The American left after 2016


Donald Trump is poised to become president, but the bigger problem is that even if a majority of Americans oppose him, that majority has lost too many other elected offices which could effectively check a bad president.

If Democrats’ focus on big campaign donors has contributed to this, it has probably done so more through atrophy of the party’s voter-turnout role than through weak economics messages. Trump’s voters appear to have been motivated by resentment of racial and other social inclusion, rather than by economic struggle. Voters who supported Obama’s campaigns didn’t substantially defect to Trump; many stayed home, and we have fewer facts about their motivation, but there is reason to question whether it involved an economics or any message.

In general, electoral success probably has less to do with rational assessment of message or anything else, and more to do with demographics, partisan loyalty and even more arbitrary factors. Republicans have taken advantage of this by ignoring good government, and instead using such electoral success as keeps coming anyway in order to implement laws and policies that suppress or otherwise foil Democratic turnout.

All is by no means lost, but the time for Democrats to reform and refocus is now. The party still has some power to craft policy, especially in cities, and should push back aggressively to boost their constituencies’ turnout. Democrats should combine this with renewed organizing and engagement with grassroots, and not only preach but practice inclusion of diverse people, groups and ideas from outside the party elite.

Championing social and economic equality to rally the diverse majority threatened by Trump, rather than muting “identity politics” in hopes of winning over angry white voters, appears to be the most promising avenue to recovery.

As an introduction, I would like to propose a few basic working assumptions:

Rule #1: You win power by putting together a coalition of voters big enough to deliver whatever numbers are necessary for you to win.

Rule #2: In politics, it’s not really possible to know with certainty what is the optimal next step at any given moment. (Related to this, election results provide limited help, because usually everyone can find evidence to support their preferred approach, or at least evidence for questioning alternatives. But saying “we can’t blame any one thing” risks leading away from any real effort to fix something.)

Rule #3: In a very large, long-established nation with a complex system of democratic government, massive change probably doesn’t happen all at once. I think we face a serious crisis, or indeed crises, but they are about a lot more than Donald Trump’s pending presidency.

This being said, we may as well start with what has prompted so much soul-searching, even if it needs to extend well beyond that.

What the hell happened?

Election officials reported Donald J. Trump winning majority votes in states with electoral votes that add up to more than 50% of the possible total.

It’s entirely fair to question any assumed implication of this fact. Did Trump win or did Hillary lose? Did Trump even win majority votes in all of those states? Does any of this mean that America voted for Trump, or that he is factually the next president?

Based on our customary interpretation of how the Electoral College works, Clinton almost certainly did lose, and Trump almost certainly did win the right to be the next president. I’ll examine the lingering related questions in Appendix 1. The more pressing question is “how could this have even become a close election?” As many have asked, how could multiple states which voted twice for Barack Obama could have come close to voting for Donald Trump?

The mechanical explanation for this, as best I can tell, is that few individual voters “flipped” from Obama to Trump. Instead, Trump turned out lapsed or nonvoters in “rust belt” states (and Iowa) to produce vote counts above the last two or three Republican presidential candidates’. Hillary Clinton more than made up for this, in fact, but mostly in “blue states” where it did not lead to more electoral votes. Her vote totals in the rust belt were uniformly down from Obama’s 2012 numbers, which would have won those same states this year.

Within the close rust belt contests, any number of factors could have been influential. Vote suppression efforts undoubtedly had some impact, though analysis suggests that it can explain only a fraction of the fall-off in Democratic votes. (There is argument over whether or not this fraction was key.) The bottom line seems to be that “Democrats lost millions of voters to some other candidate [besides Trump] or to abstention.”

Why? I believe honesty demands acknowledging first that, while the flaws which cost her most may not be the same ones which I personally regard as most significant, Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate. Her formidable “inside game” for the party nomination was not matched by an equivalent general-election campaign. To all appearances she had an immeasurably better “ground game” than Trump, but it also had holes, including absences from some of the very rust belt states which were so sorely missed on election night.

Beyond this, one can easily begin making a laundry list. Even a popular term-limited president seems unable to confer much advantage to his party’s nominated successor, whether he or she attempts an independent identity (Gore, McCain) or embraces the concept of a third term (Clinton). Media coverage was certainly unhelpful to any Trump opponent, as Republican rivals’ staff will vehemently agree. In Clinton’s case, the FBI abetted this problem, though she and everyone else also knew she was being investigated by the FBI long before the election. As Mitt Romney might attest, meanwhile, disparaging one’s opponent can work but disparaging people who support one’s opponent is probably a misstep.

None of this, however, seems to explain let alone justify how millions of adults could even consider voting for Donald Trump. Here, it’s my impression that in some ways Trump was less of a freakish outlier than many people believe, and that the genuine outlandish awfulness which he has displayed probably did him more good than harm.

Unfit for office didn’t mean unelectable

A couple of analyses which I have read observed that in the end, despite protestations to the contrary, “the GOP came home” and mostly voted for their nominee. Meanwhile, plentiful analyses (including my own) have for some time recognized partisan tribalism as surpassing more and more other issues, particularly among Republicans.

