Election Day shook the nation to its core and left many across the political spectrum wondering exactly what happened and where to go from here. Although the despair on the political left has begun to give way to charges of renewed efforts and steely resolve, the refrain feels more like a reflex than a meaningful strategy. The response that next time people just need to organize better or work harder seems to ignore a central theme of Trump’s campaign, Bernie’s campaign, and the entire 2016 election: the establishment does not care about you.
Consider this quote from Trump’s campaign: “Tonight’s election demonstrates what most Americans knew since the beginning of the primaries: the political elite of both parties, the economists, and the media are completely out of touch with the American electorate.” Oh wait, that was the press release from “Our Revolution,” the legacy organization of the Sanders campaign. Rage at an entrenched “governing class” was a touchstone for this election, regardless of party preference.
“Draining the Swamp”
Everyone should stand ready to fight the good fight and work hard to effect change in our democracy, but many rightly feel that it shouldn’t be this damn hard for elected officials to be accountable to their constituents and represent their interests. Yes, we must continue to organize and listen and learn and fight—that is the essence of self-government—but if the fight is always conducted within the same system with the same flaws, we should not be surprised when the grip of futility tightens and the urge to hand power to “strong” leaders takes hold. We should all take notice when a majority of Americans in several states respond that they find Trump unqualified—even scary—and vote for him anyway in order to “shake things up” in Washington. When voters are covering their eyes with one hand and tossing the dice with the other, we’ve got a serious problem.
In other words, if we’re asking where to go from here, we might need to get back to basics and focus on how our democracy works. Despite the popular refrain to “throw the bums out,” the problem is not corrupt people in Washington – the problem is a corrupt system that entrenches representatives, incentivizes conflict and stalemate, and rewards responsiveness to fundraisers, lobbyists, and existing power structures rather than accountability to regular constituents. (Why else would 97% of incumbents who chose to run again be reelected in an “anti-establishment” year?) Sanders and Trump alike decried the corruption of our political system and the influence of money in politics. Large numbers of voters cast third-party tickets despite the almost-inevitable consequences of doing so. A number of state and local initiatives echoed this broader desire to upend the existing system: Every Voice points out that “[a]cross the country, in red states and blue states, voters supported measures to fight big money and strengthen our democracy.” In Speaker Paul Ryan’s home of Rock County, Wisconsin, 86% of voters approved an anti-Citizens United resolution, and in Maine, voters approved ranked-choice voting. These aren’t normal party-line positions.
We should champion these changes. Voters who increasingly yearn for a viable third party, for example, need to step up their efforts between elections rather than during them. At the time of the election, the choice is either to accept political reality (and cast a tactical ballot for a candidate you don’t believe in) or to reject political reality (and waste a futile ballot on a candidate who can’t win). Between elections, however, there’s an opportunity to change political reality (and challenge the single-member districting and plurality voting laws that stack the deck against third-party candidates in the first place). Ranked choice voting, for example, could have given all voters the chance to vote for their first choice of president without sacrificing their ability to influence the race between their second and third choices for president. Such changes can play a huge role in congressional representation as well. FairVote, for example, recommends a “fair representation voting” approach which mixes elements of proportional representation with our country’s history of candidate-based elections. Such reforms could have a seismic impact on the viability of third parties and the ability of the legislature to more closely reflect the electorate’s diverse makeup and beliefs.
Clinton and Trump supporters alike should also press Trump to keep these fundamentals in mind when he inevitably appoints Justices to the Supreme Court. If Trump looks to the Republican establishment to bless his selections, the anti-establishment left and right should raise hell. After all, the Supreme Court itself bears much of the blame for the current state of our politics. The Supreme Court has fueled the unbridled influence of money in politics through its campaign finance cases over the past forty years and has permitted the entrenchment of partisan gerrymandering over the past thirty years. All of this has carried legislators’ interests farther and farther away from the voters they’re supposed to represent. And when you slowly erode the peoples’ ability to influence the legislative branch, you should not be surprised when they elect an executive who promises to plow through legal niceties.
Hard Facts and Hard Realities
This rage at the “elites” has also upended the nature of our political debate. Despite all the discussions over whether we’ve entered a “post-factual” era of biased information—and perhaps we have—we’ve failed to acknowledge the legitimacy of our fellow citizens’ lived experiences. The academic consensus and macroeconomic data may suggest that free trade enhances net welfare, but that fact is hardly relevant to the day-to-day reality of someone who lost their job. A 5% cheaper set of dinner plates doesn’t feel like progress when you can’t buy food. A Congressperson’s well-researched and polished set of talking points don’t really cut it when you haven’t seen him or her show up in the community and ask how you’re doing. These realities may not negate the facts, but they should inform the debate. This isn’t a liberal problem or a conservative problem; it’s a humility problem. Women and communities of color have their lived experiences discounted and their realities ignored on a daily basis. The fundamental need to be heard and respected cannot be debated into submission. So if the main point of this year’s election was to throw one perfectly-normal-sized middle finger at the system, then the opposition should not be surprised when they’re asked to take their manila folder of policy positions with them on the way out. That’s not to dismiss the importance of facts and rational debate in a democracy; it’s just a warning not to dismiss the frustration of an electorate that has reached a point where they’re ready to burn the house down in order to make a fresh start. At that point, arguments about the property-insurance implications are too little too late.
