Lessons Better Learned

Counter-Narratives Regarding the 2016 Election

In the wake of the recent election, people have been trying to figure out why Democrats lost what looked like a sure thing. Dan Kaufman at Electric Agora took a more or less historical approach, showing the relatively poor track record Democrats have had for winning the White House (back to Nixon). [1] He used this to construct a narrative about social forces present within the US (a silent majority) that liberals (in general) and Democrats (in specific) fail to work with, or openly antagonize and so lose. Using this concept, the recent Democratic blunder was blamed on the behavior of liberals and progressives, in particular their increased emphasis on identity-politics that acted to alienate important elements of US society and set up a counter reaction. Dan pointed to Bill Clinton as a positive role model for Democrats to consider, someone who understood the social forces they have to work with, if they want to regain the White House. My intention is to challenge much of Dan’s position, offering counter narratives and alternative take-away lessons.

But let me start by saying it’s not that Dan’s position is clearly wrong. If anything, the reason I feel the need to respond is that it is both plausible and compelling, particularly to those who were not happy with certain elements/activities emerging among the left in recent years. What’s more, others are coming up with similar narratives.[2]

The problem is that I do not see this narrative addressing any of the major factors that decided this election or perhaps any other election. We don’t need to accept the hypothesis of Bill Clinton being wise to the needs of some silent majority to reach the important, pragmatic conclusions Dan makes (which I happen to agree with). Most stand on their own merits. On the other hand, embracing this narrative potentially blinds Democrats to more important factors in play during the election. My hope is to convince readers (and Dan) that understanding and in some ways mastering these other factors are crucial for the success of future liberal campaigns (whether Democrat or third party).

A Tale of Two Backlashes

If Dan’s hypothesis of a conservative US population unhappy with liberal/progressive social values and an overriding concern to vote against them was true (a backlash!), then it is hard to explain most of the recent election cycle. Why would Republicans chose Donald Trump and Democrats chose Hillary Clinton as their lead candidates? Trump was clearly the most liberal of all the Republicans, the bloated poster boy for materialist culture with an off-putting rude nature. [3] And Hillary Clinton was more connected to progressive, identity-politics based social agendas relative to her main rival Bernie Sanders, who tended to focus on liberal economic policies. It also does not explain the renewed popularity of third parties, the top two being the Green Party and the Libertarians (which are more socially liberal than Democrats and Republicans, respectively).

This presents a clear flaw in Dan’s conservative “silent majority” narrative, a lack of predictive value, which would require some explanation before I can accept its validity.

It also feels unsatisfactory as an explanation because the mechanics are not straightforward. Does it make sense that the electorate, primarily the portion that supported Obama over the last eight years, were really part of a conservative silent majority that decided to punish the DNC and Hillary Clinton for progressive excesses arising from some quarters? How would a Democratic loss work to end such activity anyway? Indeed, if that was the goal of the “backlash” it seems to have backfired as the same types are now shouting “Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, and Xenophobia won!”, declaring they’ll continue to fight, and actively demonstrating (also, somewhat hypocritically, rioting).

If there was a significant societal “backlash” of some kind it seems more likely it was a backlash against business as usual regardless of political persuasion (liberal or conservative), a broad anti-establishment sentiment. That would explain the surprise emergence of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as top contenders in both major parties, as well as the resurgence of third parties. At least that would explain these things more clearly than a conservative backlash against liberal interests.

If true, the key to the national election would have been to establish a candidate people could trust to move policies forward because they weren’t attached to the corrupt machine that’s been seemingly (real or no) operating against them for decades. Or if nothing else, throw a wrench into the machine. On that score the Republicans delivered with Trump, while the Democrats failed with Hillary.

Wouldn’t it make more sense that prior Obama supporters, particularly in the swing states where anti-establishment feelings appeared to be festering most, simply failed to show for a party that failed to show for them, having selected a poor successor to Obama’s original outsider role… a career politician with 30 years of historical baggage clearly marked “Establishment c/o Wall Street”?