If 2016 proved anything, I think it was this. Historically unpopular candidates produced no real surge to third parties. If there were any real case for a third-party “spoiler effect,” I can guarantee we would have heard much more yelling about it by now. (As of the second half of December, some voices are finally beginning to introduce a “spoiler” case, though this may never rise very high on a list of scapegoats that includes the FBI, hackers, Russia, Russian hackers, fake news, disproportionate attention to e-mails, etc., etc.) Realistically they were largely a non-factor. Gary Johnson obtained enough votes to qualify Libertarians for federal funding, and that may be interesting in future but he seems not to have cost Trump the election. Jill Stein recently raised more money in a few days for a recount that can only benefit the Democratic Party’s nominee, than she raised for her own campaign all year. The most successful non-major-party candidate was, depending on your definition, either Bernie Sanders or Trump himself, both of whom ran in major-party primaries.

In some ways, I long believed and continue to believe that Trump was nonetheless not a meaningful departure from the Republican “mainstream,” at least compared with the ongoing trend of recent years. Republicans have shut down the government, openly flirted with defaulting on America’s debt obligations, kept a Supreme Court seat vacant for what will eventually be an entire year; alone among the world’s major political parties they have embraced denial of climate change’s very existence… None of this has cost them power, let alone the support of Republican voters. Why should Trump’s brazen assault on reason and respect have done so?

Clearly, the idea that offensiveness and destructiveness can “go too far” for the GOP voting base is easily overestimated. If Trump did accelerate the existing trend, he didn’t do so by much; consider that his closest competitor was probably Ted Cruz, whom as I recall was generally agreed to be very nearly as awful. Much of our culture, and particularly that portion with some authority or other status, nonetheless perceived Trump as a dangerous extreme and made attempts to depict him that way. Why did some voters beyond the Republican base also shrug this off?

If there’s one lesson to draw from the juxtaposition with Brexit, it’s that rich, powerful, famous and/or credentialed people all lining up to say “no” does not carry much weight with angry voters. To the extent that Trump did spur some Republican leaders to disown him, that seems not to have made much impact within or outside of the party. Misogyny was probably more persuasive but still not enough to peel away Trump’s support in great numbers; regardless of whether or not they “ought to” do so, women apparently don’t vote en bloc even when facing the choice between a woman and a vile misogynist pig.

Beyond that, I think that Trump probably benefited from a strong desire on some voters’ part to have a candidate upon whom they can project what they want to see. How many people have said or written some variation of “I’m not sure, exactly, we’ll just have to see” about a Trump presidency? Despite bountiful evidence of exactly what kind of person Donald Trump is and what kind of agenda he will pursue, some people apparently really like the idea of an outsider candidate and will firmly grip the idea of possibilities at least until the election is over. If this amounts to a con, in fairness Barack Obama benefited from a similar effect to some extent. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, simply could not even pretend in 2016 to be an undefined quantity.

Combined, the advantage of simultaneously being an “outsider” candidate for unaffiliated voters, and the party’s candidate for tribal partisans, offer a compelling explanation for how an offensive, reckless clown could have been competitive against a highly qualified widely endorsed professional. This said, I have yet to consider two of the most popular explanations for Trump’s popularity. Did his opponents’ shortcomings on economic discontent empower an avatar of populist anger? Or did his own shortcomings on pluralism and basic humanity prove, for many voters, not a bug but a feature?

Economics vs. identity politics

This is what everyone’s really interested in. Certainly it’s what seems to spur the most enthusiastic comment. Was Trump’s election the long-deserved comeuppance for neoliberal elites’ abuses of labor? Or was it a “whitelash” by bigoted assholes who, at least in America, just do this kind of thing every so often when fermenting hatreds build up too much pressure?

I would certainly like one of these to be the big answer, and I have no doubt as to which. “Neoliberal” has become just about as distasteful to me as “neocon” became during the Bush years. I’ve moved from The Economist to Paul Krugman to Dean Baker. I supported Bernie in the primary, and think it’s exciting that many Americans and especially younger Americans are proud to identify as “socialist.”

So of course my instinct is to join in with Bernie and Elizabeth Warren and Nina Turner and all those arguing that it’s still “the economy, stupid” albeit with very different prescriptions for it than Bill Clinton’s. Not that I think race or “identity politics” are distractions, or even negotiable per se. But I would love to think that corporate Democrats’ long reluctance to go after the 1% is what has lost not only the White House, but Congress and so many state capitals. I would like to think this because there is, at least in theory, an obvious fix which appeals to me. I would also like to think this because the most popular alternative is not only disturbing but defies any such direct solution.

At some point though, I grow skeptical about theories that amount to “we should be offering my views more aggressively.” It would be nice, but I would like more evidence. Alas, after surveying a variety of analyses and processing their arguments, I have concluded that what I would like to think isn’t well-supported by evidence.

The information I have about economics’ role in the election appears somewhat mixed, but it’s possible that this is mostly due to context and definitions. One source advises that Clinton surpassed Obama’s 2012 numbers considerably with affluent households, but that this was offset by losses “with the working and middle class.” Another very thorough article, however, claims that overall “Most Americans with incomes below $50,000, and a strong majority of people with incomes below $30,000, voted for Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump got his strongest support from solidly middle-class white people with incomes from $50,000 to $100,000, and also won more support in higher-income groups.” (“It was the angry white voters who resent the hillbillies… not the hillbillies themselves, who flocked to the Republican candidate,” the same author memorably proposes.)

