Saturday, November 12, 2016

A State Of a Different Color: Thoughts on the 2016 Presidential Election

On Election Day, the state in which I've lived for my entire life gave its ten electoral votes to the Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump. In doing so, it broke a nearly three-decade trend of voting for the other party: ever since the election of 1988, when George H.W. Bush faced off against Michael Dukakis, Wisconsin has cast its lot in with the Democratic candidate.

What makes this fact worthy of note is that the voters of Wisconsin have long embraced their state's progressive history with pride. After all, this was the home of Robert LaFollette, the anti-war Progressive who championed civil rights, economic parity, and an end to party control, all in an era when such positions were not always celebrated; and Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, who served the state as both governor and senator. For decades, Wisconsin was the epitome of a blue-collar state, where agriculture and industry mixed well together, its universities ranked among the best in the country, and its citizens chose their politicians based less on party identification and more on a shared set of ideals. After all, this is the same state that elected a Tea Party Republican, Ron Johnson, to the Senate in 2010, then elected an openly gay liberal, Tammy Baldwin, to the same body two years later.

Wisconsin has a history of blurring the lines between Democrat and Republican, between liberal and conservative, and embracing the idea that a good politician should be approachable, reasonable, and a defender of democratic principles, rather than a partisan who only scores points for his or her side. William Proxmire, a Democratic senator for more than three decades, devoted much of his career to fighting government waste, to the point of making enemies among many liberal institutions. Similarly, Lee Dreyfus, a Republican governor in the early 1980s, signed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation--the first state in the nation to do so--and explained his decision by stating, "It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love." Wisconsin elected a socialist to Congress in 1910, watched as he was removed from office for speaking out against World War I in 1919, and returned him to the same Congressional seat in a special election five weeks later. And when Joseph McCarthy, the state's junior senator, forced his witch-hunt on the American population, more than 300,000 Wisconsinites signed recall petitions against him. (The "Joe Must Go" movement did not succeed in its goals, but McCarthy's career was over nonetheless; he was censured by his colleagues in the Senate and died in 1957, before his term ended. Proxmire was elected to replace him and served until 1989.)

But these political juxtapositions do not explain why a reliably blue state, even one with a Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature, went for the Republican candidate this year. Some have pointed to the final results--Clinton lost to Trump by around 27,000 votes, a minuscule number in a state that cast more than three million ballots--and placed the blame on third-party candidates, who received more than 150,000 votes, enough to have put Clinton over the threshold of victory if even a fraction of those votes had gone to her. Others note that Bernie Sanders, whose policies were much more liberal than Clinton's, won the state's primary 56.6% to 43.1%, a suggestion that perhaps Clinton's message did not resonate with enough of Wisconsin's historically progressive electorate. Others still noted how Clinton had not campaigned in Wisconsin since April of this year, perhaps believing her lead in Wisconsin to be more secure than it was. And while these are legitimate theories, they do not take into account other possibilities that I find much more believable, based on all of the years I've spent living in rural areas of Wisconsin.

To understand the election of 2016 as it relates to Wisconsin (and other blue-collar, Midwestern states), we must return to 2009, to the days and weeks after President Obama took office for the first time. Across the country, millions of Americans were suffering under the most devastating economic downturn in 75 years. More than half a million jobs had disappeared in December alone, a month before Obama took the oath of office, and unemployment in 2008 had exceeded 11 million people, almost twice the number of Americans who were considered unemployed before the recession began. (Eventually, the unemployment rate would reach 10%.) The number of foreclosures throughout the country was also continuing to rise and would eventually surpass 1.2 million by 2010, forcing many families into a state of uncertainty, if not outright homelessness. Food insecurity skyrocketed; state and municipal budgets were slashed, affecting everything from pensions and infrastructure to education and basic public services; and economic growth came to a standstill. To say that the country was suffering would have been viewed as the ultimate understatement.

