I was as shocked as anyone learning that Donald Trump would in fact carry a sufficient number of electoral votes to win the presidency. I work in politics and have been an avid consumer of the kind of data journalism that more or less wrote off Trump's odds of success. The election results are simply a gut-wrenching surprise and there is not much else to say on the matter.
It has been an emotional few days, but I hope here to talk about how we find ourselves in this situation, and how we can best fight back.
We must determine what went wrong, and seek to remedy it.
There has been a lot written about voting trends in the Rust Belt that handed the presidency to Donald Trump. It will take some time to determine exactly who voted, and how their voting history reflects past elections. Unfortunately, many of these takes are premature, as we simply do not yet have the necessary data to draw reliable conclusions. As of this writing, the outcome of the presidential race in Michigan remains undetermined. I hope to write more on the subject once that data becomes publicly available.
Nonetheless, one thing is very clear to me: the Democratic Party must renew its outreach to working class Americans of all backgrounds. I grew up in a rural community myself, and therefore understand that some of our struggles in such communities could be solved simply by showing up and including rural voices in the party to a greater extent. Much has been made of Trump's strength with white working class voters, but early indications suggest that turnout also declined significantly in communities with large numbers of low-income minorities, such as Detroit and Flint. For a variety of reasons, working class communities were not sufficiently motivated to support the Democratic nominee for president in the numbers necessary to win the White House.
There are tangible things we can do right now to begin turning the ship around. First, the Democratic Party should have the will and resources to operate in communities across the country. This will require an enormous commitment of funds and personnel, but I suspect it will pay dividends by creating a true grassroots infrastructure for progressive ideals. Second, progressives should empower voices in organized labor and give them a seat at the policymaking table alongside the academic liberal elite. Their ties to middle and working class Americans may prove invaluable to winning back support from the Rust Belt, where it all went wrong in 2016.
To be clear, I will go to my grave believing that Hillary Clinton would have done far more to benefit working class Americans than Donald Trump ever will. Analysis of the candidates' respective policies tends to support that view. Regardless, the Clinton campaign fought tirelessly to promote a message of economic fairness, only to be ignored by a political press obsessed with her emails and horse race data that proved to be deeply flawed. I do not doubt that these were newsworthy topics, but the unrelenting drumbeat of new stories (driven in large part by political opponents and foreign meddling) served to create a cloud of suspicion disproportionate to the original sin. This culminated in a late intervention from the FBI that very well may have swayed the election. Just as Democrats and political professionals are seeking to better understand their mistakes, those in the news business should also ask themselves some tough questions about whether the public was best informed about their choices in this election.
We must acknowledge anxiety toward elites and the need for institutional reform.
Since Tuesday, I have been reading Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by NBC's Chris Hayes. This should be required reading for everyone in the progressive community seeking to understand the election results. The thesis is relatively simple: Since the 1960's, America's great institutions have reformed themselves to reward individuals' merit rather than their social status. While such reform was undoubtedly well-intentioned, it has also incentivized cheating and corruption on an unprecedented scale as powerful elites have gamed the "merit" based system for their own enrichment. Hayes cites institutional examples ranging from Major League Baseball's steroid scandal to the widespread financial fraud that allowed the 2008 financial crisis to occur. This system has also created, in Hayes' view, a class of high-achieving elites that are loathe to hold their peers accountable. Finally, elites have used the philosophy of meritocracy to justify unprecedented levels of income inequality. (Consider this piece, for example, to see for yourself the elite justification of such inequality.)
In Hayes' view, the meritocratic system is in desperate need of reform. It is hard to disagree. After decades living under a system that was meant to promote competence, Americans' faith in their institutions is at an all-time low. Too often, institutional leaders have brought this anger upon themselves by inviting scandal, tolerating corruption, and dodging accountability. This year's scandal at Wells Fargo (in which sales agents created fraudulent accounts on clients' behalf) is just the latest in a long line of institutional failures in which nearly everyone involved avoided accountability, except for ordinary Americans that were left to absorb the consequences.
In a perverse way, I can kind of understand how such an environment could drive support toward Donald Trump. He is the vision of success to many Americans, and has nonetheless thumbed his nose at the so-called elites at every step of the way. Sure, Trump has lied, stolen, and cheated, but can regular folks hold that against him in a world in which such behavior appears to be rampant? Perhaps, I suspect, many voters honestly believe that we must put a fox in charge of the hen house for real reform to take place. I suspect they will be greatly disappointed.
I suspect and fear that this particular phenomenon will get worse before it gets better. Trust in the media, which is already at record lows, is unlikely to rise in the aftermath of an election outcome that traditional journalism failed to predict. A Trump Administration is likely to be awash in potential scandals and conflicts of interest that will undermine faith in the White House. Finally, Trump has promised to work with congressional Republicans to dismantle corporate regulations that prevent crises like that seen in 2008 from recurring.
What does this all mean for the Democratic Party? Coming into this election, we were understandably defensive of President Obama's legacy. We have made incredible progress under his leadership, often against great odds, and always against unprecedented obstruction from the Republican Party. But nonetheless, there is still so much work to be done to fulfill those campaign promises that delivered the White House in both 2008 and 2012. It is safe to say that Hillary Clinton had a tough time making that case, both as a former Obama rival in need of his voters, and due to the perception of her (whether justified or not) as an insider with deep ties to the very institutions in need of reform. With our government's leading institutions now firmly in the hands of Republicans, progressives now have a unique opportunity to own the issue of institutional reform moving forward. We should embrace that opportunity.
We must be vigilant.
Make no mistake: the situation in which we find ourselves is dangerous, and the progressive community must be constantly vigilant with Trumpism holding the reins of power. Our next president has threatened members of the media, promised to "open up" libel laws, and ran on a series of xenophobic policies that would harm Latino and Muslim Americans. He has promised to finance campaigns of political retribution against his former primary opponents. His very first White House appointment went to Steve Bannon, a right-wing provocateur whose hiring elated the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party. Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential warning signs for a Trump presidency.
Sadly, this is not hyperbole. Folks are marching in the streets because they are afraid of what the next four years will bring. The powers of the presidency are not limitless, but they are indeed extensive. The next occupant of the White House has proven throughout his life to be a man of short temper and long, bitter grudges. It will take sustained advocacy and activism to prevent Donald Trump from enacting the worst of his campaign rhetoric, or worse.
Before November 8, even members of the Republican Party were willing to join in collective outrage to Trump's worst statements and antics. Now that Trump will occupy the White House, I fear that it will fall upon an empowered political opposition - most importantly, the Democratic Party and progressive community - to serve as the voices of reason over the next four years. In the wake of electoral defeat, it will be tempting for progressives to point fingers at one another. However, we simply no longer have the time or convenience to engage too deeply in such debates. It is time to stand together, and to do everything we can to protect the ideals we hold dear. Let's get to work.