Doubling Down on Failure

The Liberal Path to Disaster

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, many Democrats and self-identified liberals have grabbed ahold of a specific narrative in the wake of Trump’s victory. Specifically, they have organized into groups, such as “Pantsuit Nation”, various solidarity movements on college campuses, and online petition signers, to uphold the idea of the progressive path to social and racial equality in the face of an intolerant President. This has led to a doubling down on the narrative that progressives held throughout the election – that Trump is terrible, will be bad for the country and anything is better than Donald Trump. Additionally, it secondarily grabs a hold of the idea that what the country needs to focus on right now is racial and sexual equality, especially in the face of the new President-Elect.

The problem with this doubling down, is that it is grabbing hold of exactly the same narrative that lost Democrats the House, Senate, Presidency, and the majority of state governorships and legislatures on November 7. Perhaps liberals are simply unaware of just how bad their defeat was that day – however, it should be made very clear that Republicans and self-identified Conservatives are in control of almost every lever of power in the United States, and this will soon extend to the last hold-out, the Supreme Court.

The simple fact of the matter, is that the message of racial and sexual equality did not sell strongly enough in the November election. Better-phrased for those that point out how Democrats won the majority of the national popular vote, the message did not sell in any practical way. Despite the Black Lives Matter movement, voter participation amongst black Americans was not high enough; Hispanics did not turn out in great enough numbers to win Florida and Arizona; white Democrats flipped and voted Republican; and minorities are not entirely unified on the impact of race on their place in society, and not all line up behind the victim narrative.

Before continuing onward, I find it very important to point out that I very strongly believe that dialogue around race and sexuality needs to continue and is vitally important. What this post emphasizes for Democrats and liberals, is that in order to achieve the change we want around these issues, we need to take a different approach. Continuing:

It should be a significant point of self-reflection amongst Democrats and liberals that, despite discussing race at a level not seen since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s, minority voters did not turn out in high enough numbers. And if they did not turn out in 2016, after eight years with a black President who promised change, it is hard to see why they would turn out in greater numbers in the near future or believe that Democrats can actually deliver change in a systemically racist, classist, sexist society. If Democrats cannot effectively deliver change, then how are they different from the status quo Republican? Democrats and liberals should reflect on the race message the party is currently projecting, and have serious debates about the path forward with minority voters.

The message that did sell in November was the economy. This really ought not to have been a big surprise, but unfortunately for Democrats it was. There was a very visible shift amongst working class voters in the Rust Belt, and across the United States, between the period of 2008 – 2016. While average wages may have gone up, and the stock market grew significantly, the problem of income gaps, quality of life and inflation were shoved under the table in favour of discussions around sexuality, race and gender. While the latter are very important conversations to have, for people in the Rust Belt, Florida, and the southwest, regardless of your ethnic or cultural background, these conversations were so distant from their reality as to be absurd. As a personal aside, you should have seen some of the looks I would get from people in Florida if I started talking about sex reassignment surgery, or when I had to explain mansplaining to a recent Florida college graduate in late October 2016 – and then I would get absurd looks from classmates at MIT when I was certain Trump would win, even in the face of the ridiculous things he would say. Mainstream Democrats tacitly avoided discussions on systemic economic equality, with notable exceptions such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – unfortunately, when it came time for the election, the party had no solid stance on any of these issues.

The dissonance between these conversations, the feeling of a disconnect of the ‘reality on the ground’ with what politicians in Washington, D.C. were discussing, and the tremendously neutral effect they had on non-white, non-binary voters are readily apparent in a few tell-tale graphs:

Figure 1: Party Affiliation Amongst College vs Non-College Educated White and Non-White Voters

There are a few key points to notice here: First, amongst white millenial voters, party affiliation is actually rather nuanced and has not really changed that much. In fact, if anything, it appears to be getting more Republican. Second, party affiliation amongst non-white voters really hasn’t changed all that much in the past two decades – it is a mixed picture of getting either slightly more Republican with age, or slightly more Democratic with youth. Third, there is a huge split amongst college-educated voters and non-college educated voters, with the former leaning Democratic and the latter leaning Republican. Notice how strongly this divide widens in the Obama years.

Why is that? It is here that it is worthwhile to note a few more insightful graphs:

Figure 2: Economic Recovery Disparity Amongst College Graduates and Non-Graduates

It should be very clear that the economic recovery clearly favoured college graduates over those with no college. It should be no surprise, then, that as college-educated students and well-to-do members of society touted the success of economic recovery, this just made non-college-educated members of society (which is the majority of the population) feel even more disconnected from the media and government (ever read a story in the Washington Post or CNN about the successful economic recovery, while your friends are losing their jobs?). Ultimately, it ought to be clear that the dialogue over race and sexuality did not turn out more voters; instead, the dialogue over the economy and income equality brought voters out where they were needed most.

