You can almost call it a conspiracy. The right and the left have decided to rewrite the history of the last election in remarkably similar ways:
The Right: The election was a thumping rejection of everything liberals stand for. The public was finally given the opportunity to say so, and it rejected the administrative state and all its policies, both foreign and domestic.
The Left: The election was a thumping rejection of centrism and its coddling of the right. Trump’s core voted for him, because the Democrats have become too close to Republicans in outlook. Other traditionally Democratic constituencies either went to Trump or didn’t vote for the same reason. The only way to save the country is for the party is to return to its ideological roots on the left.
For starters, one of the most outrageous events in the history of the United States has disappeared from the narrative—the FBI’s deliberate effort to throw the election. They got away with it, and we may never know what was behind it. What’s more, of all the elections in recent history, this has got to be the one least fought on the issues. By all reports, Hillary Clinton’s emails were the only subject on the news for the last two weeks prior to voting. In fact one of the many national myths that died in this election was the place of truth in our much-vaunted free press. Finally the Trump phenomenon itself has been whitewashed out of existence.
This is not a trivial matter, because it affects where we as a country go from here. What follows is a quick summary (from the outside) of what the election was about and what conclusions should be drawn from it.
The basic story of this election was simple. The Clinton campaign tried to make Trump’s character the major issue in hopes of attracting bipartisan support. Other specific issues came out primarily during the debates, where she was successful (Clinton won the first and third, and tied the second), but not so often after the debates were over. The focus on character seemed to work well at first, in particular with the discovery of the Trump sex tape. But it was undermined by the (unsupported) innuendo of the first FBI letter—she was just another crook. By then it was too late to change tactics, because the press was obsessed with her emails. More innuendo in the second FBI letter sealed the deal.
For Trump voters this election was a religious experience. For the rest Clinton’s emails were the issue. Republicans now voted Republican, the effect of the Russian leaks was amplified, Sanders voters and misogynists had their fears confirmed, and the belief that Clinton would win made for general Democratic complacency. With the character issue gone, too many people bought Trump’s simplistic economics—“he’s a businessman, I’ll make a buck” or else just didn’t vote. One example statistic—at Penn State less than half of students registered prior to the election actually voted. In swing states Clinton lost 4.5 percentage points of advantage in the two weeks following the FBI letter and lost the election by less than 200,000 total votes in four states. This was so close that even Jill Stein was significant in most of them. (See here for a detailed discussion of factors influencing the election.) Republican control of Congress was another side of the same coin.
It remains to talk about the Trump phenomenon. Donald Trump is a demagogue outside the limits of what either party has produced in the recent past. He is a professional huckster and promised salvation. He created scapegoats and whipped up his audiences so that they were ready to kill. You can argue that Democrats should have done more for his target population (although the Republican Congress essentially shut down the government for six years), but in the election no honest proposal would have competed with Trump’s lies. Demagogues are a real problem in a democracy. A chilling thought is that in Athens, our original model for democracy, once they elected a demagogue it was never possible to go back.
This is not to deny that the Clinton campaign made mistakes, but that wasn’t why she lost. This is my list, always easy after the fact:
– Excessive focus on Trump’s character. I would have liked more issue-oriented ads. People needed to understand the reasons to fear Trump’s “change”. (But that would have complicated a non-partisan appeal.)
– Handling the FBI letters. Clinton should have taken the high ground—welcomed the examination of her letters as a way to settle the email issue once and for all. Contrast with Trump’s taxes. (But the innuendo was still there, and at the time no one could believe that the FBI itself was corrupt.)
– Despite Trump’s comment, Clinton wasn’t nasty enough. She and the Obamas liked to say “when they go low, we go high”. This was not a time for class. She should have gone after Trump as a businessman, with testimonials from the people who denied him financing. At the end of the campaign Clinton talked about bringing the country together; Trump talked about locking her up.
– Countering Trump’s tweets. This is a strategy problem going forward. Tweets seemed to keep Trump on people’s minds much better than traditional grass-roots organizing.
– Top-down campaign. As canvassers we were told not to change a word of the canvassing scripts, and there was little interest in our impressions of the voters’ concerns. Trump’s people had ears to the ground.
– This was not a campaign on the issues, and we shouldn’t pretend it was. There was no mandate to take the country to the land of the alt-right, and also no proof that the Democratic Party does or doesn’t need ideological changes.
– A major influence on this election was corruption in the FBI—an unimaginable failure of our criminal justice system—and we had better worry about what that says. The concern is not just for elections but more generally how governments can use the FBI against opposition. (Anyone who questions the corruption should reread the Comey letters. There have been many explanations of why the letters were written, but none explain the carefully crafted—and unsupported—”she’s a crook” innuendo.)
– The core Trump supporters are not going to change allegiance any time soon regardless of what we propose. They’ve been promised salvation, and they’ll wait a long time for it. As one book on group violence puts it, fanatical allegiance may grow out of economic issues, but once it gets going it has a life of its own. We should understand their problems, but they’re not going to help in 2018.
– Not all Trump voters are the same. Those is a good chunk of traditional Republicans who were given a reason to ignore what he is. Those people are harder to get now that they voted for Trump, but they’re not like the Trump core. For 2018 if they are worried enough—and they ought to be even on economic grounds—they will come.
– Many things had to go wrong for Democrats to lose this election, starting with the FBI. The election was so close, just about any one of them effectively decided the vote. Here is one list:
– First FBI letter
– Russians and Wikileaks
– Bitter Primary fight
– Second FBI letter
– Obama’s decision not to mention the Russian investigation of Trump
– Belief that Clinton would win (further suppressed vote)
There is no question that an inclusive Democratic party can win. The biggest issues going forward are voter restrictions (Kobach) and gerrymandering.
– We should not take this election as proof that we need to remake the Democratic Party based on what made Trump successful. Trump won by lying, not because he had a better solution. What we do need to do is be preemptively sensitive to all constituencies who have problems. By the time there is a Trump in the picture he will be hard to beat.
– We have a responsibility to address the problems of Trump core voters, and those problems are both hard and pervasive. Trump’s win is clear evidence that this is fertile ground for demagogues (here and elsewhere). It is a real challenge to develop workable, salable economic policy.
– Finally, on a more mundane level, there is clear evidence that campaigns have changed. The effectiveness of Twitter shows we need to go back to first principles about what works. This has become a scary, high-tech business, and we had better be sure we’re equipped for the fight.