By Nayyer Ali MD
Two months ago I predicted, not so boldly, that Clinton was going to be the next President. So much for that, Trump won last week. Why did Hillary lose? There were several reasons.
First, she is not a natural politician like her husband or Obama. She was never able to really create enthusiasm among her supporters, even though the historic aspect of the first woman President could not be denied. In the end, for White women, what matter more was not gender but racial identity.
This election was in large part one that pitted a conservative half of the nation that sees itself as “American”, though it is almost entirely white people, and a liberal half that sees itself as a coalition of identities, feminists, young people, racial minorities, immigrants, highly educated liberals etc. The conservative half of the country saw this election as a last chance to preserve and regain their own sense of being the real Americans (which I think the slogan Make America Great Again is all about) to the exclusion of the rest. As such they came out in huge numbers and voted Trump. Many rural counties in the Midwest that had voted Obama in 2008 went for Trump by huge margins, and among Whites without college education, Trump won 75% of the vote in some key states. Even with big wins among Hispanics and African Americans, Hillary could not overcome that tidal wave in the key states of Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
In terms of Hillary’s campaign strategy, she had plenty of money for TV ads, and huge presence of field offices. But she did not invest much into Michigan, never visited Wisconsin even once, and she relied too much on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to win Pennsylvania, allowing Trump to squeeze victory with huge margins in the rest of the state.
Secondly, 120 million Americans voted, but another 100 million adult US citizens didn’t bother to vote in this election. If the contrast between Clinton and Trump can’t motivate you to vote, what would? Hitler vs Stalin? America always has low voter participation compared with other democracies, but what is really striking about this election is that 10 million fewer people voted than did in 2008. In 2008, Obama got 70 million votes, and McCain got 60 million. This time, both Clinton and Trump got 60 million. Where did those 10 million extra Obama voters go? Some to Trump, some to 3rd party candidate, but most just stayed home. Even with her money and machine, Clinton could not get them out to vote. Which does suggest that a more exciting Democrat could beat Trump in 2020.
The Republicans even with this win still have a demographic problem. Not all Whites are conservatives. There is a solid base of 40% of the White vote around the country, and closer to 50% if you exclude the South, that are liberal. As they get more education, particularly degrees beyond undergrad, they tend to become even more liberal. The minority share of this country grows steadily every year. Trump was not able to win the popular vote, and if about 75,000 voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had chosen Hillary instead of Trump, she would be President-elect. The Democrats need to hold the minority voters, but they must critically expand with Whites, not that they need a majority, but just to keep the Republican margin down enough to win the overall vote total. In the end what happened was that 2% of voters that went for Obama in 2012 went for Trump in 2016. That’s all it took for the election to swing.
Third, the fundamental question of politics is how to divide the pie. If the entire economic output of a nation is “x” (x being GDP essentially), then governments have two tasks. One is to grow x into a larger number. The other is to devise policies that divide x in such a way that the majority feel it is “fair”. This is especially an acute problem in petrostates, where x is basically oil revenue, and explains the sheer viciousness of Iraqi politics and society post Saddam. How to distribute x in an industrial society is a very complex problem. Left to the free market, income tends to get monopolized by the top unless the government exerts strong countervailing pressure. In Europe this is done with massive taxation and a robust welfare state.
In the US, from 1940 to 1980 or so, median income rose in lockstep with rising worker productivity (the main determinant of x), but after 1980, they split, with median income stagnant while productivity almost doubled. So who got all the extra production? It went to the top, with growing income inequality. For the winners in society, the incomes are off the charts. Professional American athletes (baseball and football players) in the 1950’s often worked regular jobs in the off-season to augment their salaries. Now these elite athletes can make millions annually, and the very best can earn a quarter billion (yes billion) dollars in a career. Same in Wall Street, or top lawyers and professionals and business executives.
The American solution to the extent there has been one is to tax the rich modestly and redistribute some income to the very poorest with food stamps, welfare payments, and free medical care. Liberals also try to push up the minimum wage. The problem with this approach is that it helps the ones at the very bottom, which tend to be minorities and recent immigrants, but does little for those one rung higher on the economic ladder, which is where the White working class is. They work enough to be ineligible for these government benefits, but they still end up with lousy low paying jobs with no future, and they deeply resent those below them getting government benefits.
A generation ago, these Whites could get good industrial jobs in the Midwest, where they could force employers to provide decent salaries and benefits through strong unions. But this path has been gutted. Some by trade agreements whose rationale was that they would increase “x”, but no clear concept for how that extra wealth would go to anyone but the upper 10%.
The Clinton campaign made a fundamental error in trying to disqualify Trump for his boorishness and bigoted outbursts. Clinton’s team failed to realize that when Trump took rhetorical swings at illegal immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, feminist women, etc. that these outbursts endeared him to his voters. It did not disqualify him as they had supposed. They don’t have any sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement, and don’t see why America should take chances letting in Syrian refugees when they could be an ISIS sympathizer. What Clinton needed to do was to show to the White working class, particularly those in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa that abandoned the Dems, that Trump was a fraud who cared not a bit about them. He was a plutocrat who would help the rich just like Romney, who these same voters rejected decisively 4 years ago. She needed to explicitly recognize that the pie was not being divided in a fair manner, and that not only did the poor need to be helped but so did the White working class in much of the nation.
Finally, I think another factor is that this was actually a “low-stakes election”. There was no massive divisive issue the election was going to solve, and the country was not facing a crisis. This was not 1932 and the Great Depression, or 1940 and the brink of World War, or 1964 and the civil rights era, or 1972 and Vietnam, or 2008 and the financial crisis plus two wars. No major national debate was settled by this election. The natural rhythm of US politics is brief bursts of liberal advances that occur when all the stars align and the Dems control government, followed by long periods of digestion and slow advancement. Much of the shape of the US was built in brief bursts like the New Deal 1933-1936, the Great Society in 1964-1966, and the Obama reforms of 2009-2010. There were also major advances in the environmental movement and the creation of Affirmative Action in the first Nixon term 1969-72.
This timeline suggests that conservatives consistently have the upper hand in US government. While that is true in the short run, the long run looks different. With each burst of liberal activism, society is changed in a fundamental way. Conservatives, once back in power, can tinker with what the liberals did, but they never are able to undo it. No major liberal reform of the last hundred years has ever been undone by conservatives. The ball is always moving in one direction, even if it stays still for a decade or two.