Stop Blaming the Voters

Torched by the surprise election of Donald Trump, the greatest minds of the establishment classes have convened and made their proclamation: it’s not their fault. The voters of America just aren’t moral enough to embrace their message.

Of course, it’s not the voters’ fault. The voters did exactly what many of us predicted they would. In a race featuring a status quo Democrat insisting that America is already great against an angry GOP populist, the populist shifted voters making under $50K/year by 25 points away from the Democrats and made gains in almost every single demographic category except one: rich people making over $100K per year. Clinton did better than Obama among the well-heeled by 10 points! Pour the champagne, pull out your diamond-studded safety pins  and raise a toast.

Only the brilliant minds of the establishment could have taken a race featuring a 68-year-old white lifetime civil servant, running against a comically corrupt billionaire real estate tycoon who rides in a gilded elevator to a gaudy sex palace highrise home befitting a Sasha Baron Cohen character, and turn it into a referendum on temperament and multiculturalism instead of inequality.

It didn’t work, of course. It turns out that voters of all races care more about the economy and trying to revitalize it than the establishment thought. Compared to 2012, Trump’s GOP gained 8 points among blacks, 11 points among Asians, and (though there is some dispute) even possibly 7 points among Hispanics. Perhaps most shocking of all, Trump only gained 1% among whites. If the Clinton campaign’s goal was to generate high turnout and loyalty among minority voters, it failed spectacularly. Clinton did best among voters when she emphasized economics and inequality, but the campaign chose to make its closing argument about other issues that didn’t motivate the electorate.

Faced with the opportunity of a lifetime to plant themselves firmly in the camp of the beleaguered 99% of all races and backgrounds, Democrats bizarrely chose to make 2016 all about the culture wars instead. The exit polls show that minority voters of every race decreased turnout and shifted from Obama to Trump anyway, while poor whites got the message loud and clear that the only thing well-heeled Democrats in New York and DC townhouses had to offer their devastated communities was a mix of programming classes and lectures about checking their privilege. Trump is a jerk, but at least he pretended that he cared about them, would bring their factories back and make their small towns great again. Lip service by a bigot is better than no service at all.

At a time when voters are clearly angrier than ever, it was a bizarre choice to attack a man whose entire family is synonymous with decadent wealth and whose brand includes the catchphrase “You’re Fired,” on his temperament. Rather than telling voters to protect their wallets from the Medicare-killing Snidely Whiplash robber baron, we played clips of Trump being the same bully whom Americans catapulted to reality-TV stardom and asked voters “what would the children think?”  All it took for Barack Obama to sink Mitt Romney as a greedy plutocrat was a history at Bain Capital, a quote about the 47% and an offhanded remark about liking to fire people. But Trump was apparently too tough a target on those grounds for the Clinton campaign, which apparently thought old lascivious Howard Stern radio clips were better attack fodder.

But none of this could possibly be our fault, right? Of course not. And so, in defeat, the excuses and the attacks on the voters have begun.

Despite the efforts of some to interpret 30-point swings in racially homogeneous rural Rust Belt counties as merely a turnout discrepancy, the data show almost conclusively that large numbers of people voted for Obama twice, then turned around and voted for Trump. Blame it all on prejudice if you want, but if they voted for Barack Hussein Obama twice, just how racist can they be? Voting for Obama doesn’t mean someone isn’t racist, but it might mean their vote for Trump might be just a little more complicated than is being made out.

In the anger stage of grief are also pundits like Jamelle Bouie, who underestimated Trump at every turn and now insist that none of Trump’s voters deserve empathy since they show no empathy to minorities. Bouie is right on the moral merits, but that’s cold comfort. Unless Democrats can suddenly figure out how to dramatically increase youth and minority turnout, the party still need those voters. It doesn’t need all of them—most are deplorable and unreachable. But it needs just enough to win.

Then there’s the shaming of white women for voting for Trump in the same numbers as they have every other Republican including McCain and Romney, and for prioritizing other issues ahead of Trump’s behavior or gender solidarity. After all, Trump can only grope so many individual women, and at a policy level it’s hard to argue he’s any worse than Romney or McCain on women’s issues. Instead, shame the political geniuses who wrongly thought they would win the votes of suburban Republican women secretly voting against their husbands—and then when it turned out they were dead wrong, insisted it was the voters’ fault instead.

And, of course, there’s the predictable bashing of Bernie Sanders—the same Bernie Sanders who campaigned tirelessly for Clinton and excited the same rural and young (including young minority) voters that the Democratic Party desperately needs to convert and turn out to regain their footing. It’s still somehow Sanders’ fault that Clinton couldn’t maintain traction against a comic buffoon of a candidate despite months of working on her behalf. But nothing Sanders could have done since endorsing Clinton back in July would have been enough for those displeased that the upstart rabble of callow youths and pitchfork-wielding rurals did not allow the coronation to proceed as smoothly as planned.

But worst of all is the pretense that Democrats have to choose between social inclusivity and economic populism, that reminding Americans about how the top .1% is destroying the economic fortunes of everyone else somehow means that we can’t also enshrine equal rights for women, protect the undocumented and ensure that black lives matter. There is no dilemma. Democrats can do it all, but they simply chose to de-emphasize the economic argument this year. That was a mistake, but it is easily corrected.

Democrats don’t need to pander to white men or their racial resentments to succeed. They don’t need to abandon any commitments to social equality.  Barack Obama didn’t, and he won the Rust Belt counties that delivered the election to Trump. Democrats don’t need to win all of Trump’s deplorable voters–just enough of the ones with an economic angel on one shoulder powerful enough to compete with the racist devil on the other. Democrats don’t need to replace Nancy Pelosi with a conservative white man, and they can easily regain their footing with economically anxious whites, even with a populist black Muslim at the head of the DNC. If she hews to the Elizabeth Warren wing, there is no reason that a woman of color like Senator Kamala Harris can’t flip back the same voters in 2020 who switched from Obama to Trump in 2016.

It’s time to stop blaming the voters. Democrats can do better next time without abandoning the vulnerable or their social principles. It’s just a question of re-centering the message on the structural economic issues that motivate voters most, making it clear who the real bad guys are, having the humility to realize how and where centrist policies have failed large swaths of the populace, and giving them tangible hope that their lives really can be made better again.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.