Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton
Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr

It has been a long, knock-down drag-out battle, but the ugly intramural conflict over why Clinton lost to Trump is finally over. New polls and focus groups conducted by Clinton’s own SuperPAC Priorities USA shows that while racism and sexism had some effect, the main driver of Trump’s victory was economic anxiety, after all. The data showed that voters who switched from Obama to Trump had seen their standards of living decline and felt that the Democratic Party had become the party of the wealthy and unconcerned about their plight.

Democrats at top levels now understand this, and have for some months now. That’s why DNC Chair Tom Perez and Bernie Sanders just went on a unity tour, and why Democrats are planning a much more aggressive message of economic populism in advance of the 2018 midterms.

The big questions now are not only where we go from here, but how so many influential liberal pundits got it so wrong for so long. How did the phrase “economic anxiety” become such an easy punchline for center-left wags? How did we get so many wrongheaded Vox explainers urgently telling us how Trump voters were only motivated by bigotry and not at all by economics?

After all, the exit polls told a very clear story in the immediate aftermath of the election: Trump won an equal share of women voters as Romney did, a greater share of minority voters than Romney, and a statistically equal share of white voters as Romney. The biggest shift between 2012 and 2016 was that while wealthy voters shifted from Romney to Clinton by 9 points, voters making less than $50,000 a year shifted from Obama to Trump by 22 points. One need not have even listened to Trump’s rhetoric on jobs and trade on the campaign trail, or any actual interviews with his voters: the story was obvious on its face just from the exit data alone.

There are two main explanations. The first is that much of the center-left intelligentsia is overly enamored of big data and quantitative statistical analysis. This can often blind them to obvious qualitative realities. It’s worth noting that overreliance on big data models while ignoring real on-the-ground voter responses also directly hurt the Clinton campaign in its field efforts. This problem is seemingly endemic to the entire technocratic center-left.

While every interview with actual Trump voters harped constantly on jobs, trade, and the economy–and anti-immigrant sentiment focused overwhelmingly on the fear of immigrants taking their jobs–center-left pundits used an array of cross-tabbed statistical demographics to argue that Trump voters really weren’t feeling the pinch, after all. They used misleading data showing that Trump supporters were slightly wealthier than non-Trump voters, as if raw income data could be adequately used as a correlative for economic anxiety. It cannot. Some analysts used comparatively small cross-tabbed shifts in racist and sexist attitudes among Trump voters to explain what were clearly much larger electoral changes in a wild election year. Writers like Zack Beauchamp at Vox tried to argue that because far-right nationalism was simultaneously on the rise in European social democracies it must simply be white backlash, failing spectacularly to account for the last twenty years of austerity policies and abandonment of core economic and foreign policy principles by European center-left parties.

Neoliberal pundits used wildly misleading data comparing the voter behavior of the white working class to that of the non-white working class, as if it weren’t perfectly obvious that the alienation of economic stress would increase socialist yearnings among many younger voters while increasing xenophobia and identititarian politics among some whites, and that comparing the two working-class populations wasn’t useful in any meaningful sense to resolve how economics might have affected the trends. Most troubling of all, they often failed to account for the difference between base Republican voters, and the marginal Obama-Trump voters. Studies would find that (surprise!) Trump voters carried many racist and sexist attitudes–without accounting for the fact that the vast majority of those populations were also Romney and McCain voters! What required an explanation was how Trump succeeded against a white woman where previous Republican nominees had failed against a black man, all while winning an equal share of the women’s vote and a greater percentage of the minority vote. What needed accounting for wasn’t the bigotry of the Republican electorate as a whole, but how and why Obama voters had stayed home or shifted to Trump. The new Priorities USA data does just that, and the answers are very different.