Of course being a relatively recent phenomena an anti-establishment narrative cannot account for the history of Democratic losses, as Dan’s narrative did.  But there are other factors that overlap well with the anti-establishment concept.

Taxed and Spent

Dan describes the US population as largely conservative, but I’m not sure that is completely true in the sense of socially conservative. However, it is likely true that most people want to keep most of the money they earn, making “fiscally conservative” policies (and so Republican platforms which always involve smaller government, lower taxes) more attractive. In this way, liberal candidates start at a disadvantage relative to Republican candidates, since most argue for government provided social services, which require greater taxation. This disadvantage is arguably greater in “heartland” versus “cosmopolitan” areas (using Dan’s categories for electorally distinct, often opposing cultures within the US) since the federal government is a more distant entity from which the “heartland” sees less of its tax money back in services.

If we treat the US population as merely fiscally conservative or at least money-minded (no concern about social issues), the trends Dan points out in Presidential elections are explained just as easily, with the added advantage of explaining Obama’s success while advancing a socially liberal agenda (contra Clinton and so Dan’s working hypothesis).

According to this “money minded” narrative Bill Clinton and Obama’s elections were both a direct product of Republican financial failures. Clinton due to Reagan and Bush Sr.’s economic policies that left the US in a deep recession (plus the conservative backlash against Bush’s “betrayal” in raising taxes), [4] and Obama due to Bush Jr. (enough said).

With regard to the recent loss, is it controversial to point out that Obama’s policies have not been the economic success many had hoped? Especially for those in the heartland? While the economy has been turned around, it is still not healthy, and (speaking of health) his affordable healthcare plan has turned out to be burdensome, especially to people in the heartland whose incomes often do not match those in cosmopolitan areas. Arguing that the advancement of liberal social agendas was the primary reason the electorate turned, seems to sweep under the rug the real short comings and outright failures in economic policy for which liberals (and Democrats in specific) had to answer. [5]

All it would have taken to lose the election is former Obama supporters to not go to the polls, because they were unenthused with a continuation of economic policies that have not paid off, or with the prospect of placing his policies under the care of a less trustworthy successor.

The Bureaucratic Robot

Another factor that can explain historic Democrat election results almost as well as the economic account, is charisma. Not one-on-one, not in small groups, but mass public appeal.

Ever since TV entered politics, looks and charisma has (to my mind) played an increasingly important role in choosing a president. US citizens tend to consider POTUS the “leader” of the country… maybe the world. So naturally they look for attributes that one would want in a leader, and of these—if you are going to see and hear them on a routine basis—looks and charisma would be very important.

Reagan, more than anyone else, may have represented a tipping point. Here the US elected an out and out actor turned politician. His greatest asset (perhaps his only one) was charisma. He had a strong personality (meaning he could play the tough guy) as well as possessing (to many) an air of “like-ability”. I’m not sure if it was possible to return expectations to less than Hollywood standards after Reagan.

I’ll save analyzing each election unless someone wants to discuss it in commentary, but I take it as obvious that Clinton bested his Republican opponents in the charisma department by far (even playing sax on TV shows). Yet Democrats followed this political showman with Gore and Kerry. While both were arguably more competent and experienced than their Republican rival, Bush Jr. came armed with boyish good looks and genuine down home charm. It was said Bush Jr. was a guy people would want to have a beer with. By comparison Gore and Kerry were robots with vast technical skills and zero public appeal.

It probably didn’t take much to put a Democrat in office after Bush Jr. flushed Clinton’s economic gains down the toilet like so much used beer, but there is no doubt Obama had plenty of charisma. More than any president I can remember, and more than a few of those I remember combined. He seemed like a guy you could have a beer with, after which he’d get back to work on an Oscar-winning summation for a difficult legal case. In his first election, Obama was up against a charismatic Republican, but McCain’s power was already waning and his pick of Sarah Palin as running mate sealed his fate. Republicans followed McCain with Romney, who was good looking and successful to be sure, but came off to many people as a stiff, soulless person. No real charisma. If Gore was an emotionless though well-meaning robot, Romney was a cold-hearted Republican cash machine.

