Recent days have seen a rash of op-eds from liberals holding the Left accountable for the election of Donald Trump.
Some of this is solipsistic navel-gazing, a symptom of the very same bubbled thinking these liberals have realized is a problem. They’re delivering Trump and his voters a backhanded insult by saying errors made by their own side were the primary determining factor in the election.
Still, there are valid insights to be found in these articles, some of them probably quite painful to express. A bit of digging is required to find the insights in Thomas Frank’s piece at the UK Guardian, for example, because he spends the first few paragraphs howling about how awful Donald Trump is.
Once that primal scream is out of his system, the author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? – a book whose thesis was that working-class folk were foolishly voting against their own material interests by supporting conservatives – Frank allows “there was a reason that tens of millions of good people voted” for Trump, and hopes he was serious about pledging to “drain the swamp” of D.C. corruption.
Then he lays into Democrats for choosing Hillary Clinton as their candidate, chastising them for their obsession with credentials and their blinkered fealty to the political pecking order:
Why, oh why, did it have to be Hillary Clinton? Yes, she has an impressive resume; yes, she worked hard on the campaign trail. But she was exactly the wrong candidate for this angry, populist moment. An insider when the country was screaming for an outsider. A technocrat who offered fine-tuning when the country wanted to take a sledgehammer to the machine.
She was the Democratic candidate because it was her turn and because a Clinton victory would have moved every Democrat in Washington up a notch. Whether or not she would win was always a secondary matter, something that was taken for granted. Had winning been the party’s number one concern, several more suitable candidates were ready to go. There was Joe Biden, with his powerful plainspoken style, and there was Bernie Sanders, an inspiring and largely scandal-free figure. Each of them would probably have beaten Trump, but neither of them would really have served the interests of the party insiders.
And so Democratic leaders made Hillary their candidate even though they knew about her closeness to the banks, her fondness for war, and her unique vulnerability on the trade issue – each of which Trump exploited to the fullest. They chose Hillary even though they knew about her private email server. They chose her even though some of those who studied the Clinton Foundation suspected it was a sketchy proposition.
To try to put over such a nominee while screaming that the Republican is a rightwing monster is to court disbelief. If Trump is a fascist, as liberals often said, Democrats should have put in their strongest player to stop him, not a party hack they’d chosen because it was her turn. Choosing her indicated either that Democrats didn’t mean what they said about Trump’s riskiness, that their opportunism took precedence over the country’s well-being, or maybe both.
Frank slams the left-wing media hard as well, for pushing Clinton in over-the-top ways that rang false to even casual news consumers. Since the public clearly wasn’t equally in love with this “peerless leader clad in saintly white,” voters came to see her glowing media coverage as hostile and condescending toward them. As Frank puts it, the implication of much mainstream-media coverage was that only “botched humans” and racists would choose Trump over Clinton, which alienated much of the audience.
“Maybe it’s time to consider whether there’s something about shrill self-righteousness, shouted from a position of high social status, that turns people away,” Frank modestly suggests.
He also criticizes the Democratic political establishment for growing complacent and assuming their vital constituencies “have nowhere else to go and no role to play except to vote enthusiastically on the grounds that these Democrats are the ‘last thing standing’ between us and the end of the world.”
This theme was taken up with brio by Jim Newell at Slate, who dismissed the moribund Democratic establishment as a “joke”:
I think of the lawmakers, the consultants, the operatives, and—yes—the center-left media, and how everything said over the past few years leading up to this night was bullshit.
The midterm losses? That was just a bad cycle, structurally speaking; presidential demographics would make up for it. The party establishment made a grievous mistake rallying around Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t just a lack of recent political seasoning. She was a bad candidate, with no message beyond heckling the opposite sideline. She was a total misfit for both the politics of 2016 and the energy of the Democratic Party as currently constituted. She could not escape her baggage, and she must own that failure herself.
Theoretically smart people in the Democratic Party should have known that. And yet they worked giddily to clear the field for her. Every power-hungry young Democrat fresh out of law school, every rising lawmaker, every old friend of the Clintons wanted a piece of the action. This was their ride up the power chain.
Newell zings the media for listening to Democrat operatives who claimed Clinton had a “lock on the electoral college,” but “didn’t know what they were talking about.”
He blasts the insular Democratic Party establishment for indulging Hillary Clinton’s sense of entitlement, media handlers for assuming she was scandal-proof because she’d been involved in so many scandals over the years, crack election analysts who didn’t realize Clinton needed to visit Wisconsin while Trump was storming the Rust Belt, and left-leaning commentators (including himself) who overestimated the schism in the Republican Party while failing to notice the Democrat crack-up that was brewing.
Most of those criticisms could be leveled at conservative media as well. The Democrats’ growing demographic lock on the Electoral College, for instance, is accepted as grim reality by a lot of people who are profoundly unhappy with it.
Right-leaning critics of Trump have been running all sorts of what-if scenarios, both before and after Election Day, to argue that other 2016 GOP candidates could have done even better than Trump did. They should consider the possibility that Trump shook up the electoral map in a way none of the other candidates could have – which of them was going to win Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and make Minnesota a squeaker? Some of the other candidates could have won in different ways, in part because Hillary Clinton was a uniquely awful candidate, but for many of them, the tired Democratic assumptions about the electoral map that Newell assails would have been essentially correct.
Newell’s point about the lopsided media emphasis on Republican civil war is interesting, too. Was that partially because the conservative NeverTrump movement appeared disproportionately strong on social media, and so many reporters form their political impressions by studying social media these days?