It’s entirely possible that all of these things are true. That would permit multiple interpretations, but doesn’t seem like a clear case for economic hardship. Nor do the fates of Russ Feingold and Ted Strickland, who “campaigned on economically populist platforms — but they did notably worse than Hillary Clinton.” There are, here as well, plenty of factors to blame. Both candidates were “retreads,” and Strickland was distinctly uninspiring. But anyone who can explain how Russ Feingold failed on progressive economic messages—let alone failed worse than Hillary Clinton—please let me know. Otherwise, this does at minimum seem like one more reason to doubt that a more populist economic platform was Democrats’ missing ingredient. (Also, Zephyr Teachout lost, and I believe that single-payer healthcare fared much worse in Colorado than Clinton.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the scale my reading is more consistent. “Study after study after study came to the same conclusion: What most distinguished Trump voters was not their economic status but their attitudes on race, gender, and immigration.”

This is another opportunity to argue over definitions. Other than openly declaring “I am a racist,” or something nearly as conclusive, we don’t seem to have a broadly accepted test for racism; many people have become uncomfortable with its application to just about anyone who rejects it. But various writers refer to “resentment” over race and other differences, and they make a compelling case that this, more than a colossal con job, is why so many people would choose an arrogant, privileged tycoon to champion their “revolt.” Perhaps, in fact, because it wasn’t much of a class revolt.

More quotes from what I think is the most persuasive article along these lines, and which places Trump in the context of Brexit and other instances of burgeoning white extremism:

  • the personal circumstances of most Trump voters have improved during recent years: His movement is not a knee-jerk reaction to an actual economic setback…Rather, it is based on a deeper psychic sense of loss, one not so solidly moored in lived reality.
  • one of the strongest indicators of Trump support (and support for far-right movements elsewhere) is a belief that things were better in the past. …that sense of decline and pessimism is strictly a white phenomenon
  • It is not economic decline or immigration that cause people to become right-wing radicals, but proximity to those things, from a vantage of white security that feels threatened by the unknown. [Emphasis added]

This seems like a recognizable phenomenon, at least. Is there anyplace where people are more afraid of “the inner city’s” dangers than the comfortable suburb 10 miles away? The same article suggests that Trump votes also correlated to geography, but as much with type of place as with one or another region of the country. Trump did well in lightly populated areas, where people may indeed feel “left behind” but perhaps also where they rarely see black people in numbers—and as a result consider the prospect of black empowerment a threatening disruption.

One important note, here, is that “Exit polls do not collect information about why voters stay home. Perhaps it’s time someone asked them.” Given the significance of staying-home voters for Clinton in key state losses, I completely agree. For now there is still a big blank, here, providing space to write in things like “The reality is economic issues have eclipsed social issues in the minds of ordinary American voters.” This could still be partly right, but it and most of the plentiful assertions to the same effect seem to be mostly instinct or folk wisdom, and the fates of Feingold and Strickland at least argue for caution. Meanwhile, whatever motivated the nonvotes, it looks like votes for Trump were driven much more by resentment of inclusive social change, than by resentment of economic inequality.

Responses to the resentment vote

There’s no backing down in the face of racism, misogyny, and other hate. That shouldn’t be negotiable, and probably won’t be, even if some Democratic politicians want to. I don’t expect millions of people to quietly go back “in their place,” least of all in response to a president taking office with a minus two million vote mandate.

Meanwhile, I find multiple sources agreeing that the greater part of Trump’s voters, white working class voters included, are unlikely pick-ups for Democrats. They’re tied to conservative cultural identities, to which any kind of progressive social agenda is simply a threat. Some of them may respond to economic populism, but only in tandem with ethno-nationalism; an alternate package with inclusiveness won’t compete, particularly since their preferred package is likely to be on offer from the GOP for some time to come.

This said, the millions of people who voted for Trump are not a monolith, and I don’t think that we ought to condemn them all at once. For one thing, I’m not sure that it’s useful; again, disparaging a candidate’s supporters never seems to help, really. For another thing it seems a bit hypocritical, here, given how many people voted for Obama twice but believe “I’m not for endless bombing, deportation, mass surveillance, a war on whistleblowers, pipelines, the TPP…” Maybe some Trump voters really did vote for him as a reluctant compromise rather than with enthusiasm. Some might still be fairly racist, anyway, but even some of them might decide for one reason or another to drop their support. A few are having second thoughts already; that seems like something to welcome rather than scold.

As I wrote recently in another long analysis, few audiences like to be lectured from a perspective of superiority. Whether or not doing less of this would help, I think that the left does a lot of this these days. Even as a card-carrying woke SJW, I often find us grating, and I’m not alone in this. I can put it in perspective and recognize that it isn’t hurting me, but many sensitive souls don’t achieve the same. Is blasting them even more really the most enlightened way forward? If we do think that people need to be challenged, should we also challenge our own team to see if we can say some things better? For example, while I accept the concept of white/male/etc. privilege, recently it has occurred to me that instead of scoffing, many people bothered by the idea might consider it only too valid—as a threat, that for others to do better they’ll have to lose out. If we believe that such fears and the resentments they fuel are wrong, and that social justice is not a zero-sum game, could we e.g. find ways of expressing that beyond “duh, stop being a hater?”

