Whither the Democratic Party, after Tuesday’s stunning defeat? There will be time enough to contemplate how our new Republican majority goes forward, but for now, it’s time for an autopsy on the demise of a Democratic era, and the collapse of an Electoral College Maginot Line.
This begins by looking back on the past two elections. It’s time we recognize that Barack Obama was not at the head of a tide, or at least not one for the immediate future. He was exceptional. He ran on an agenda that did not have broad popular support, but swept to power twice on the force of sheer charisma, integrity, and ability to inspire optimism in spite of it all. The repeated decimation of Democrats down ballot across the country shows how quickly this wore thin. The wins at the presidential level masked some serious shortcomings in state and local races, and are an embarrassment for a party that had reason to think it was on the rise.
Obama’s presidency will thus go down as a paradox: a popular man whose legacy will likely not outlive him, unless President Trump truly surprises us. The economy performed steadily under conventional measures during the Obama years, but nothing reversed the widening gaps that preceded him. His signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, helped cover more people but has been fraught with issues throughout, and probably won’t resemble the original after a few months. His foreign policy was better than that of his predecessor and of the alternatives to him in 2008, but never quite amounted to a coherent doctrine. Everywhere else, he faced resistance and gridlock; he responded with executive orders, effective in the short term but setting a dangerous precedent for successors to roll them back and more. There were some momentous shifts on social issues, though future Supreme Courts may have some word on how permanent those are. The real question, I suppose, will be whether the Democrats can harness the electoral machinery he put into place and reuse it in the future, or if it will languish. Otherwise, Obama is just the bookend to an era of rising and falling global liberalism, a Washington Consensus that arose out of post-Cold War confidence and now heads into the great unknown.
It was bound to end, as all movements must; the question was how, or when. Even if Hillary Clinton had won, she probably was the end of the line; the Democrats just didn’t have a new generation ready to carry it forward, and its limitations were becoming obvious. It could have evolved, if there were an effective leader to bridge the gap, but there wasn’t. Instead, the Democrats had a candidate of the status quo, and when she crashed, so did the whole enterprise.
Our old friend Mitt Romney has been on my mind lately. In fact, I think there are a lot of parallels between the Clinton and Romney campaigns: blandness, occasional tone-deaf statements, inability to broadcast much of an agenda other than opposition to the other guy, reliance on sheer institutional inertia, certainty of ultimate victory. The unexpected polling error in both Obama and Trump’s favors are not coincidental; it’s just that one more clearly swung the election. Candidates who fail to be fresh will always underachieve, even if they don’t make any unforced errors.
I won’t wade into the discussion over the magnitude of Clinton’s email- and foundation-related sins, but the existence of these issues is a fundamental problem when the theme of one’s campaign is competence and reliability. When a candidate gives mixed messages on the thing she’s supposed to be good at, it’s a bad sign. I’d also add that, whether there were fires or not, there has always been an awful lot of smoke around the Clintons. Yes, Republicans have drummed a lot of this up, but eight years of the same efforts exposed practically nothing on Barack Obama. Clinton was a flawed candidate, and flawed in the worst possible way for the pitch she was trying to make. Her time would have been 2004 or 2008. By 2016, it was too late.
In retrospect, I do think Bernie Sanders probably had better odds than a lot of people gave him credit for, though not as good as his supporters would have liked to believe. He certainly would have played better among the rural white people around the city I live in. But gains in one place could lead to losses elsewhere. Clinton wrecked Sanders among people of color, and Clinton herself failed to generate the needed turnout from people of color. Maybe Sanders wins back some of those Midwestern states, but Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia might all flip the other way. Do the math, and it’s still a toss-up. That particular “what if” is a murky one, and the moment is past. The Democrat most capable of building a big tent was Joe Biden, and that ship has also sailed.
