Thursday, November 10, 2016

After the Election - The Democrats

Yesterday, I reflected in general on the surprising 2016 election results - and more particularly on the Republican party. Today, I want to look instead at the defeated Democrats, now unexpectedly frozen out of all three branches of the federal government. It should be noted, however, that, as in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections, the Democrats did win the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won 47.7% of the popular vote to Donald Trump's 47.5%. 

Since World War II and modern polling, only two presidents - Eisenhower and Bill Clinton have been more popular in their final year than Barack Obama is. But the Democrats were unable to translate Obama's popularity into a Democratic "third term." (To be fair neither did Eisenhower and Clinton, but their party's candidates, in 1960 and 2000, foolishly did not utilize the incumbent president's popularity very effectively, unlike Hilary Clinton who worked with Obama to make the most of his - and his wife's - popularity.)

So how to explain this? The conventional wisdom in 2016 has always been that Hillary Clinton was actually a weak candidate - personally unpopular and a poor campaigner saddled with an aura of scandal. Personally, that never convinced me. Hillary Clinton was an effective Senator from New York and Secretary of State, whom many thought would have made a better President (especially in the international arena) than Obama. In an alternate political universe in which voters cared about things like experience and qualifications, she should easily have beaten an inexperienced outsider like Trump. But, of course, this is not that universe, and what most voters seem to have wanted was change - even change of any kind and at any price. 

To be sure, Hillary Clinton lacks her husband's natural political ease and has become personally very guarded after decades of attacks both from Republicans and from the media, which have always been especially hard on the Clintons. That and the media's perennial obsession with horserace and pseudo-scandal (her weakness) rather than with substance (her strong point) elevated the relatively minor matter of Hillary's emails into a preoccupation the media was forever unwilling to let go of. 

That said, I think the decisive blow came from the strange campaign of Bernie Sanders, who successfully damaged Hillary in the eyes of many would-be Democratic voters and further weakened her in the eyes of the media. While it is true - and to his credit - that Sanders supported and actively campaigned for Hillary in the general election against Trump, it is as true - and to his eternal discredit - that before that he spent months discrediting her in the eyes of those who for whatever weird reason followed his banner. Who would ever have imagined that a cranky old socialist and his anachronistic ideology would so successfully play Pied Piper to mobs of millennials?

Much has been said and written about the supposed similarities between Trump's and Sanders' core constituencies. What they apparently did have in common was a shared hostility to establishment elites and a willingness to blow up the entire political system if necessary. There is not much that is admirable or substantively effective in that, but it does highlight a widespread popular dissatisfaction with government and institutions in general - and with the unresponsive elites who have managed those institutions by which so many feel they have been so ill served. This is a serious reality - and a very serious problem.

It is a serious problem because stable democratic politics presupposes social institutions (both governmental and societal institutions, including churches) that both function effectively and are broadly respected and valued as legitimate. And we know from history what happens to a society when its vital social institutions lose legitimacy.

To the extent that the destabilizing forces of globalization, the principal beneficiaries of which have been educated elites, have been undermining our families, our communities, our churches, and our other social and governmental institutions, therein lies a lot of the blame for the current crisis.

To the Democrats belongs a significant share of blame for this. If Republicans have largely supported the socially corrosive forces of global capitalism, Democrats have correspondingly applauded the corrosive forces of social and sexual individualism that have wreaked havoc upon families and communities - and especially non-elite level families and communities. What does it say, for example, when a President seems so much more concerned about the issue of transgender bathrooms than about the catastrophic collapse of rural and working class communities and families? (And, in any case, shouldn't a just and compassionate society be able to respond to those individuals experiencing gender dysphoria in a humane and helpful way, without having to undermine hitherto universally valued axioms of human society?)

Political parties often regroup and rethink after a serious defeat. Maybe this tragic upset - and the fact that there are as yet no obvious, uncontested heirs to Obama and Clinton could create an opportunity to blow apart the modern Democratic party's obsessions about identity and autonomy and open the field for some substantive rethinking. The Republicans sort of tried something like that at the elite level with their post 2012 "autopsy," which was then radically rejected by the party's "base." Perhaps the Democrats can do better.

The Democrats' alienation of - and from - their historic working class base began with the 1972 McGovern debacle. It took 20 years - and the ascent of Bill Clinton - to reconnect the Democratic party with the American mainstream. What Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council did for the Democratic party then shows it can be done - if a defeated party is willing to ask why it was defeated and is willing to hear and learn from actual answers.

As the popular vote totals show, the country as a whole is almost evenly split. The operative theory up until now has been that demographic change is on the side of the Democrats. Eventually that may work out that way. But, at present and for the immediate future, the Democrats' failure to connect with traditionally Democratic working class voters in formerly manufacturing states is fatal and must be remedied.

Victory will challenge the Republicans to break with their present patterns of obstructive behavior and relearn how to govern. Defeat can do something similar for the Democrats and make them capable of governing again by learning how to win again.

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