The bigger challenge

It may be intellectually and ethically worth trying to better communicate about the obstacles to equality, and what overcoming them will mean even to those who don’t see any positive interest for themselves. It probably won’t win Democrats a lot of Trump voters, though, and there may not be much that will. There may not be a message or platform that will win any large numbers of additional voters, in fact. It may be that these things are not really key drivers of electoral outcomes, and that other reforms will matter much more.

Before getting to that, however, this presents a good moment to take stock of the problem; some other solution may be a bigger deal than message, but the full problem of the American left is definitely a bigger deal than the 2016 presidential election.

Our problem, as progressives and/or Democrats, is not so much that a virulently illiberal Republican is poised to become president. Our problem is that we’ve reached a point where the presidency is about all we have.

The eight-year Obama presidency has not made any real shift in the Supreme Court’s ideological balance. Republicans control both houses of Congress. The right has made frightening inroads in state governments: “Republicans control both houses of state legislatures in at least 32 of the 50 states. Republicans would only need to take over six more states to be able to ratify any constitutional amendment of their choice.” As bad as this is, there’s every possibility it can get worse, too. More-conservative courts, more vote-suppression measures, perhaps even worse gerrymandering than we have now if it’s at all possible.

Meanwhile, the real goal of politics is or should be to transform policy. Genuine winning would, ideally, involve shifting the boundaries of what’s expected and acceptable such that when your faction eventually loses power your agenda still has force. From this perspective the situation is at least as bad; I struggle to think of lasting policy wins by the American left this century. Mike Pence notwithstanding, I suspect there is now insufficient desire on the right for what would be a very difficult task of really rolling back gay rights. (Don’t take that for granted though.) Otherwise, every achievement of the Obama years looks fragile, as do many older achievements. It’s just possible that the shaky commitment to universal healthcare access will prove challenging to rescind. But it’s also entirely possible that just as with their plans for Medicare, the GOP will maintain lip-service to the commitment while shutting down its delivery.

As the Republican party explores new frontiers of obstinacy, lasting policy victory may not even be a plausible idea for the immediate future. For now, it’s completely impractical anyway, as the Democratic Party has been reduced to a few urban fastnesses in much of the country. Ohio, where I live, is a prime example. Even while Ohio voted twice for Obama, the Ohio GOP consolidated control of the governor’s mansion, the state supreme court, both chambers of the legislature and every single statewide elected office.

How did we, and too many other states, get here?

A system-wide problem with system-wide problems

A few days ago, I saw a Tweet proposing that “Propaganda is not the problem. Broken systems are not the problem. Mushy minds are the problem.” I agree that the problem is more than propaganda. Of the other two, I’m not sure whether I would prefer to face mass cognitive weakness, or a broken system which naturally complicates its own repair; neither one seems very susceptible to change. In any event, preferable or no I have to disagree on which is the problem. I believe that broken systems are a very big part of the problem. I am coming to believe that systems and their design are one of the few solid, consistent factors in politics.

I have a big book to read titled Democracy for Realists. I sense that this article provided an effective summary of its thesis, however, which is that the outcomes of elections are probably even more random than you think, even now.

In the big picture and over the long term, there’s still reason to believe that democratically governed societies perform better than alternatives. The authors of Democracy for Realists have concluded that once you zoom in even a little, however, any pattern associating elections and good government is quickly lost amid noise.

This dovetails with other suggestions I have read, in recent years, that whether or not it’s a recent or particularly American phenomenon, our politics bears little resemblance to a Darwinian struggle in which ideas, candidates and organizations thrive based on how effectively they serve the general welfare. I distinctly recall Ezra Klein opining, a couple of years ago, that American elections appear little more than a meaningless demographic-driven see-saw. A Democratic electorate tends to turn out every four years and vote for center-left presidents, e.g., then leave midterm elections up to a Republican electorate which votes for a right-wing congress and state governments. It seems that any consistent trend underlying voter intent must be sought at such a large scale as to be near meaningless. It may be that, as an entire generation has anticipated, demographics favor Democrats, but only at such a pace to remind us that “in the long run we’re all dead.”

Here and now, though, we can discern a distinct and distinctly contrary trend in political outcomes. Republicans are not going extinct but taking over. It’s my thesis that the greatest part of what explains this is not policy or message, but instead a system which is largely indifferent to these things, combined with leveraging its responsiveness to “meaningless demographics” instead.

System bias

All else being equal, a two-party political system should tend toward equilibrium over time, seemingly. Even if reasoned debate plays little role in this, I believe that there is a tendency for political success to check itself by energizing the defeated faction and making victors complacent. It’s an old rule of thumb that “the president’s party loses seats at midterms,” and I think this is one prominent example of a larger phenomenon which someone has called “the thermostat effect.” Whether it results from a desire to check one-party government, or from discontent naturally accruing to whatever party holds prominent office, or from factions simply swapping out comfort for desperation, the capture of high office seems to encourage loss of other offices.

It may be that this was once more complicated but, like so much of American politics, is increasingly dominated by the presidency. Political coverage obsessed with the presidency, combined with tribal partisanship in which “ticket-splitting” has largely ceased, seems to drive a politics in which a party occupying the presidency is in aggregate punished at every other level.

Unfortunately, all else is not equal. The results seem unequal; within just two years Clinton’s presidency badly hurt Democrats, and Obama’s even more so, while a “thumpin’” of Republicans in response to Bush’s presidency was slower to arrive and less thorough. If the psychological impact of terrorist attacks helped Bush’s party (and fanatical aversion to healthcare reforms perhaps intensified the punishment of Clinton’s and Obama’s), there is likely a much bigger reason why a thermostat effect has shown bias toward Republicans. The system which processes any such voter reactions is biased toward Republicans, and has become more so.