This was the dominant problem facing Obama and the new Congress. It was far from an insurmountable problem, but solutions would not be quick or easy. Difficult votes would need to be taken, especially considering the amount of money required to assuage the damage that had been done. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, had managed to pass legislation in the closing months of his second term, which was designed to lessen much of the recession's economic damage. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, or "bailout," was introduced in the final days of September and promised to infuse more than $700 billion into the economy while helping rescue faltering banks and financial institution. When it was brought up for a vote, however, the bill failed due to concerns over the legislation's benefits to "big banks," its disregard for individual Americans who were suffering, and the possibility that it might hurt taxpayers even more. Eventually the act did pass, but most agreed that the next president--whether it be Obama or McCain--would need to do more. This gave rise to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, known informally as "the stimulus," an almost $800 billion infusion of money into the economy in order to incite job growth and shore up faltering public institutions.

To most economists, these two legislative acts were necessary: you could not shore up the American economy without first stabilizing its major institutions, especially in a country in which so much of the economy was based around banking. But to the millions of Americans who were suffering, this seemed like a betrayal. Instead of moving to secure the financial lives of its citizens, the American government appeared to be handing over an unconscionable amount of money to the very same people whose greed and carelessness had undermined the economy and brought about the recession in the first place.

In their eyes, this was comparable to the local fire station handing over control of the firetrucks to a group of arsonists.

This was the perception, and it so angered the American population that it gave rise to the Tea Party, a supposedly grassroots movement among conservative voters who were angered over the government's assistance to Wall Street. (The Tea Party was actually funded and encouraged by vested interests in the Republican Party and conservative circles, including those in the conservative news media.) In the end, however, the bailout and stimulus both prevailed, and in the years since the latter proved to be one of the great successes of Obama's first term--the economy rebounded, the stock markets stabilized, and unemployment fell below 5% by the end of Obama's second term. Supporters of the stimulus, as well as members of the president's party, hailed the bill as a major success, and more often than not their adulation took the form of the same laudable claim: he had prevented a second Great Depression.

The problem is that, at least in American politics, you rarely get credit for preventing something from happening, no matter how successful you may have been at it. Those who had looked to the government for support were not helped by the bailout or the stimulus, at least not in a way that they could sense in their everyday lives. But still they waited, perhaps expecting Obama and Congress to turn their attention to the recession's many victims once the banks had recovered. Unfortunately, their elected officials moved on to other pressing issues without addressing many of the economic problems that remained; they did not raise the minimum wage, institute a living wage, strengthen Social Security, prevent jobs from moving overseas, or enact a myriad of legislation that could have lessened the growing wage gaps and class disparities. To those Americans who worked long hours, perhaps even multiple jobs, while taking home paychecks that barely sufficed, no explanation could have been good enough: a politician talking about policy will never mitigate what blue-collar workers see and feel on a daily basis.

These same voters became buried under credit card debt, often because the companies charged exorbitant interest rates; could barely afford life-changing medical visits, even as millions of previously uninsured men and women gained access to the marketplace; had difficulty paying their mortgages, despite the sudden profitability of their banks; watched their children suffer under crushing student debt, to the point that many moved back home; and saw their jobs disappear while Wall Street executives saw record-breaking profit margins, gave themselves large pay raises, and claimed incredible retirement packages.

And while they waited for help, they watched as the very same politicians who had been elected to help instead them took millions from lobbyists, cut the number of days they would be in session to less than 150 and, in some cases, took up permanent residence in Washington, D.C. rather than back in their state or district. Even more, House districts were redrawn to make them politically safer, to the point that most congressional districts were no longer competitive; as long as an incumbent won his or her primary, which is easy to do with large donations and support from super-PACs, the general election was no longer a viable threat, and the need to moderate views and compromise on legislation became not only unnecessary but a potential liability. As a result, these elected officials, who were supposed to be acting as public servants, were instead treating their seats in Congress as well-paying, highly influential, top-tier jobs...and they were willing to say and do what they needed in order to keep them.

