Wayne O'Leary

Fools, Damn Fools and Democrats

Once again, as in 2000 and 2004, Democrats have lost an election they should have won, falling victim to an eminently beatable opponent in almost embarrassing fashion. In the process, they’ve turned the country over to a resurgent Right for the foreseeable future. Let the recriminations begin.

The first question is, how could this happen? We can start with the party’s candidate for president. Hillary Clinton was “experienced,” but also a poor campaigner unable to articulate a vision or lay out a rationale for her candidacy. The qualities of inspiration Democrats depend on to generate enthusiasm in their ranks (the rhetorical flourishes of an FDR, a JFK or an Obama) were totally absent from the Clinton campaign. Aside from a cadre of aging feminists and a retinue of Clinton loyalists left over from her husband’s years in power, no one seemed excited by the prospect of a Hillary administration.

Partly, this humdrum mood was a product of the campaign’s retrospective nature. The words of one of the many Clinton surrogates — no run for the White House has ever had more — summed up the mindset nicely. Veteran Democratic operative James Carville, commander of the first Clinton campaign’s “war room,” titled the election-year update of his 1996 book, We’re Still Right, They’re Still Wrong; it was a thinly veiled invitation to refight the battles of the 1990s and apply late-20th-century solutions to 21st century problems — hardly the battle cry of a movement for change in what turned out to be a change election.

In place of a broad, all-embracing theme, the Democratic campaign substituted a distillation of identity politics that some have labelled “boutique” for its smallness and narrowness. Voters were not viewed holistically, as part of a national community with common concerns, but were addressed as members of separate interest groups (Blacks, Hispanics, gays, women, etc.) to whom special appeals had to be made. One of Clinton’s feminist supporters, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, unwittingly highlighted this Democratic approach when she pointed to gender issues, such as pay equity and reproductive rights, as priority concerns of the campaign that would have to be dealt with, presumably ahead of others.

While Democrats were preoccupied with these sorts of social issues, the average voter was anxious about the cost of living, the source of future, decent-paying jobs, the availability of home mortgages, the likelihood of affordable health care, and the looming threat to retirement pensions and Social Security. Such basic, everyday concerns, which in the end motivated many Trump voters, seemed of only marginal consequence to the Clinton campaign and Democrats at large, even though they were of vital interest to worried and fearful members of America’s middle- and working-class electorate.

The core upper-middle class constituency of the modern-day Democratic party, which forms the basis of its non-populist centrist wing, is just not moved by these issues. It is made up of highly educated, economically secure people who are comfortable enough to afford the luxury of worrying about liberal cultural issues; this cohort is not working class, nor do its members associate with anyone who is working class.

The core Trump constituency, on the other hand, is quintessentially lower-middle class. It is disproportionately composed of working people (plus a small-business component) whose economic concerns ceased to be central to the Democrats once Bernie Sanders left the race; they just fell into Donald Trump’s lap through criminal neglect on the part of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

Some of the Trump voters were undoubtedly racist and xenophobic, but certainly not the majority, who were the same victims of economic dislocation and insecurity won over to the Democrats for a time by Sanders. To assume otherwise is to assume that half the electorate shared the authoritarian, fascistic tendencies attributed to Trump. More likely, those voters simply regarded Trump as a change agent, a disruptive force whose bull-in-a-china-shop antics might somehow counter the oppressive consequences of globalization pressing down upon them.

Remarkably, the Democratic leadership viewed these people with much the same attitude as that expressed by the Mexican bandit addressing Humphrey Bogart in John Huston’s epic film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. To paraphrase: “Working class? We don’t need no stinking working class!” The casual dismissal of an entire segment of the voting public, lumped together by Hillary Clinton as indistinguishable “deplorables,” sealed the election for the Republicans.

Rust Belt Democrats from Pennsylvania and Ohio to Wisconsin and Michigan stayed home in 2016 or, like 88,000 in the Wolverine State, deserted the top of the ticket and voted only down ballot; they were a constituency Bernie Sanders could have saved for the Democratic Party. But, of course, he was not the candidate. Those running the Clinton campaign saw Sanders’ courtship of the working class as different only in degree from that of Trump, basically as an appeal to ignorance and unwarranted anxieties. In the end, they took these voters for granted and failed to address the economic forces threatening them and their communities.

Sanders and his new New Deal was the Democrats’ road not taken in 2016, a turning away that totally misread the populistic zeitgeist. So now Donald Trump will lead and shape the movement for change public sentiment demands, the change rejected out of hand by establishment Democrats wedded to the past, who saw what was happening throughout the developed world and refused to believe their lying eyes.

As much as anything else, the Clinton nomination was an expression of party inertia, an acceptance of the notion that things were OK for most people and that a fundamental political reorientation was unnecessary. The symbolism of a woman president, it was thought, would be enough to satisfy progressive yearnings. But breaking the celebrated glass ceiling was insufficient at a time when the economic walls were collapsing and the floor was threatening to fall into the basement.

The deserving loss it suffered will be good for the Democratic party in the long run, allowing it to unburden itself from the dead weight of centrist Clintonism. At the same time, it may be bad for the country. Donald Trump will deliver whatever changes we get; they could resemble Rockefeller Republicanism, if we’re lucky, or an Americanized fascism, if we’re not.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2016


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