Demographic trends may favor Democrats some day, but at present they penalize the party in combination with America’s constitutional malapportionment. The Electoral College is one obvious example, rewarding as it does geographically distributed support and thereby tending to discount Democrats whose numbers are more concentrated in urban areas. The congressional apportionment on which the College is based does the same thing, with similar effect; California’s large liberal electorate notoriously has exactly the same power in the Senate as does Wyoming’s tiny reactionary electorate.

If our population’s political spectrum were evenly distributed, regionally, the Constitution’s bias toward states over people would not matter, but obviously this is not the case. The characteristics of a left-leaning party are consistently associated with urban society more than rural society, and this is unlikely to change. Long-term trends toward urbanization should at least mitigate the resulting handicap—or would do so if Republicans weren’t successfully aggravating it through gerrymandering. It may be primarily an accident that the 2010 “wave election” in Republicans’ favor coincided with both the first redistricting in which big data allowed a quantum leap in gerrymandering’s impact, and with an increasing Republican disregard for any customary standards of fairness. In any event, the GOP granted itself 10 years of nearly unassailable majorities in both the House of Representatives, and many statehouses including Ohio’s.

In some states, of course, this hasn’t happened because even in a “wave election” Republicans just weren’t popular enough. Some states just have a political character which consistently disadvantages one party or the other, regardless of their national fortunes; partisanship, geographic “sorting” and other demographic trends are probably intensifying that character in some cases, even as other states are gradually becoming competitive.

Formerly competitive states like Ohio, however, now have solidly Republican representation that their electorate does not match. Malapportionment alone can’t explain all of this, either. Elections for statewide office can’t be gerrymandered. It’s tempting and probably correct to look at Democrats’ loss of all these offices, and at candidates like Ed Fitzgerald and Ted Strickland, and conclude that the Ohio Democratic Party is just rubbish. But there is also plentiful further reason to conclude that the party’s mushy minds might still be competitive if not for a system that is biased against Democrats in many ways besides geography.

Republicans have, here and there, become increasingly honest about the reality that “tough” voter ID rules and other voting restrictions have nothing to do with fraud and everything to do with their disproportionate impact on populations that tend to vote Democrat. In some states, e.g. Florida, mass incarceration of black men combined with disenfranchisement for convicted felons has produced a significant further program of Democratic vote suppression.

Campaign finance laws which give an advantage to the party most associated with affluence might be regarded as a further systematic disadvantage for Democrats. The weakening of Democrats’ traditional base in organized labor might represent another; industry shifts away from established union trades may or may not be a system issue, but Republican legislation actively suppressing union organizing certainly is.

If Democrats’ candidate selection has contributed to their losses, that too might be blamed in part on systems: when malapportionment shrinks your party’s delegation in the state legislature, that also reduces your pool of candidates for statewide races. Additionally, many of the remaining candidates will have acclimatized themselves to primary campaigns in solidly blue cities, and as a result even the less-mushy minds among them may simply lack useful training for statewide general elections.

At some level, Democrats still bear responsibility for their own failings. One other memorable comment from Ezra Klein comes to mind, here. On the tendency of Democratic turnout to fall off in midterm elections, regardless of what party controls the White House, Klein suggested that as an explanation for defeat this really just restates the problem. Rule #1: Persuading people to show up and vote for you is the whole game.

In fairness, I can make an argument that a broken system contributes here, as well. Voting, especially in the face of vote suppression measures, is probably more of an effort for Democrats’ constituencies than Republicans’. If arranging time off from a low-income job to reach the polls, and finding a transportation option to do so, is a burden, then it isn’t entirely surprising that more of the working poor do so in presidential elections. Our culture’s increasing indifference to all other races, in favor of a year-plus obsession over the presidency, suggests that people making a special effort to vote will likely do so in presidential elections rather than midterms.

That said, Klein’s point still stands. Providing motivation and support for enough sympathetic voters to elect your candidates is still what a party is for. Whether or not a message about money in politics is an oversight on Democrats’ part, Bernie Sanders is probably correct that fundraising or at any rate something has diverted Democrats’ attention away from the basic task of organizing people. Barack Obama’s lack of further engagement with his campaign organization after it elected him may have been a substantial failing, as Sanders has suggested. The lack of such people-focused organizing by Democrats generally, before and since Obama’s campaign, is a substantial failing without question.

The reserves

The picture facing Democrats, progressives, and, in real ways, most human beings looks grim right now. Aggressively reactionary politicians are already in power at so many levels, even before Barack Obama vacates the White House for Donald Trump. Worse, those politicians have been using power to build further biases into a system that inherently features significant biases against Democrats anyway. It’s tough to fix something when so many tools are either broken, themselves, or in the hands of people who want to do further damage.

There are still reasons for courage, however, and to believe that effort can make a difference.

Back when the commentariat was still processing the reality of candidate Trump, I recall a suggestion or two to the effect that “Trump is not the big threat, the big threat is that someone smarter will come back next election cycle and use the same playbook more effectively.” I’m not convinced that this was entirely wrong. It now feels foolish to suggest that Trump “has to implode” at some point. Yet it’s still true that things go wrong, and that this probably still applies to a vain, mentally unbalanced man about to assume the presidency with neither experience in nor much evidence of patience with how the system around him works. Predictions that this would cost his campaign have proved exaggerated, true. But a campaign is not the same thing as an administration.