This enmity towards Washington D.C. became the first ingredient in the vile concoction that would elevate Donald Trump to the presidency. But anger alone cannot drive a presidential campaign, especially when the outgoing commander-in-chief has a high approval rating, unemployment is under 5%, and the party's chosen candidate has an unprecedented amount of baggage. And anger at Washington D.C. is not the same as anger at those of other religions, nationalities, ethnicities, or sexual preferences. Even Hillary Clinton understood this. In her now infamous "deplorables" speech, in which she characterized half of Trump's supporters as "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic--you name it," Clinton said he had lifted the fringes of his party into the mainstream and made their beliefs a cornerstone of his campaign. However, she added, there was another basket, one that needed to be separated from the first:

...[I]n that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures. And they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.
The point, Hillary said, albeit inelegantly, was to try and appeal to that second basket of people--to show them that Trump would not be their savior in Washington, that he would not fix the status quo, that he would not rescue them from their despair. The point was to give them a better option, one that did not force them to endorse Trump's bigotry and hate out of desperation and fear. It was an argument that made sense and should have guided the final months of Hillary's campaign, but instead it became a source of controversy for her, to the point that she had to apologize publicly. In that realm, Trump won, and in doing so, he could paint Clinton once again as the embodiment of the D.C. establishment he hoped to remove.

Now, at this point, some clarification is needed. For much of this year's election cycle, Republican pundits and party spokespeople claimed that Trump's surprising amount of support was due to this inaction on economic issues--that people suffering from "economic anxiety" were frustrated enough with Washington D.C. that they could no longer tolerate career politicians like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, or Hillary Clinton. These were candidates, it was said, who had become so ingrained in the system that they could not be trusted to look out for the interests of anyone but themselves and their friends on Wall Street. Only someone like Donald Trump--a man so rich he could not be bought, so outspoken he could not be silenced, so confident in his ideals that he could not be swayed--could possibly restore the federal government to working condition.

This, to be perfectly honest, is bullshit.

Characterizing the economy as the sole reason for Trump's victory is beyond misguided. Yes, there is actual economic anxiety throughout the country, but that does not excuse those Trump supporters who cast a vote for him with full knowledge of his bigoted positions. During the campaign, Trump called for the exclusion of an entire religion from a country whose very Constitution ensures religious liberty; who characterized Mexicans as rapists and criminals; who derided the status of all POWs, including one who was the Republican Party's nominee in 2008, as less than heroic; who refused to denounce the support he received from hate groups, including neo-Nazis and the KKK; who refuses to release his tax returns, thereby hiding any conflicts of interest he might have; whose campaign was in regular contact with members of the Russian government; who announced that he would jail his political opponent, despite the fact that she had been cleared by various Republican officials and committees; who supported the bombing of innocent women and children in war zones, the textbook definition of a war crime; who endorsed the use of torture; who defended the sexual assault of women; and so on. Each one caused endless controversy for Trump, and yet he remained relatively unscathed. In fact, it could even be argued that this brazen, unapologetic attitude actually enhanced his reputation as the only candidate who could not be bossed or shamed--as someone who was genuine rather than shaped by focus groups, even if that genuineness was disgusting and disqualifying.

After all, a person's bigoted views don't matter so much when you're one missed paycheck away from total poverty. If Trump claims he can fix the system that has kept you in financial shackles for more than a decade, a system that also threatens to keep your children and grandchildren in those same shackles, then what he says doesn't matter so much as what he can do.

There is another reason for Trump's victory, one that extends beyond economics and is supported by much of the exit polling, not to mention the hundreds of localized events that happened during the campaign, and have continued well into the wake of Trump's victory: that the American population, and specifically the white voting block, holds many of the same bigoted views as Trump. There has always been an undercurrent of prejudice in the Republican platform. After all, this is the same party that has pushed voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise those in low income, African American, and Hispanic neighborhoods, as well as areas in which college students live in large numbers; has worked to undermine the health care options of women; has prevented meaningful immigration reform, which would help millions of people "come out of the shadows"; has demonized Muslims as part of a nation-wide conspiracy of terrorism; has characterized those on welfare programs like Medicare and Medicaid as lazy; and has refused to extend civil rights to the LGBT community, among other issues. Many of these views were codified into actual legislation over the previous decades, and others were promoted endlessly by talk radio and 24-hour cable news, which advanced ugly stereotypes about specific minority groups while also encouraging viewers to see their country as one that was changing for the worse due to those same groups. When Donald Trump spoke of "making America great again," he was continuing this narrative, which imagined a return to a time when gay people could be persecuted without repercussion, women worked in the home without demanding equal treatment, and people of color "knew their place."

