Miller Endowed Chair for Industrial and International Security, Professor of Political Science, Director – The International Security and Intelligence Studies Program, Bellevue University, USA
A day most thought impossible. A day many more will now fear is the end of the world as we know it. The instinctive reaction on the morning of November 9th from Democrats in general is to be politically nauseous, confused, angry, and despondent. I have already heard the profound disappointment of many who cannot believe that a candidate who basically ran on so-called ‘white man anger’ and not much else won the most powerful office in the world. I can understand this reaction, even the confusion and anger. But I would also be remiss to not stand back and say that is an oversimplification of what has happened in the United States on November 8th. And honestly, after what most people across all parties will agree was the most vile and distasteful election campaign in American memory, what we need now is less simplification and more subtle nuanced thinking to understand what just happened.
First, the Progressive movement in America has to clearly take this as a wake-up call for its future strategies in campaigning. The modern classic approach of appealing to the major cities, youth, women, and minorities will still work. But it works when you have a candidate that is charismatic, energizing, and inspiring as a public figure. This was Obama. It was not Hillary. If you watched the individual county breakdowns in key states like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, not to compare Hillary against Donald, but to compare Hillary in 2016 against Obama in 2012, you saw an astounding decrease in performance. Make no mistake: Hillary was still handily beating Trump in key cities like Detroit, Miami, and Philadelphia. But compared to how Obama beat Romney in those cities in 2012, her lead was almost like a declaration of punishment by voters. The one thing commonly heard was how ‘scary’ Trump was to voters in these major cosmopolitan, urban, minority-held areas and that they would turn out in droves to ‘negative vote’ against him. Hillary was just the beneficiary of that effect. This election clearly seems to show that assumption was horribly and monumentally misplaced by Progressives. So, if you cannot assume allegiance from the urban minority vote, and you do not have the ability to charismatically move them as the previous incumbent did, then you need to be able to reach people outside of urban areas. And this ‘rural strategy’, if you will, has been basically abandoned by Progressives as a lost cause. Perhaps it is at the moment. But it has to stop being ceded without effort by their side. Can anyone even name a Progressive who was at home talking with the ‘regular folk’ far outside of hoity toity cosmopolitan centers? Ironically, it was Bill Clinton. But that is because he was originally one of them, from the poor backwoods of Arkansas. It was natural to him. It was not natural to his wife. And this hurt her immeasurably.
Second, it is too early to say for sure right now but there is at least some semblance that young voters, another major group typically Progressive in their leanings and overwhelmingly energized eight and four years ago by Obama’s charisma on the campaign trail, just could not find it within themselves to vote for their obvious ‘compromised’ candidate. Again, the assumption was that Trump as a figure was so bad, so scary, so heinous, that they would simply not be able to bail on the election. This was yet another error that Hillary could not overcome with her personality or her bad press. I think it is quite possible that Progressives misunderstood one thing about the fear of Trump: most millenials and young voters in America did indeed find him utterly distasteful and buffoonish. But buffoon is not the same thing as Hitler or KKK Grand Wizard (two images that we will undoubtedly see a lot of within Progressive circles in the coming weeks, if not the next four years). The attempt to characterize Trump as the second coming of Adolph was not as successful and powerful as the attempt to have him seen as the second coming of Bozo the Clown. And young people tend to not fear a 70 year old Bozo the Clown, even in the Oval Office. And they can be just reckless enough to defiantly back away from an election, bringing Bozo the office, but thinking it does not matter because in four years they can bring the real candidate they wanted in the first place to challenge him. Most important to remember in both of these instances is that hope and faith is being placed not on the excitement for their own candidate but on the ominous fear-mongering they believe the other candidate deserves. Hoping for an inspired electorate to vote based entirely on what I call ‘negative voting’ (you do not vote for a candidate as much as you vote against another one) is a shaky foundation indeed. The Democratic Party found that out on election night in 2016. It needs to remember that lesson moving forward.
Third, and this will be the hardest lesson for the Democratic Party to learn, I am not entirely sure this election marks the return of the angry white man as a strategy to win the White House. If the Republican Party thinks that is what happened then it should prepare itself to lose future elections and lose them often. Yes, Trump most certainly went after the white majority vote and felt confident that if it was energized, then their numbers would outrun a demotivated Hillary Clinton voting bloc. It is easy to characterize this as just appealing to white people’s innate racism and sexism. And truly, Trump did not help that perception with his multiple gaffes and awkward comments and ridiculous statements that show, even in victory, that he is not necessarily ideally suited to assume the Office of the President. But I wonder if what was more impactful within this voting conglomerate was not any sense of unity based on race but rather unity based on the sense of being completely isolated out of American prosperity with few prospects for finding new opportunities or alternatives to tap into it. It is easy to dismiss an electorate when you think they are motivated to vote simply because of some archaic and inane ideas that belong in the Jim Crow South in 1888. But it is not so easy to dismiss an electorate that is fueling its motivation to vote because of a deep sense of feeling that their country does not care about them and has nothing to offer them: no space, no place, no advancement. That is not motivation based on White Power or some other nonsense. It is drive based on the need to feel relevant and successful and secure and stable. It is clear that Trump’s strategy awoke that worry, rightly or wrongly, and it appeared in droves on November 8th.
Back in January 2016, I predicted Hillary would win 47% to Trump’s 42%. It is fascinating to see that Hillary is basically right at that very number, but it is Donald who is hovering instead at 48%. That 6% might not seem like much, but in an election of such low expectations, negative voting, and a despised and distasteful campaign season, it is a huge margin. A margin, apparently, that won the Presidency. People need to keep that in mind: racists did not win it; Russia did not manipulate the victory; Wikileaks did not steal it. What happened on November 8th was about poor strategies and worse assumptions on the very people one side needed most to ensure victory. And it is why the Democrats lost.
Having said that, Republicans also need to realize just what they won and did not win: this is not back to the future or a new mandate. It is not about building a wall. It is not about calling entire peoples rapists. It is not about declaring the rest of the world will bow down and do what we tell them because they know what is good for them. It is not about worshipping at the lowest common denominator throne and hope the other side is even worse than you in terms of likability. If they think that, then they need to prepare to be in that Oval Office for only four years and soundly rejected in 2020. There were deep and powerful messages sent to both parties on November 8th. These messages hold the key for each to not only reinvigorate what has become a sickly American political system, but hold the key for Americans to start feeling truly represented by their representatives. And if that actually emerges from this incredulous result, then we just might look back on November 8th, 2016 not as the day the earth stood still, but as the day our earth finally started moving forward.