Republican voters largely “came home” to Trump in the end, and Democrats mostly came home to Clinton, despite many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters loudly stating they would never vote for her. However, many Democrats stayed home. Clinton’s weakness with Democrats was her undoing. Newell is correct to argue that liberal media’s prejudices prevented it from understanding that not only was there a Democrat schism, but in the end it was more serious and immediate than the Republican schism.
The question going forward will be how much of this was due to Clinton personally, and the way she firmed Republican resolve while disenchanting so many Democrat voters. (Newell thinks the Bernie Sanders / Elizabeth Warren wing of the party is the future, which will only be true if more Americans forget what socialism really is. Maybe Venezuela will be out of the news by 2020…)
The Wall Street Journal finds some Democrats staggering through the ruins of the 2016 election, looking for a more “fresh” and “inclusive” approach, which is funny for a party that was bragging about its youth and diversity the day before it collapsed.
One Democratic fundraiser quoted by the WSJ bizarrely complained about how the party leadership was too old to attract young voters, which would certainly come as news to Bernie Sanders. The real problem is that Democrats have little to offer young voters who are concerned about real and serious issues, not the social-justice claptrap Democrats obsess over.
Young voters who are seriously thinking about career and family are the ones Democrats need to worry about, and Bernie Sanders sure as hell doesn’t have anything meaningful to say to them. They don’t seem to have fallen for Hillary Clinton’s argument that she could whip the private sector with tax increases until it started creating more jobs, either.
The Journal quotes Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) complaining that Democrat strategy boils down to “raise a lot of money, keep recycling the same consultants and pollsters and strategies, and we’ll be OK. Well, we’re not OK.”
That’s a fair point, but three days ago, comparably hidebound Republicans were laughing at Donald Trump for seeking guidance beyond the same old recycled consultants, pollsters, and strategies. They were snarking that Trump pollster Kellyanne Conway was out of her mind, that Trump was deciding where to hold his rallies by throwing darts at a map.
The GOP Establishment’s post-2012 action plan was to throw in the towel on issues that only irrelevant white people in red states cared about… and now here’s the Wall Street Journal, quoting a few Democrats who are essentially arguing that their party has to grow more conservative and find a way to communicate with Middle American whites, if it wants to survive. (Of course, most of the solons who appear in the WSJ piece want to move the Democrats further to the Left. If that advice is followed, Donald Trump probably won’t have much trouble getting re-elected in 2020.)
Will Rahn at CBS News thinks the “unbearable smugness of the press” played a major role in Trump’s victory, chastising Big Media for “mocking the people who had a better sense of what was going on.”
The audience for our glib analysis and contempt for much of the electorate, it turned out, was rather limited. This was particularly true when it came to voters, the ones who turned out by the millions to deliver not only a rebuke to the political system but also the people who cover it.when he invited his crowds to jeer and hiss the reporters covering him. They hate us, and have for some time.
And can you blame them? Journalists love mocking Trump supporters. We insult their appearances. We dismiss them as racists and sexists. We emote on Twitter about how this or that comment or policy makes us feel one way or the other, and yet we reject their feelings as invalid.
It’s a profound failure of empathy in the service of endless posturing. There’s been some sympathy from the press, sure: the dispatches from “heroin country” that read like reports from colonial administrators checking in on the natives. But much of that starts from the assumption that Trump voters are backward, and that it’s our duty to catalogue and ultimately reverse that backwardness.
Rahn fires a shot across the rest of the media’s bow for entertaining yet another round of smug theories, such as dismissing Trump’s victory as a “whitelash” by racists and sexists who can’t handle the brave new world of “fairness, equality, and progress.”
He offers the interesting suggestion that Left-media has gotten much worse since the advent of social media platforms like Twitter, which has been a powerful incubator for their smugness, because they’ve been watching rabid liberal mobs shut down dissenting opinions online, and imbibing deeply from biased “fact-checking” websites that think they can end arguments with Olympian decrees of Absolute Truth. They falsely assumed the 2016 election would work the same way.
“As a direct result,. Out on the road, we forget to ask the right questions. We can’t even imagine the right question. We go into assignments too certain that what we find will serve to justify our biases. The public’s estimation of the press declines even further – fewer than one-in-three Americans trust the press, per Gallup – which starts the cycle anew,” Rahn argues.
He’s put his finger on the big problem for post-Obama liberalism: the public distrusts Big Government and Big Media for good reasons. The Left greatly overestimated the public’s ability to remember the pratfalls of Barack Obama’s ineptocracy, where failure had no consequences and accountability meant mouthing the words “I take responsibility” without meaning a single syllable of it.
They misinterpreted Obama’s approval ratings as positive approval of his presidency, when it was really a combination of the bad polling methods that got the 2016 election so horribly wrong, and Obama’s ability to personally evade responsibility for his many disasters. He was pretty good at convincing people he was a hapless spectator to everything that has gone wrong since 2009. Not many people wanted another four years of it, and Hillary Clinton lacked his charm.
The repudiation Democrats just suffered at the ballot box was so astoundingly comprehensive that it’s impossible to argue voters approve of the Obama presidency. Actually, his time in the Oval Office has been one long death march for his party, which – as Newell pointed out in his fiery editorial – doesn’t really control anything any more. Rahn is right to argue that a smug ideology is incapable of learning meaningful lessons from disaster. Frank is correct to warn that the Democratic Party’s corrupt leadership was too busy rigging the primary in Clinton’s favor to study what their own voters were saying, never mind what the hated Republican electorate wanted.
The GOP has problems too, but they’re nowhere near as intractable as the sickness Democrats refused to acknowledge until they slid under the table and blacked out, at a little past midnight on Election Eve. On the bright side, they’ve got four years for diagnosis and treatment, and triumphant Republicans had better not forget that’s a long time in modern politics.