A lot will be said on the left about racism or bigotry, and its apparent triumph. But any discussion of racism has to get past that loaded word and look at the details. Two hundred counties that broke for a black man four years ago went to Trump. This wasn’t a rush of people suddenly discovering hate in their hearts. Instead, you have a lot of people for whom the battle with racism was not their primary reason for going to the polls. Many of these people probably have no real desire to discriminate, but live in places where racial issues aren’t really present in day-to-day life, and are far more motivated by other factors. And when a candidate gives voice to their dearer causes, it’s not hard to dismiss some warts; once that dismissal of warts is normalized, further revelations aren’t going to upend the process. Sure, Trump would take a hit in the tracking polls when he went after someone based on their ethnicity or gender, but before long, the dynamics of the two-horse race would have him trending back upward, as the latest spurt of outrage faded from memory and the persistence of day-to-day life on the ground rose up again.
It’s also worth asking some questions about the wide range of things that fall under that blanket label of “racism.” The working definition on the left considers both a card-carrying member of the KKK and a person who questions protest tactics when Black Lives Matter occupies the freeway and fouls up a commute as exhibiting racist tendencies. Deplorable as one may find all of these attitudes and the many shades in between, it’s counterproductive to treat these phenomena the same way, and slap the same label on the full range of people who hold them. Much as “47 percent” doomed Mitt Romney, the “basket of deplorables” comment left a lot of wavering people fundamentally alienated. Once again, Clinton was supposed to be the uniter, the candidate of “stronger together.” This made her failures to live up to that ideal considerably more impactful than those of Donald Trump, who made no such claim (or, at least, not one anyone took seriously). The candidate of unity failed to display it, and the other guy spoke to voters on a levels they actually cared about. If the Democrats continue to paint with the broad brush of racism instead of interrogating different cases carefully, they will continue to appear condescending, and will continue to lose.
These racial lines have an added drawback for Democrats: most people of color are tightly packed into cities, and as we’ve seen, this limits their odds of winning majorities in the House and of winning the Electoral College despite taking the popular vote. The Democrats, the supposed party of tolerance, are extremely likely to live just among themselves, and it hurts them. Sure, it would be nice to eliminate some of those structural issues that give rural voters added influence, but this is the system we have, and it’s not going to change without getting a hand on the wheel in the first place.
The hubris of so many Democratic operatives, the belief that a more diverse nation would create a firewall and a longer-term majority, might yet come to pass. But as I explained in my initial reaction, the rise in white identity on the right is the natural outflow of identity politics on the left, however justified it may or may not be. This is why identity politics is ugly and dangerous, and it is a major reason why so many struggling states around the globe lapse into ethnic groups squabbling over government. There can be no functioning state without a nation, and that nation needs to approximate some sort of broad identity, even while allowing for nuance within it. Sure, the Democrats may be on track to pick up Arizona and Georgia and maybe even Texas over the next decade. But if they don’t change course somewhat, and rely on demography alone while failing to reach out to large demographics, things will continue to flip. Minnesota—yes, Minnesota—will be the next state to go red, along with the rural northeast, and more will follow.
I heard from a reliable source that Obama wanted to go spend time in Appalachia, but that his advisers told him it wasn’t worth the time. If true, it may prove a fatal error.
I’ve come back to Obama a lot in this post, in part because he is very much my president. The first bubble I ever filled on a ballot was for him, and even as I’ve drifted away from doctrinaire liberalism into something a lot more complicated, I don’t regret either of my votes for him. I was in Washington, D.C. the night he won, and that night might be the most momentous bit of history I ever live. Temperamentally, I relate to the man: cautious and intellectual, prone to elevated rhetoric and a desire for communal action, while perhaps suffering from a certain aloofness and detachment at times. He had genuine empathy for the America that was left behind, but forces beyond his control—forces beyond anyone’s control—largely rendered him powerless to change things. George Packer put it presciently, back in 2010, as the Tea Party arose to face Obama and the failures of Middle East nation-building and the end-of-history Pax Americana became evident:
The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia. An epigraph for our times appears in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom”: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”
The dream has soured, and it has done so on both sides of the aisle. Fortunately, we have ways to pick up the pieces.