observations and opinion
“We have to remain idealistic – romantic even – about human potential, but realistic about human limitations. In short, we have to win to be of any use to people.”
Today I wrote a note to a sad but resilient young Democrat. Having invested five months in the Clinton campaign, and seeing that investment achieve nothing, she has decided what to do. She’s not leaving for Canada. Instead, she’s going to Washington (DC). She has resolved to get her education and commit her life to resisting the Republican-Trumpist movement. It is a laudable goal.
In my note, I told her about my accumulating experience in and watching campaigns. I offered her this semi-practical advice:
Political parties have to win because otherwise, organizing and working seems of little worth to people if they cannot get the right officials elected & policy enacted. But a party cannot win if it doesn’t know how to win. Which takes us back to the Democratic Party.
In the United States, the number of self-identified Democrats and Independents vastly outnumber Republicans. The values espoused by Democrats consistently are avowed by the majority of the populace: people want limited government but know that government is the only instrument to deal with large-scale problems and projects. And they know that government is the wrong instrument to tell them how to live their personal lives, or who to have sex with or marry. They are not obsessed with race. They value personal liberty and accountability, but recognize that there is a community. In short, most Americans think like Democrats talk.
And yet look at what the minority party has accomplished since 2010: in the past six years, the Republicans have taken both house of Congress, most Governorships and most statehouses. And now of course, the have taken the White House. Not with a plurality of public support, but by coming in second in the popular vote. That’s true not only of President-elect Trump, but was true also of President G.W. Bush in 2000 and has been repeatedly true in Congress, where the GOP gets far fewer votes every turn than the Democrats, yet the GOP wins.
The Democrats don’t know how to win. They just don’t. We are beginning to hear, from within the ranks and beyond, the simmering rage and astringent analysis of just why they can’t win. Blame is being thrown already, by the spadeful.
The problem with blame is that it makes people immediately defensive, and forecloses discussion. Throwing mud is fun, but it just obscures things. If we “blame Hillary for being a flawed candidate” that’s fair – but how did she get so “flawed” – how did her reputation become so dark? To some degree, through her own style and actions, but to a much larger degree through the concerted, systematic two decade long program of character assassination from Fox News and friends.
Of course, you have to ask: why did that character assassination work? Why didn’t Democrats overcome it? And if they couldn’t, why did they nominate Hillary at all? (I’m hearing that question).
But you know, Hillary didn’t lose the House in 2010. Or in 2012 or in 2014, or for that matter in 2016. Hillary didn’t weigh-down gubernatorial and state assembly house candidates across the country. I’m not saying her candidacy wasn’t a problem this year, just that it was only one problem, or part of a complex system of problems. Prolonged failure on such an epic scale is a multifactorial event – there are dozens of reasons.
Democrats can’t get enough people to vote them – not even the people who agree with them on many things. That may be because Democrats aren’t paying attention to what their own voters are concerned with. Many Americans have feelings and thoughts which sharply diverge from aspects of Democratic orthodoxy. Americans worry about immigration, from an economic and cultural perspective. They know their lives are harder and believe “open borders” and free trade have contributed to that. If they are wrong to believe that, who has educated them otherwise?
White men know that their historic supremacy – cultural, economic and political – is dwindling towards twilight. That’s just a fact. Their privilege is being eroded. I call that justice, and so would most active Democrats, but whoop-de-doo: there go millions of voters. How do you connect with them, without stoking their grievances and milking nascent bigotry? I don’t know, and neither does the Democratic Party.
There has to be a way of recognizing grievance, without capitulating to it or promising to “fix it.” There has to be a way of acknowledging the pain inherent in change, without shaming them for their sense of loss or their hurt. As I said in an earlier article on this point, Americans today find themselves living in a country where the Pride Parade is a more “appropriate” – or at least “cool” – gathering than the Santa Claus Parade. That’s new and you don’t have to be a KKK member to feel the incongruity of it.
Change is hard. It has been hard on Americans, even where it has been just and proper change. The Democratic Party itself seems reluctant or impervious to change. Democrats celebrate social change and the liberation of historically disadvantaged peoples – quite properly – yet resist intellectual or behavioural change that might enable the party to succeed.
That’s called irony, I suppose. Bitter irony. To change, you have to learn – and unlearn – things. Again from my letter to the young Democrat:
“Some of what you believed and knew to be true on Tuesday morning, was not true. Start there. Be honest with yourself about that, and gently nudge others to do the same.”
No-one can identify all the causes of what happened, or how they meshed together to create disaster. But they did mesh together to create disaster – a virtually unelectable man, whom two thirds of Americans say is unqualified for the office, will be inaugurated in January 2017. That is what the Democratic Party, in part, helped achieve this week; a grim fact that must be acknowledged. An honest, painful, necessary analysis has to be done, in good faith, and with courage.
Better than any advice I can give, is that of my favourite Republican:
Some of what people believed on Tuesday morning – perhaps a great deal of it – is not true. Among those beliefs was the notion that Democrats and like-minded souls would turn out to vote. They didn’t. Maybe the discussion has to start there, then move deeper and outwards.
“We must disenthrall ourselves” said Lincoln. Clearly that is true. Since the day they were uttered in 1862, those words have seldom had more meaning or relevance, than in these last months of 2016.