In the years that followed the stimulus, Obama and his administration championing the rights of minority groups--celebrating same-sex marriage, pushing for acceptance of transgender individuals, advocating for immigration reform, accepting Syrian refugees, and so on. This was in keeping with Obama's belief that a country can only be strong when every one of its citizens is strong, that a country can only be free when every person living within its borders is free, that a country leads in the world when it does so by example and not by chastisement or hypocrisy. For millions of Americans--older, white, working class Americans--these actions reeked of betrayal. "Obama is helping everyone," they told themselves, "everyone but me and the people like me." Instead of increasing the minimum wage, they saw him pushing states to make bathrooms accessible to transgender individuals; instead of reigning in the power of Wall Street, they saw him commenting on the shooting of black men and women by police; instead of working to refinance their mortgages or reinstate Glass-Steagall, they saw him bathing the White House in colors of the rainbow to celebrate same-sex marriage. In their eyes, Obama was purposely ignoring them to the benefit of other minority groups, and they construed this as a threat to their own livelihoods. As Heather C. McGhee, a policy analyst, said of this perception, "When you're so used to privilege, equality feels like oppression." 

In other words, Obama's efforts to raise others up to the level of fairness and equality so long enjoyed by white voters was seen by those same voters as evidence of Obama's disregard for their needs and disinterest in their rights. 

But what they saw paled in comparison to what they did not see, what they chose to not see, or what was kept from them. That many of Obama's attempts at rectifying these economic problems were obstructed by the Republican majorities in Congress was a fact often ignored by these voters. They had been told long before inauguration day--by pundits, by talk radio, by Fox News, by Republicans themselves--that Obama was not looking out for their interests, that he would ignore the plight of the working class (who happened to be resoundingly white), that he was just another big-government liberal who was plotting to undermine the American economy, take away their guns, and persecute them for their religious beliefs. None of which was remotely true, but it didn't matter: by January 2008, the narrative had already been written, and the Republicans in Congress made sure that Obama didn't achieve anything that deviated from such a narrative.

Obama worked to open up the health care markets to millions of Americans who were uninsured or were paying too much through their workplace, a program that would have benefited many of the same individuals who were suffering economically; instead, the Republican Party and Fox News characterized the program as socialist, used scare tactics (such as "death panels") to distract people from its potential benefits, and fought for its defeat. Obama worked to close the wage gap between men and women by signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would have protected women--many of them future Trump supporters--from being given inadequate wages by unscrupulous employers; Republicans in the House and Senate voted against it, forcing Democrats to reintroduce it in the following session. Obama advocated for raising the minimum wage in his 2015 State of the Union Address, but Republicans in Congress refused to budge, and many began giving voice to the lie that a raise in the minimum wage would devastate small businesses and ruin the economy; in response, all the president could do was sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, leaving most Americans to continue working long hours for insufficient wages.

At every step, when Obama attempted to help those who were suffering economically, he was kept from doing so...not because the Republicans had basic ideological differences with his ideas, or because they viewed the language of the bills as inadequate, but because giving Obama a single legislative victory would have hurt their narrative. Had Obama been successful in raising the minimum wage, the Democratic Party would have been able to claim, with unassailable proof, that they were the ones looking out for the interests of the working class, not the GOP. It was obstruction of the vilest form, as it forced millions to suffer day after day for the sake of political points, and it was an unmitigated success for the Republican Party. When the 2016 campaign began, Republican candidates could claim that Obama had done nothing for the sake of "everyday Americans," all while hiding behind their own misconduct.

All of which hurt Hillary Clinton's chances. She was already facing a historically difficult campaign, as it's rare for candidates from the outgoing president's party to win a presidential election--the last to do so was George Bush in 1988, and before him, Herbert Hoover in 1929--but Obama's approval ratings were unusually high, the demographics of the country favored the Democratic candidate, and Clinton's campaign was much more organized from the outset. That Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old democratic socialist senator from Vermont, was able to wage such a successful campaign against Clinton in the primary was a surprise to many, and should have been a clue to Clinton's own campaign about the lack of enthusiasm towards her otherwise historic run. But the threat Sanders posed was never a strong one in terms of winning the nomination, and the Democratic Party platform eventually moved further to the left because of him--apparently the closest Clinton came to embracing a truly progressive campaign.