If I were guiding some kind of right-wing master plan, and even if its eventual goals included Trump’s most extreme agenda items, even now I think that I might feel a little concern about being too far ahead of schedule. Particularly given that Trump himself will take office with a significant majority of voters having opposed him, and with congressional Republicans eager to combine his agenda with more unpopular ideas, like privatizing Medicare.

Being in the opposition always construes some advantages. If bias in the system reduces some of them, having unpopular policies to oppose potentially enhances those advantages in other ways, as does starting out as an opposition majority among voters. All the more so if demographics also look likely to grow that majority, eventually; this doesn’t provide immediate help, and may never provide help if demographic gains are suppressed, jailed or deported away. But it’s worth keeping in mind as encouragement in fighting such outcomes.

We have friends, including some unlikely ones. A Libertarian Party with federal funding just might prove a significant friend, four years from now. As might, if handled properly, businesses that may decide tax cuts aren’t worth the tradeoff of war and social repression; some may, but not necessarily all. We may find some form of support from abroad, as well, if we can figure out a way to work with it.

Democrats still have some power to deploy here and now, too. Malapportionment makes our concentration in cities work against us in some ways, but there are ways to make it work in our favor and we must make the most of them. City and perhaps some county governments should not only resist the right’s agenda, they should be leveraging their power to make the system more favorable, just like the GOP does in statehouses. I have read one proposal suggesting that cities might set in motion a process toward compulsory voting; whether practical or no, the strongholds where Democrats can still govern should be making greater efforts to turn out the favorable local electorates.

We also have a court system which, if tilting toward the right, is still honest enough that it seems worth investing significant time and resources in litigation. Republican legislators seem to give substantially less of a fuck about rules than do even those courts on which Republican-appointed judges sit. Progressive groups should feel free to let fly with lawsuits now, while we can, and perhaps we can thereby help enable electoral recovery. Maybe courts will help us reverse gerrymandering; meanwhile in some places we also have the right of referendum and should take advantage of it, on this and other issues as well.

On the whole, ultimately, we still have what Benjamin Franklin described all of those years ago: “a republic, if you can keep it.” If the jeopardy which he perceived from the beginning is greater, right now, we should keep in mind that the opportunity is also greater than that enjoyed by much of humanity. Most vote-suppression measures make it less likely that people will vote, but don’t genuinely repeal the opportunity to do so, e.g. People in much of the world have to struggle for a just society, and for many of them even our flawed, broken system would be a heaven-sent improvement compared with what they have.

Ends and means

The most popular suggestions I have seen for the left are “organize,” and “more economics less identity politics.” The former seems valid, if vague by itself. The latter seems questionable, at least as a response to a backlash by people whose anger may have an economic component, but probably one driven by cultural resentments more than by real circumstances that policy can address.

The next-most common suggestion is probably some variant of “Electoral reforms around voting, districting and registration.” As one author has emphasized very directly

When Republicans take power, their first priorities are voter suppression and right-to-work, their second is to destroy the capacity of government to aid working families and their third is to turn the government into a patronage machine for wealthy whites. Democrats have failed to understand* that in order to win, they must do the opposite.

In other words, not just resist measures meant to suppress Democratic turnout but aggressively and unashamedly seek to boost it. I see no reason to disagree, here. It’s difficult to see how increased turnout is even unfair. If that tends to help Democrats, or even if the party emphasizes policies that really target Democratic constituencies, that still seems fair given that the GOP is actively pushing the other way and unlikely to stop soon. They’ll yell about fraud but they do that already. If party bosses worry about losing some control to an active rank and file, it’s time to recognize that the alternative is losing all control to Republicans.

As the same author continues, “Giving workers, unions, activists, organizers, immigrants’ rights groups, #BlackLivesMatter and other groups a seat at the table is necessary for Democrats to be electorally successful — and, given how weak the Democratic bench is, to foster future political talent. Party elites will have to cede some power to make this happen.” Along similar lines, the reality of strong partisanship but weak parties suggests that making primaries as open and inviting as possible is also worth pursuing. Whether or not more open primaries would have given Sanders the party’s nomination, his fundamental argument in favor of encouraging outsiders to invest in the party’s choice seems valid. If the party base is likely to “come home” eventually no matter what, then ability to energize other voters seems more up for grabs than ability to energize the base.

The Democratic Party could work on this now. It has some scope to work on voting rights and perhaps even gerrymandering, as well, either through local government, the courts or ballot referendums. Otherwise though, a good deal of this approach’s potential will be reserved for some future, when Democrats somehow return to power again. The same goes for some proposed solutions accompanying one or two impressive analyses of the problem. It’s long past time the party get behind popular election of the president, but doing so while out of power will be difficult. Likewise, higher education for more people probably is one of the most concrete measures available to combat white extremism, but delivering this will probably have to await Democratic majorities. Reducing segregation would probably be helpful here also, though it’s likely to be a tough project even with Democrats in power.