The sum total of these arguments led center-left pundits into some ludicrous positions: 1) that voters who supported Democrats for decades and voted for Obama twice were primarily motivated by racism (!); 2) that it was unprecedented sexism that led to Clinton’s defeat, despite the fact that the gender gap between Obama and Romney was almost precisely the same as between Clinton and Trump (!!); and that 3) it was sabotage by Bernie Sanders that led to Clinton’s poor turnout among Obama’s minority coalition (despite his having campaigned vigorously for her), and, contradictorily, that the Sanders coalition was openly hostile to minority voters and their interests (!!!). It was one piece of twisted pretzel logic after another, but somehow it attained the status of conventional wisdom.

It’s not hard to understand why. It is much easier to blame the opponent’s voters for being bad people than it is to acknowledge the ways in which one’s own party and ideology failed them. In many cases, center-left intellectuals favor lightly regulated finance capitalism, free trade and open markets policies that have hurt so many voters reliant on low-skill labor. Those policies have hurt young voters and minority working-class voters as well as white working-class voters, but the open bigotry of conservative parties have kept most of those youth and minorities in the center-left fold. Not happily, however, hence the rise of more openly socialist candidates around the developed world from Sanders to Corbyn in Britain to Melenchon in France, who appeal very strongly to younger voters of all genders and races.

Some neoliberal intellectuals fervently hope for a future in which exurban and rural white voters who want high-wage low-skill labor will simply disappear into electoral and economic irrelevance as the new urban identity-conscious coalition rises. This electoral preference is aligned with their economic preference for unfettered free trade, in which those same manufacturing and service workers will be replaced by technology and information workers in big cities–combined with the hand-waving excuse that liberal parties would deal with anyone left behind, to quote Krystal Ball’s pointed post-election sarcasm, by “setting up a local chapter of Rednecks Who Code.” That shriveled vision of liberalism is not only morally inadequate, it won’t work: there are still far too many white working class voters, and the center-left won’t maintain its hold on an increasing number of younger and minority voters who also want many of the same economic protections that the white working class do (even though many of the latter only want those protections for themselves and not for others.) The center-left’s coalition will break apart and revolt before enough of the right-wing’s coalition die out and disappear–and it won’t be their fault for doing so.

Those who try to win elections for a living also aren’t looking forward to fighting the full power of the financial and pharmaceutical interests in addition to the regular armada of right-wing corporate groups. It would be much easier for electoral strategists if Democrats could unlock a majoritarian liberal bloc with a “rising tide lifts all boats” ideology that doesn’t greatly inconvenience the urban donor class. Consultants aren’t exactly looking forward to trying to win elections against interest groups angered by arguing for renegotiating NAFTA, punishing corporations for sending jobs overseas, raising the capital gains tax rate, and cutting health insurance companies out of the broad American marketplace. But that’s exactly what they’re going to have to do if want to win not only the presidency, but the congressional seats and legislatures dominated by increasingly angry suburban and rural voters. Not to mention angry young millennials of all identities who have essentially been locked out of the modern economy by low wages combined with outrageous cost of living, especially in the housing market that has uncoincidentally been such a major investment boon for their lucky parents, grandparents, and the financial industry.

There are some who say that making this case will be difficult–that right-wing populists can spout easy but deceptive narratives about these matters while the job of nuanced liberals is much harder. Kevin Drum recently made that case, which was echoed here by our own Nancy LeTourneau. But it’s not really so hard. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders made the case frequently, and still do. Even Barack Obama made a concise and compelling case in interviews over the last year.

The case is simple: the obscenely wealthy, especially on Wall Street, have profited hugely by outsourcing and automating the jobs of regular Americans. Liberals and progressives will fight to bring those jobs back wherever possible–and if the fat cats in the private sector won’t cooperate, then we’ll invest in infrastructure and green energy work that not only provide jobs directly, but stimulate the private sector around them. Immigrants and poor minorities aren’t taking your jobs or tax dollars–the hedge fund manager is.

It’s a simple message. It’s an obvious one. It’s just not one that many in the center left want to deliver, and they’ve found myriad justifications for why they shouldn’t or don’t have to deliver it. But those justifications are now over. The argument is done. The future belongs to economic populism if liberal parties want to win again.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. 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.