Sunday, November 13, 2016

Election Postmortem

Before I move on to What Comes Next, I want to spend a little time on a postmortem on the election. First of all, I want to own that I was completely wrong in my predictions about this election. My crystal ball was really cloudy; my "realpolitik" analysis did not accommodate what was clearly a paradigm-shifting election. There were others, particularly supporters of Bernie Sanders, that were more aware of what was really at stake than I was. I was tepid about Bernie because I thought Hillary was more electable, and I was convinced as recently as 2 or 3 weeks ago that she was going to beat Trump like an orange, Many of Bernie's supporters are now saying, See, we told you so, if you had nominated Sanders you wouldn't have President-elect Trump right now. I have my doubts, as I always did about Bernie. But it's a counterfactual anyway.

I'm pretty hesitant to blame the results on Hillary Clinton's failings as a candidate. Over time she became much better than I thought she was capable of. She wiped the floor with Trump in each of the debates. Certainly in my bubble there was a lot of enthusiasm among people who wanted to see that glass ceiling broken, and toward the end (after voting began) there was an outpouring of emotion (#pantsuitnation) that could be compared favorably to Obamamania.

In terms of inside-baseball campaign stuff, my friend Levi Henry says that the Clinton campaign took resources out of firewall states in order to play for a landslide in unlikely states, such as Arizona. This makes a lot of sense, but it's at the same time too limited as analysis; paradigm shifting elections like this one cannot be explained simply by strategic considerations.

This election is the end result of a process of 25 years' duration, in which the Democratic Party gave up its right to claim to represent working people in this country. You can trace it to Bill Clinton's support of NAFTA against the wishes of his labor-movement constituents. Then and thereafter, the national Democratic party put their chips all the way in on the financial sector, the tech economy, Hollywood, and the supposed demographic shift to a browner, younger America. Although it continued to protect – indeed, to see its raison d'etre as protecting - remnants of its New Deal and Great Society heyday, and even expanded it with Obamacare, the Party was no longer capable of articulating a vision of a compassionate, inclusive society that could resonate with the rest of the country – that is, the victims of globalization, i,e, of the Democratic Party's own policies and strategy. A primary reason the white working class went so strongly for Trump is that, in the absence of any alternative vision of society they could buy into, they went back to their historical default – that their problems were someone else's fault.

The someone else to be blamed, of course, as is so often in American history, is the Other – the undocumented immigrant, the Muslim, and of course the unworthy black. If there's anything quintessentially American about this election, it's how the underlying racial subtext became explicit text. I keep waiting for the moment in American history when sheer racial animus loses some of its grip on white people, but it sure didn't happen this year. When white people say, “I'm tired of people getting stuff for not working” they're not only showing a radical lack of compassion for people in difficult circumstances, they're not only playing into racist stereotypes that have been hard currency in this country since before its founding, but they are also expressing the lack of a class analysis that could serve them a whole lot better than Trump's bleatings.

It's an irony of progressive history that liberals have become the main supporters and defenders of state power. Because the only operative articulation of social justice that the left has in this country – the only one it has had since the 1930s – relies heavily on the use of the levers of government programs, taxation, etc., we are put in unenviable position of defending Big Government in a country that was founded on opposition to government. In other eras, leftists have the greatest critics of state power, which (of course) serves primarily to protect, defend and advance the interests of capital. But we haven't had a left like that in this country for a long time.

Yet in another sense, Hillary's failure is the results of her own actions. She, personally, was at the center of the re-positioning of the Democratic Party in the early 1990s. Triangulation – trying to have buzzard capitalism while softening its edges – is the quintessential Clintonian strategy, and its slimy and insincere and transparently so. By pursuing political tactics in the absence of any clearly articulable strategy, Hillary (and the rest of the Clintonians) oversaw the destruction of what they putatively wanted to protect and advance. Not only was she unable to develop an economic or social vision that spoke to wide swaths of the population, but she was, personally, the symbol of that very inability. Sanders (and Obama in 2008) was right about that.

While I'm (sort of) on the subject of Obama, I'll say that there are many areas in which he was a fine president, especially in comparison to what the alternatives would have been – or what's going to come now. But those areas of his record that liberals like to ignore – his expansion of the security state, his crackdown on whistleblowers, and his reliance on and radical expansion of extralegal warfare – will not be looked on kindly by history, especially now that they are in the hands of the Orange Menace. More, Obama's rise to power as a symbol, as an avatar of “Hope”, was always more marketing tactic than meaningful, articulated vision. That's why his accomplishments are likely to not long outlast him.

Bill Clinton said, “The era of big government is over.” The result of Hillary Clinton's campaign is that that's now etched in stone. We better figure out something else to stand for, folks, cuz that one ain't coming back. In other words, the left now has to develop a meaningful vision of and program for an inclusive and compassionate public policy that relies neither on Big Government as the agent of change nor on a kindler-and-gentler laissez faire capitalism. The lack of such a vision, in addition to good old American racism, goes farther than anything else to explain the disastrous and paradigm-exploding election last week.

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