Which leads us to the next fact, which it is important for Democrats and liberals to understand – it really does not matter whether you win the national majority vote or not. What matters, is that you win the number of electoral college votes necessary to become President; that you win a majority of states to have a majority in the Senate; and that you win a majority of House districts to have a majority in the House of Representatives. And if you want to change the system of any of the above, you have to win majorities in state legislatures (But, if you really do care about the majority of the popular vote, if you remove the respective Democratic/Republican strongholds of California/Texas, Trump wins that too – which reinforces the notion that it doesn’t matter if ten million people vote Clinton in California, what matters is that Ohio is blue).

Moreover, reform to the electoral college system, which has cost Democrats two elections in recent memory, is not going to come any time soon. Republicans, who have won two elections in recent memory because of the electoral college system, control the majority of state legislatures and governorships. And if you want to reform the constitution, you need a very sizeable majority of the states behind you. If you see an emphasis on the importance of winning state legislatures, that is not in error – the party that controls state legislatures, controls the mechanisms of reform and election for the whole country.

If Democrats and liberals want to be serious about winning future elections, they need to stop worrying about securing the majority vote, and worry about securing the swing states that they lost. And the only way that is going to happen, is by changing the liberal narrative (either slightly or majorly) to offer an alternative economic path forward for the nation.

Further hearkening back to the idea in the fourth paragraph, Democrats should really reflect on the effect of status quo bias. The fact of the matter is that, despite any claims of progress on race that Democrats may claim over the past eight years, race relations are still perceived to be very bad. And if, over a period of eight years, minorities still do not believe that race relations have improved, it is very hard to sell them a progressive agenda that promises they will if minorities give Democrats another eight years. In the absence of real change, it is easy to equate Democratic government to Republican government – there is really no true difference along racial equality lines, just differences along moral lines such as abortion, and economic lines as outlined above (also remember the record deportations under Obama? Hard to really draw out sympathy from that). Democrats did make obvious improvements to gay rights – but homosexual Americans make up a tiny fraction of the population, and it is unlikely that voters who do not identify as homosexual will vote against their own economic and other moral interests.

So how is the current doubling-down on the importance of racial and sexual issues a deathknell for Democrats? Because if Trump is able to secure significant economic gains for economically disenfranchised voters in the next four years, despite absolute opposition from liberals and Democrats who oppose him on moral grounds, Trump will have laid the groundwork for a decade, if not more, of Republican control of the nation. Why? Because the economic narrative is what people who actually vote find important right now – and delivering on that message will secure swing states as red for a very long time, especially since Democrats failed to deliver on the economy in those states with eight years of Democratic leadership, which began with total control of the House, Senate and the Presidency. Furthermore, since Democrats failed to truly deliver on progressive change, they have the idea of the status quo working against them in the general public’s perception. And obstinate opposition by Democrats to what people will perceive as economic progress, all the while asking minorities and well-meaning white voters to give them eight more years of undefined somethingness, will hand Republicans the federal government – and they will have the blind Democratic opposition to thank for it.

If Ohio stays red for the indefinite future, those ten million Democratic voters in California who always turn out to vote really won’t matter that much.

In sum, moving forward, instead of forming a solid, oppose-no-matter-what strategy against Donald Trump, or (maybe even more importantly) seeming to be diametrically opposed to him in the media, Democrats may want to step back for a moment and do some deep self-reflection on how to incorporate the feelings of those that feel economically disenfranchised back into the Democratic fold. Liberals will need to realize that, yes, the path to progress is a curvy one – and that, oddly enough, sometimes the way to make and secure gains on racial and social progress is actually by focusing on other things that voters perceive as more important in the short term. What is needed  is a much more pragmatic approach towards politics, which has been largely abandoned and replaced with unrealistic idealism that is neither realized or achievable, and ultimately hurts Democrats’ ability to actually achieve change. If Democrats fail to work with Trump on economic issues, while failing to also (it doesn’t contradict this, I promise) develop an alternative economic path forwards that brings forward those who feel economically disenfranchised, and unifying that message with their progressive platform; if they fail to self-reflect and really debate what is important in their progressive platform to be more appealing to all minorities (and, more importantly, actually bring them out to vote) and come up with a real, concete path towards progressive change, they will have themselves to blame for a long period of Republican governorship.

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