Considering a number of these suggestions, I’m reminded of a bumper sticker spotted by the author of Miles from Nowhere in a western mining region: “please lord give us one more boom, we promise we won’t piss this one away.” Trump’s election needs to be the wake-up call for a Democratic party which has largely slept through American politics’ transformation from civility into civil war. Wake up; the fever is not about to break, and “bringing the country together” is fantasy bullshit.

Republicans are not playing nice, and that fact is benefiting them rather than costing them. Whether because of the demographic threat they face, or because of the challenge of pursuing unpopular policies, or because they’re just assholes, they seem to have adapted rapidly to the emerging understanding of electoral outcomes as only distantly related to rational policy debates. Rather than worry about converting new voters, they’ve worked to build state party infrastructures and count on the see-saw to raise them to national power eventually; at both levels they ruthlessly implement measures to weight down Democrats’ side of the see-saw.

It’s time for Democrats to catch on and respond in kind, even if it feels unsporting or undignified or god forbid “partisan.” Supreme Court justices need to swallow their pride and time their retirements based on who will nominate their replacement, rather than on personal wants. Senators in competitive states ought to consider doing the same. (I have great respect for my onetime senator, Tom Harkin, but his choice to finally end a long career at a midterm election left the door wide open for the disaster of Senator Jodi Ernst.)

Democrats have long since lost their shame about grubbing for money; they can get over shame about grubbing for electoral advantages. In addition to encouraging more voter turnout, empowering organized labor, and pursuing fair apportionment, look into even more-bold measures. Perhaps in some states, Ohio included, Democrats ought to consider moving the races for some state offices to presidential election years. At the national level, it’s time Democrats embrace statehood petitions from D.C. and Puerto Rico. It isn’t enough to play defense against Republican shenanigans, nor remotely necessary when so many reforms that would help Democrats will do so mostly through empowerment and fair representation anyway.

Please, if Democrats ever get one more boom, don’t piss it away.

Messages and right now

My own firsthand experience inside a political campaign suggests that, even if I’m overestimating the arbitrariness of electoral outcomes, the significance of this or that message is probably still exceeded by how much energy people want to spend debating them. I’m pretty sure that a big reason why turning the conversation toward message is so popular owes more than anything to how much it interests people who get politically involved.

To some extent, that’s fine. Message must have some importance, if only because there are people who consider it important, and therefore dismissing it entirely is just not possible let alone practical. Even if organizing is the real key to winning elections, message may be very important in motivating lots of people to organize.

I won’t pretend to know what Democrats’ message or platform ought to be, in any detail. I have a good idea of what outcomes I want, probably much like most progressives, most Democrats and on some level most people. I have preferences about what policies I would like to try first, but I don’t know that they will work out even if sincerely embraced, as Rule #2 always reminds us. To the extent that specific message details have little importance, of course, it seems like progressives might as well take the opportunity to drag the party away from neoliberalism toward socialism; maybe it won’t help but it probably won’t hurt.

My reading has suggested a couple of good tests for platform and messages, though, besides just my own instinct or e.g. peer pressure among people I trust. First, along the lines of emphasizing voting rights because it’s both fair and politically advantageous, it seems like Democrats’ economic policies should try to achieve the same ends. As with gaming voter turnout programs, Democrats are already getting the criticism without the value; “Republicans may imagine that Democrats provide people of color with endless benefits and use those benefits to mobilize voters, but in reality Democrats have entirely failed to do this.” It seems valid to put more thought into a policy’s politics, including from the perspective of expanding Democratic constituencies. In recent years I have seen a variety of sources from all over the Democratic spectrum suggest that “Means-tested programs that help the poor but exclude the middle may keep costs and tax rates lower, but they are a recipe for class conflict.” Everyone receiving benefits may mean e.g. free college for people who can afford to pay; it also seems to mean one more policy that Republicans can’t openly run against. The more of those, the better.

As a second test for party platforms, particularly on economics, it’s probably time to get simpler. From a campaign perspective, it certainly seems like “Democrats practice policy, not politics” is a fair charge. “How can ‘expand access to equity capital for rural businesses by increasing the number of Rural Business Investment Companies’ compete with ‘Make America Great Again’?” Maybe perfectly well, if Democracy for Realists and other critiques are accurate. But I would certainly feel a little more confident advocating for Democratic candidates if I were able to offer some kind of brief, comprehensible explanation of our party’s vision for the economy and how our policies would get there.

Personally I have a lot of sympathy for economists and other “wonks,” but I also think that the past year demands a major recalibration of what “ideal policy” looks like. Numbers may show that, in theory, market exchange combined with complex regulations and targeted tax incentives produces the optimal outcome, though questions are emerging about how sound even the theories are. Economists are starting to consider whether the pain of trade deals is more concentrated and more lasting than predicted; fine-grain, complex regulation seems like their greater efficiency compared with hammer-simple rules can be offset by the greater opportunities to evade their intent through gaming the system.

Meanwhile, the political failings of “wonkish” approaches have been obvious for some time. One of the most memorable articles I have read in recent years observed that, e.g. “people generally prefer rules telling them something is not allowed, rather than charges making them pay for it, even if the latter are clearly more efficient at maximising social value.” Events of the half-decade since it was written suggest that this minor nuisance might in fact be a critical failing which demands a reevaluation of economics even more fundamental than the financial crisis did. That’s a whole other essay though. Meanwhile, for political purposes I think it’s worth examining whether Democrats can simplify and politicize economic reform proposals without completely throwing out economic wisdom. At the very least, narrower focus could help; I’m not really one to talk, but I still think it’s a fair observation that “Massive funding is needed for community college programs linked with local businesses to train workers for well-paying new economy jobs. Clinton mentioned this approach, along with 600,000 other policy suggestions.”

