It seems to me that Democrats are now involved in a pointless proxy battle between what we might call a “deep causes” explanation of the 2016 loss (strategy, ideology, candidate) and one focused on illegitimate outside interventions: Russian hacking and subversion or James Comey’s week-out intervention in the presidential race. Any effort to hold these two explanations as alternatives, as though one obviates the other seems either dishonest, pointless, distracting or simply silly.
Just to put my cards on the table, I believe there is a good likelihood, probably even a probability, that if the Russian subversion campaign had never happened and James Comey had never released his letter, Hillary Clinton would be prepping to become our new President. My own guess is that Comey’s letter had the bigger impact. These were both profoundly damaging events in the race and Clinton lost by very tight margins in most of the newly (hopefully temporarily) red states. I see little way to challenge this assertion.
But the tiny margins are only one side of the story. Let’s take Wisconsin. The final tally puts Trump ahead by .8%, or 22,748 votes. That’s a tiny margin. Any number of things could have shifted the balance. Spending the final week of the campaign talking about a new investigation of Clinton’s emails was more than enough to tip the balance. Spending not just a single trip but more concerted time in the state could have too. But now look at the shift from 2012. The shift in the direction of the GOP was 7.7%. That is a huge shift over four years. Huge. There’s no getting around that. If you step back from Wisconsin to the larger Upper Midwest region and indeed the United States you see something more fundamental. Donald Trump did what we all remember Barack Obama doing in 2008: He changed the shape of the electorate.
What all of this comes down to is that something very big happened in this election that was quite separate from Comey and Putin. Let’s put a pin in that for a moment before we discuss what that ‘something’ was. These outside interventions (obviously of very different kinds) were something like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I think it’s quite likely that without them Clinton would have held on in a tight race. Perhaps the shift in Wisconsin would have been 6% or 6.5% rather than 7.7% The consequences of this defeat, which are frankly massive, would be vastly different. But the shifting politico-demographic shift would be only slightly less steep.
If you believe in the integrity of our elections, American sovereignty and – yes, let’s say it – the importance of the legitimacy of the Trump presidency, the Russian sabotage and influence campaign is hugely important. But if you can’t distinguish between let’s say the 1 or 2 percentage point shift caused by Russia and Comey, from the 5 or 6 or 7 percentage point shift that made that small shift so consequential, I really don’t know how to help you. They’re both extremely important, but for very different reasons.
My own sense is that this is mainly internecine score settling. Everybody who wants to be vindicated by Clinton’s defeat won’t stand for anything that doesn’t place the matter 100% on her shoulders and those who supported her. Much the same applies to Clinton’s historically large popular vote margin for someone who lost the presidency. There’s no reason you can’t trumpet the fact that Clinton was the popular choice while also noting that consequences all stand or fall by engineering wins through the math and logic of the electoral college.
Which brings us to the other clarifying point. Hillary Clinton will never be the Democratic presidential nominee again. The intricacies of her emails or James Comey’s decisions about the investigation into them will never be campaign issues again. Whatever you think about the Clinton Foundation will never matter again in a presidential campaign. That means that figuring out the future of the Democratic party just has nothing to do with any of those things. I’m tempted to say Russian hacking won’t happen again. But frankly, I’m not so sure. They already appear to be pulling the same thing with Angela Merkel. In any case, external subversion, cybersecurity just belongs to a separate conversation and realm.
The truth is it shouldn’t have been close enough for these outside interventions to have allowed Trump to win. But it was. Was that because Clinton was a terrible candidate and Sanders should have been the nominee? Maybe. But I doubt it. At a minimum I don’t think it is so clear as to be treated as a given. Clinton always had serious liabilities – some tied to her personally and others of historical circumstance. Sanders lacked many of Clinton’s liabilities. He also had numerous other liabilities that no money or real adversary was ever put up to exploring and exploiting. But again, personalities … I guess it’s somewhat more possible that Sanders will run for President than Clinton. But I highly doubt either will. Which brings us back to that ‘something’ we put a pin in above.
What is the ‘something’? I don’t pretend to have the entire answer or even a particularly original one. Some part of it is the underestimated, inherent difficulty of winning a third presidential term. But that’s not all of it. While I believe Democrats have many good economic policies, I don’t believe they have an adequate and overarching theory of the problem of wage stagnation or ever-increasing economic insecurity (a interlocked series of economic and political problems) or a set of policies and a politics to address it. That doesn’t mean they’re ignoring it. That doesn’t mean anyone else has a better set. But what Democrats have is not enough. Holding the presidency for eight years combined with a still accurate belief that their constituencies are growing while the other party’s is shrinking has led to a deep deficit of political organizing in all fifty states. Democrats had this as recently as a decade ago. But it atrophied. As much as anything there is a revolt against the increasingly urban and non-white America symbolized by the ‘Obama coalition’, one that combines racial backlash, economic decline and cultural marginalization. There is something there that goes far beyond anything that can be addressed by a more class based politics alone.
This is just the broadest brush notice of key issues. It’s neither terribly detailed or original. My point here isn’t to offer that critique or to pose a solution. My aim here is simply to highlight that fact that multiple things produced the November 8th result. Some are enduring and will be there in 2018 and 2020. Some are contingent events that will likely never happen again or at least not in any predictable way. They all happened. They’re all important. They get addressed, dealt with in different ways. But standing them up against each other, shouting one down in favor of the other has far more to do with the self-destructive score settling which the bitterness of defeat brings in its wake than anything that is productive of building a different, better future.
I don’t have any unified theory of the problem. I also see no point in exaggerating the problems. But I can also see a list of 4 or 5 things that need working on right now. Getting to work on those seems more important than any grand unified theory.