granted. For starters, branding oneself a progressive does not make it so and whatever support she gained from Sanders supporters seemed more enthusiastically anti-Trump than pro-Hillary, the result of the left’s practical acceptance that eight years of an establishment Democrat still hocking the centrist feint of incrementalism is ultimately preferable to an ethno-nationalist demagogue. Tepid rebranding and lesser evilism, it turns out, didn’t stir up the fervent enthusiasm the campaign maybe believed it had from more than the contingent of centrist, college-educated Democrats who saw themselves as leftists and progressives but somehow weren’t all that fussed about Clinton’s more hawkish foreign policy and dodgy-looking financial relationships. (These voters wrote off criticism as both right-wing lies and Bernie Bro sexism; it had all the echoes of Bill Clinton-era Democrats dismissing case after case of malfeasance and sexual misconduct as the product of right-wing priggishness.) Existing in that bubble, appropriately symbolized by Clinton’s choosing of Brooklyn Heights as her campaign headquarters location, one might be highly susceptible to the belief that a Clinton presidency was all but inevitable.
But taking huge blocks of your generally reliable voting base for granted without addressing their concerns is a bad look. While the handwringing continues about Clinton’s failure among the Rust Belt and Southern working class, what people mean is the white working class. Which is not to say that that demographic doesn’t matter, but not nearly enough attention is being paid to her poor performance (relative to 2012) among Hispanic and black voters, some of whom, it turns out, are also part of the working class and are also vulnerable in this economy and are also subject to predatory banking and lending practices and also have un(der)employment problems in their communities. With the dredging up of the superpredator rhetoric and all of its related, odious policy-making under Bill, the Clinton camp could have done much more than just assume traditional Democratic support would be there for her as a matter of course.
Especially, again, in the wake of the Sanders challenge, which shined a stadium’s worth of halogen spotlights on the ways in which the Bill Clinton Era had not only failed minority populations but helped to oversee the wholesale dismantling of social safety nets and criminalization of the poor. In private conversation, many supporters of Hillary Clinton blame Bernie for what happened on Election Night, for turning people against the Democrats and Clinton. This is bullshit. The Democrats’ lack of an answer to the questions about the things the party actually did and voted for is what people should be angry about.
The most damaging delusion, however, may have been in thinking the electorate was less culturally resentful than it was. After all, surely the country that voted for Obama wouldn’t turn around and vote for a man running on an explicitly racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and otherwise bigoted platform. Oops. The campaign overestimated either the level of bigotry among voters or at least the ability of voters to stomach bigoted rhetoric for the sake of other issues. One can argue that both of those things constitute bigotry, and even if not, that they amount to the same thing anyway, so the discussion of internal motivation is merely academic. Added to this element is the fact that statistics don’t back up the oft-repeated line that the poor white working class is Trump’s primary base of support. The median household income for a Trump voter exceeds that of both Clinton and Sanders voters, suggesting that maybe it wasn’t just the economy after all and that the Dems sorely underestimated how much culture wars resentment (and, yes, outright bigotry) is still a force in US politics.
In a similar vein, the Dems pushed the idea that voting for the first female president was in itself a radical, anti-establishment act. And it would have been, to an extent. But that was a non-starter with the majority of white female voters, with whom Clinton had the same ten-percentage-point disadvantage the last several male Democratic nominees had. Which is not to say that misogyny and sexism weren’t still manifest in any other number of ways in the election, from Trump’s sordid and possibly criminal past to his present-day rhetoric—as well as the public’s continued couching of Clinton criticisms in coded, sexist language and double standards. But, as with race, people weren’t nearly as fussed as the Dems thought they’d be.
The Democrats repeated to themselves the thought that the voters can’t possibly endorse a candidate who says [insert divisive comment]! Roughly half the voters proved them wrong. So blame the voters, sure; blame the Electoral College (it’s a ludicrously antiquated system). But mostly Democratic leadership should blame itself because voters on both sides, clearly, expected more.
Rather than tell the opposition to delete its Twitter account when it spits bile, the Democrats should embrace a politics that presents an actionable vision for people. That will necessarily mean moving on from Clintonian Democracy.