If there’s any message advice that persuades me, it’s that on economics and other issues, Democrats should emphasize a limited number of ideas which persuade people that Democratic candidates really are fighting for them. Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America” may have been corny as well as terrible, but after two decades of rolling my eyes at things like this and the “USA Patriot Act” and “Make America Great Again,” it’s time to acknowledge that these things haven’t fared so badly in practice. Whether or not message stunts move many voters, Democrats should find and coordinate around ideas which at least energize grassroots organizing, rather than turning it off. Maybe e.g. the fight for a $15 minimum wage isn’t a good option for this, everywhere, but if Democratic politicians don’t like it they need to find a better alternative than Cleveland city officials’. Elected Democrats publicly asking a Republican legislature to help block a grassroots referendum campaign for better wages sure seems like the exact wrong approach for a party trying to rebuild, no matter what.


Organizing is probably the most important immediate activity for resisting Republicans’ agenda. This will be hard, although I think this aspect gets overemphasized; for years now I have encountered articles scolding the left for not putting enough time into organizing which the authors invariably describe in the most unappealing terms possible. Perhaps the way to get people to do “the unglamorous, unsexy, hard work of organizing” has more to do with spelling out what this is and maybe emphasizing features that don’t sound like a root canal… and less to do with lectures from people who sit at their laptops enlightening the internet with their wisdom and direction. (I may be less vulnerable here than you think, though I realize I’m still vulnerable, so no need to alert me.)

At the moment, a lot of us are ready to organize in any event, and it’s as promising a response as any. The potential is substantial; in terms of how to reconnect with the working class, in reality “The new working class is racially diverse and gender-diverse” more than it’s rustbelt white males. But “it is also demobilized.” I think that nostalgia for “the Obama coalition” which only really existed once before dispersing is growing unhelpful, but whatever it’s called a majority constituency for Democrats does exist. The necessary votes to survive and defeat a Trump government exist, and can overcome voting barriers with a new commitment to making that happen.

Democrats need to build networks big and small, and become a consistent part of communities rather than an every-two- or every-four-year parachute drop.  They need to bring in new blood, at every level. I’m skeptical of the Brand New Congress campaign, but I think they have a very good idea in their active effort to search out and recruit good new candidates instead of the same old retread politicians playing musical chairs.

Ultimately, everyone who wants to go someplace other than where Trump is leading needs to compromise a little bit, not with his base’s anger about social inclusion but with one another. The grassroots needs to get involved, and donate time and money and energy, and be in more meetings and committees and town halls. But the politicians and big donors and professional campaign staff need to welcome them in, and adapt to broader participation even in high-level matters. Time for union bosses to hold member votes on candidate endorsements, time for all the state parties to open up their primaries, time for Senate Democrats to start practicing diversity in addition to preaching it.

If the Democratic Party offers both reasons to participate, and opportunities to participate—including, but far more than, just voting for Democratic nominees—we can recover. If the party starts fighting for electoral fairness gains rather than just fighting to win increasingly biased electoral contests, we can thrive. We can “make our nation more politically, economically, and socially equitable” by working together within the majority which supports this, and transcend the minority which opposes it rather than compromising with them.

* I wonder if the failure here is not a perfect example of the same abstraction that mutes public concern about voter suppression: just like society at large, the people who “count” in the Democratic party are too white and too affluent to really feel the burdens of voter suppression measures personally, and therefore it becomes easy to lose this issue in the blizzard of polling analyses and social media campaigns and fundraising e-mails.

Appendix 1

Until the electors vote, it’s not completely accurate to say that Trump is the next president. Nothing requires the electors to produce that outcome, other than custom, and many political customs have broken down in America lately. Combined with the fact that a very significant majority of voters preferred another candidate, I think it would be completely valid for electors to spurn Mr. Trump. I don’t think that anyone should assume that discarding this particular custom, now, won’t produce its own unhappy results down the road. I also don’t think the customary interpretation of the Electoral College process is likely to be tested at the moment.

I describe Trump as “almost certainly” winning based on that interpretation, because I think our society underestimates the possibility of election fraud, out of discomfort with the idea. The distributed nature of states and boards of election makes big fraud implausible, but in a close state, much more limited fraud could make the difference for all its winner-take-all electoral votes. I believe it is unlikely that this has occurred, but dismissing the possibility completely seems unwarranted, and outright absurd for Democrats who have issued public charges of election-tampering by both the FBI and Russian-sponsored hackers. America should take election integrity more seriously, including but not limited to routine recounts in close elections. Particularly in the event of surprise outcomes.

This election result certainly was a surprise outcome. The possibility of invalid vote totals in key locations offers one explanation for how so much polling suggested a Clinton electoral-vote victory; perhaps one occurred. Most likely it did not, for which I don’t have any special explanation. Obviously, polling is fallible. Among other illustrations of this reality, Brexit was supposed to lose and it did not, and I have seen negligible suggestion of any explanation besides misleading polling. Perhaps we should recalibrate our reading of poll numbers, and e.g. interpret any final-week prediction of less than 80% confidence as “toss-up.”