Trump's win and the challenges it poses to the Democrats

This story appears in the Transition to Trump feature series. View the full series.
Jobseekers line up to meet with a prospective employer during a 2013 job fair in New York City. (CNS/Andrew Gombert, EPA)
Jobseekers line up to meet with a prospective employer during a 2013 job fair in New York City. (CNS/Andrew Gombert, EPA)

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I discussed the various ways the election of Donald Trump as president makes life challenging for the Republicans. On the Democratic side, the path ahead is currently obscured by a mix of shock, fear and despair. The sooner the Democrats look at what just happened with clear eyes and absolute candor, the more quickly they will be on the path to recovery.

There is no escaping the fact that Hillary Clinton and her campaign team deserve much of the blame. Unsurprisingly, according to Politico, on a call with major donors yesterday, Team Clinton blamed everything except themselves. Good riddance to her and her team. She was the wrong candidate for this election, a fact that was obvious before she ran: In an election that was all about change combined with anger at the establishment, Clinton personified that establishment and could only promise continuity.

That was a recipe for disaster in any event, except for the fact that the Republicans nominated the most disliked candidate in memory. This should have been a landslide for Clinton. Krystal Ball, at the Huffington Post, pointed to the ways Clinton and the Democrats more generally compounded that disaster by antagonizing the very people they needed to win. She wrote:

They said they were facing an economic apocalypse, we offered "retraining" and complained about their white privilege. Is it any wonder we lost? One after another, the dispatches came back from the provinces. The coal mines are gone, the steel mills are closed, the drugs are rampant, the towns are decimated and everywhere you look depression, despair, fear. In the face of Trump's willingness to boldly proclaim without facts or evidence that he would bring the good times back, we offered a tepid gallows logic. Well, those jobs are actually gone for good, we knowingly told them. And we offered a fantastical non-solution. We will retrain you for good jobs! Never mind that these "good jobs" didn’t exist in East Kentucky or Cleveland. And as a final insult, we lectured a struggling people watching their kids die of drug overdoses about their white privilege.

Myopia characterizes all subcultures, but the myopia of Washington is uniquely blinding, and nowhere more so than in the precincts of the left. No one Hillary Clinton speaks to on a daily basis has to worry about sending their kids to bad schools. No one has to worry about their health care costs. No one has to worry about retirement. They are successful people, and there is nothing wrong with that, until you equate material success with moral success. That is when the hubris begins.

It is true that economics drives much of what ails rural America, which rose up en masse to defeat Clinton. But, the problem is deeper than that and it is vital that the left grasps this: Voters doubted Trump had the answers to the economic problems they face, but they voted for change anyway. They were tired of being talked down to and ignored. Think of the horrific phrase "the right side of history" that has been coming from the left throughout debates of issues like same-sex marriage. It is fine to tell someone you disagree with them on the issue and why you think they are wrong. But telling them they are on "the wrong side of history" tells them you think they are a bumpkin with no future. To be clear, this election was not fought on social issues per se, but the condescension with which the left framed those issues angered many people.

How many times did we hear from Team Clinton that "demographics is destiny." Obviously, that is not true. In the first place, even if it was true, you don't talk about it with reporters. People get to decide. Voters are moral agents. Putting them in boxes and presuming they will vote for you because they are Latino or black makes you forget that you have to convince them to vote for you. It takes them for granted. Does anyone, ever, like feeling like they are being taken for granted?

Democrats talk a lot about inclusion and it is indeed a value for us Catholics, one that Pope Francis speaks of with great frequency and fervor. But, poor rural whites never made it on the list of people who needed to be included. Think back to the Democratic primary debates and the countless minutes spent discussing ways to make college affordable. Not a word about what could be done to help those kids who are not going to college. Not a word about vocational training. Not a word about the people who work with their hands and with bent backs. There was much said about infrastructure, but when did Clinton talk about the need to guarantee high speed internet in rural areas. Why has President Obama not pursued that policy objective? If thirty or forty million Americans were no longer reliant on dial-up, a fact they would be reminded of twenty times a day, I am guessing Democrats might have done better in rural counties.

I am friendly with two families that have a transgender child. I know how difficult and challenging this situation is, and how little we know about the phenomenon. I am deeply sympathetic to how an issue like which bathroom you can use will affect a child going through the already difficult teen years. But, when the attorney general had a big press conference to announce a lawsuit against North Carolina on the issue, I remembered something my mother used to say when I would not let a given issue go: "You don't have to make a federal case out of it." From the time spent this year discussing transgender rights, you would think it was one of the most pressing national issues. Was any such attention lavished on less trendy causes like the dearth of health care in poor rural areas? Same goes for lighting up the White House after the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. Did Obama ever think of lighting up the White House for something important to white, rural Americans? 

There are practical steps the left can take. They can close the Center for American Progress, the think tank set up to serve as a government in waiting for the Clintons. Failing that, CAP could move to Omaha so they might at least run into people who think differently from themselves. Valerie Jarrett has earned her retirement: Let her keep it. At one point Tuesday night, I thought to myself: Why did the Democrats abandon the fifty-state strategy that Howard Dean adopted as DNC chair during his tenure from 2004 until 2009? Even if the Democrats never flipped a red state like Utah or Arizona, at least they were hearing regularly how the political landscape looked like outside the Beltway and the Upper West Side. Instead, under Debbie Wasserman Schultz, we got the fifty interest group strategy, an echo chamber for the left. It failed. I am delighted to see that Dean is throwing his hat into the ring to become DNC Chair again. Rep. Keith Ellison is also. I have met both men and like them both, but Dean has done it before and I think the Democrats should enlist him again.

It is true that Clinton won the popular vote. It is true, too, that the difference in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin stood at 107,330 votes last night. There will be a temptation to complacency in those twin facts, a temptation that must be resisted. Thomas Frank wrote at The Guardian:

The even larger problem is that there is a kind of chronic complacency that has been rotting American liberalism for years, a hubris that tells Democrats they need do nothing different, they need deliver nothing really to anyone – except their friends on the Google jet and those nice people at Goldman. The rest of us are treated as though we have nowhere else to go and no role to play except to vote enthusiastically on the grounds that these Democrats are the "last thing standing" between us and the end of the world. It is a liberalism of the rich, it has failed the middle class, and now it has failed on its own terms of electability. Enough with these comfortable Democrats and their cozy Washington system. Enough with Clintonism and its prideful air of professional-class virtue. Enough!

The Democrats should have won by a mile against Trump. Their failure to do so was a consequence their "professional-class" myopia, their disconnection from the troubles and travails of millions of their fellow citizens, and their inability to explain themselves and their agenda in compelling moral language. The good news is that myopia can be overcome, you can reconnect with middle America and I happen to know of a long tradition of compelling moral language about public policy known as Catholic social doctrine that is there for the asking. When the Democrats finish licking their wounds, and when they find it within themselves to stretch their empathy and their ideas, they can recapture the imagination of those voters who disliked Trump intensely but still voted for him. The Democrats and the left were rebuked for their hubris, but they still remain the party which can identify and address those important social goods that the moneyed interest ignores or frustrates. That is what FDR did. That is what Andrew Jackson did. That is how Democrats win. But, they have to love the people they want to help, not treat them like a demographic category to be taken for granted, and they must listen to those who may be white but sure don't feel privileged, and they must assess proper values to the issues that face the country, not just the donors. Democrats lost, but they didn’t die. If they do some soul-searching, they may rediscover that they have more than a website of plans, they have a soul.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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