There have been many who, in the hours and days following Election Day, looked back on the Democratic primary and wondered what might have been. They unearthed polls that showed Sanders defeating Trump heavily and used them to bolster claims that Clinton herself should carry the burden of responsibility: she was a weak candidate, they say, and she wasn't progressive enough, was too corrupt. That these Sanders supporters make this claim after this election, in which the vast majority of polls and pundits were not only wrong but demonstrably so, reveals how little we know about what might have been, and we should leave it that way. Blaming Clinton is not only counter-productive, it's based on a fallacy. When all votes have been counted, Clinton will be shown to have won the popular vote by a staggering amount, and she will most likely have received more votes than any other candidate for president in American history save Obama himself. The blame here does not belong to one person, it belongs to many.

In the days following Trump's victory--which he achieved, it should be said again, without the popular vote--many on the left declared it a result of the bigotry of his voters, nothing more. They dismissed the idea that his support came a disaffection with economic condition, or with the disappearance of the middle class and a rise in those who are holding down more than one job, or with an unprecedented distrust of the government itself, at least where their own well-being is concerned. And while those who supported Trump in spite of his bigotry rather than because of it should never be allowed to forget how their vote was an endorsement of such bigotry, simply characterizing all Trump voters with the same label does a disservice to those of us who wish to be informed and be able to inform others.

By attributing Trump's electoral success solely to bigotry, Democrats are giving themselves a pass. "It wasn't us," they can say, "it was the racists and the sexists who are at fault." Or they point to the top of their ticket and say, "It was Hillary's fault. We should have nominated Bernie." This may allow Democrats to feel better about their own situation, not to mention their own party, but it does not address the real problems they have with messaging, candidates, and leadership. The Democratic Party cannot continue ignoring the needs of the vanishing middle class and the expanding lower class. They cannot continue supporting candidates who are flawed, institutional, or lacking in a progressive zeal. They cannot continue ignoring the farms and factories in favor of country clubs, closed-door dinners, and fundraisers where a plate of food costs more than the average American makes in two or three weeks. They cannot continue being led by career politicians who are more interesting in preserving their jobs than steering the party in the right direction. They cannot keep letting the biases of cable news and the pundit class control their own messaging. They cannot stand by while others mischaracterize and demean their ideals, simply because they want to "rise above the fray" or preserve their own sense of political decency.

And, most importantly, they cannot keep giving in to the belief that voters appreciate compromise over advocacy, logic over passion, moderation over progressivism. The voters of the country, and especially those on the left, want candidates who deliver power policy ideas, even if those same ideas might seem extreme to the opposition; as the candidacies of Trump and Sanders proved, powerful ideas can take a candidate further than those in the establishment might imagine. And while it's true that Clinton received more votes than both--more than Sanders in the primaries, more than Trump in the general--she was far from the inspiring candidate Democrats (and our democracy) needed. She did not reach the same number of voters as Obama did, she did not "perform" as well as he did in battleground states, and in turn those voters did not feel inspired enough to cast their votes for her. As Obama proved in 2008, the American people are still willing to be inspired.

No, not willing. Desperate. We as a nation are desperate to be inspired, and we are desperate for those inspiring words to have some fight behind them. But sometimes the wrong person comes along with the wrong message for the wrong fight. In 2018--and 2020, and 2022, and every election in the foreseeable future--Democrats need the right message in the hands of the right messengers. The future looks bright for them, and their list of potential candidates--Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Perez, the Castro Brothers, Kamala Harris--are all exceptional. The Democratic Party may even have the edge when it comes to future voters--young people, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans all vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic ticket, and their share of the electorate will continue to grow over time--but every day without a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress is a day in which the achievements of not only Obama but every Democratic administration of the last century are under threat. The Democrats can rise again, but first they need to change, to embrace their rebellious side, to stick up for what they believe in, and to show the American voters that they're worthy of the White House.