Of course, the people who are included in this “fresh start” matter. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, and hate animated a core part of Trump’s base. One poll found that a third of Trump’s primary supporters believed in banning gays and lesbians from the country and twenty percent said Lincoln shouldn’t have freed the slaves. Re-read that. Reflect on it. To try and argue that these supporters were conveying any kind of legitimate political or economic grievance is insulting, ignorant, and the pinnacle of privilege.
That is not to say all Trump voters cast a ballot for him for the purpose of expressing such a message. Many Trump supporters have disclaimed the words and actions of this element in their midst, and I do not doubt the sincerity of their beliefs. It’s fair, however, to doubt the sincerity of their commitment. A large contingent of voters who do not “agree” with such hateful views can nonetheless attend a rally along with a man wearing a swastika because doing so poses no threat to them. The same cannot be said of everyone that man will encounter once the stadium empties. Now that Trump is our president-elect, those who voted for him but claim to care about racial, sexual, and religious equality face a key test: what will you actually do about it? It is not enough to disagree with the violence and vitriol if you elect the candidate who condones it and normalizes it. (It’s not enough even if you didn’t vote for that candidate.) By failing to condemn and reject these followers, Trump has emboldened our nation’s worst impulses and put people of color, women, and religious minorities in even greater danger than before. This isn’t liberal hyperventilation or imagination. This is real. Pushing back against this direction over the next four years will take far more than words and will require constant vigilance, activism, and litigation. We will need to look out for one another, protect one another, respect one another, and fight against this fresh surge in intersectional hatred.
So yes, Democrats and progressives, begin to prepare for the next big battle. Prepare to organize. Prepare to mobilize. But if you want your organizing and mobilizing and political engagement to create meaningful and durable changes in the future, think about ways to change the underlying systems that are compounding this nationwide frustration and think about ways to start bringing swing voters back into the fold. I recognize this kind of outreach seems impossible—even unacceptable—right now. But this isn’t a call to sing Kumbaya or suddenly warm to Trump. I’m terrified of the incoming Administration, and I don’t plan on hiding it. This is a man who thought Tiananmen Square was a “show of strength,” praises the “leadership” of dictators around the world, proudly proclaims that he seeks revenge against his adversaries, sues and slanders his critics into silence, and now has the nation’s military, investigative, legal, and intelligence arms at his disposal. And his various advisors don’t sound any better. In my view, Trump is an erratic, race-baiting, unqualified, and dangerously thin-skinned misogynist authoritarian. (This blog is nonpartisan, not opinion-less.) But, as it turns out, there may be a sizable segment of Trump voters who share many of these same fears and voted for him nonetheless.
You may be tempted to say “to hell with those people.” Breakdowns of the Trump electorate show that it skews much older and whiter, and many Clinton supporters would probably be more willing to simply bide their time and wait for demographic shifts to change the balance of power than engage with a Trump voter. That would be a mistake. In the immediate term, those whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the nationwide uptick in overtly racist and hateful acts don’t have the luxury of generational patience: priority number one must be getting swing Trump voters to step away from the campaign and fight against these parts of the Trump coalition rather than being defensive about their presence in the Trump coalition. Otherwise, the outrage will only galvanize and unify Trump voters, pushing moderate voters in the coalition closer and closer to the newly emerging (or, rather, newly visible) alt-right and cementing the dangerous dynamics at play in this election for generations to come. In the intermediate term, progressives and principled conservatives alike must work to bring enough Trump voters back into the fold to put effective checks in place in the House and Senate in the midterm elections just two years out in order to hold the Administration accountable. And finally, in the long term, we must recognize that an inward turn towards “my” group and “my” people is the beating heart of tribalism. The inward turn of Trump supporters cannot be defeated by a stronger inward turn on the part of his detractors. Such a culture doesn’t out-survive an enemy; it only makes new ones.
Most Americans have had enough of feeling unheard and unseen by our government. For many that includes being fed-up with the very currents that swept Donald Trump to the presidency, but we are all fed up nonetheless. Maybe being “fed up”—and wanting “big changes”—is too small a point of common ground to build from. Maybe our reasons for being “fed up” are too far apart to reconcile in any way. And, if so, maybe we’re doomed from here on out to watch our gladiators do battle every four years as we grow more terrified in our losses, bloodthirsty in our victories, and primal and vitriolic in our culture and dialogue.
But if there’s any hope at all to be found in our future—our common American destiny—then we ignore this last bit of shared purpose at our peril. In his acceptance speech, Donald Trump “reached out” to those who had not chosen to support him to ask for their guidance and their help to unify the country. He would be well served to start here and try to respect the few common wishes of his supporters and his detractors. If we’re going to burn the house down, then it’s time we all start working together on a blueprint for the replacement. And fast.
Update: Before I finished working on this post, word began to trickle in that Trump’s transition team is “drawing squarely from the ‘swamp’ he has pledged to drain.” (Or, as Stephen Colbert has said, the cabinet members are “exactly what I’d expect to find at the bottom of a drained swamp.”) There could hardly be a better example of the self-perpetuating tendencies of existing power structures. This is not a promising start for the “anti-establishment” vote. It’s time to organize. All of us.