When viewed through the lens of a “charisma” narrative, the results of last election seem obvious. Haters can hate Trump all they want but he has personal charisma, especially among the heartland working class who know him as a successful businessman and TV celebrity (which of course they helped make him based on his charisma). Against this, Democrats chose to run Hillary Clinton, a government technocrat with limited public presence. [6]

It was Bush v Gore all over again, and the results were almost identical. [7]

Given that Clinton was supposed to follow Obama’s act, the DNC really should have looked closer at their choice. You don’t follow fireworks with a wet blanket for an encore. Or, as Chris Rock joked in an SNL sketch, “… replacing a charismatic 40 year old black guy with a 70 year old white woman… that’s like the Nicks replacing Patrick Ewing with Neil Patrick Harris”. [8] Not in the same league, to say the least. And like Republicans referencing Reagan, Hillary pointing to Obama (or Bill Clinton) did not raise her charisma to their level, but rather generated comparisons and so nostalgia for either.

Charisma is an important quality for POTUS candidates, which more often than not outweighs experience and technical skills related to government work. If Reagan did not prove that point, Trump’s victory (with absolutely zero experience in, and so qualifications for, public office) surely must.  It is a lesson Democrats and liberal third parties had better learn.

Bad Brand

Of course, the mystery of how two of the most disliked candidates in some time (ever?) made it to the top of their respective tickets remains an open question.  But for me the answer comes down to one thing: branding.  And it ties in closely with the charisma issue I just explored.

Damaged and disreputable as they were, Clinton and Trump were recognizable, the most well known brands on each side, and familiarity is a valid selection criterion to many people, regardless of other qualities. Trump was more familiar (as a success!) than the rest of the people sharing his stage, while Clinton was not only more familiar among Democrats but familiar specifically as “the first woman president” with some in the DNC having waited over a decade to finally see her get her “due”.

Of course, once they were chosen it was all about a battle of the brands and Trump turned out to be a master of that. Given that he’s been working the self-branding angle forever it isn’t surprising that he would be. As Mark English has pointed out at Electric Agora before, Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) openly discussed Trump’s mastery of psychological manipulation tools and so predicted his victory early on… and I should add derided Clinton’s expert skills in self-defeat. [9]

While it’s not like Trump can be credited with summoning a huge amount of support (he got less votes than Romney in the last election), he did manage to hit Clinton’s brand harder than she hit his (Clinton losing 4 times as many voters as Trump lost from his side). This allowed Trump to win the battle of attrition against Hillary in key states.

It is possible to suggest (along the lines of Dan’s position) that Clinton’s brand was already tarnished by recent (and unpopular) trends among progressives. That certainly wouldn’t have made her job easier. Many Trump supporters, and heartland voters, are arguably less sympathetic and even hostile to such things compared to cosmopolitan voters. But it is not clear this led to some mass movement of voters, even in the heartland, given all the other issues linked to their brands.

In fact, if this was the main concern of voters I would have expected Trump to hammer on these issues more than others. But for the most part he didn’t. He basically sided with Caitlyn Jenner’s ability to use a woman’s toilet, passing over the trans-gender thing as a non-issue, and was the first Republican presidential candidate to hold up a rainbow flag at a convention as well as having an openly gay man speak about being a proud, openly gay man at the RNC. [10] None of these suggest playing to an anti-liberal or anti-progressive sentiment or fear of a backlash.

If there were any identity-politics issues Clinton played up to her detriment (in the key regions she lost), it was likely the plight of muslims and immigrants (illegal or other). Trump hit her relentlessly on these and it seems clear those positions would find little sympathy inside the heartland. As it is, Clinton and Co treated hispanics as a monolith and so mistakenly assumed they would get full support based on “immigrant” issues, when that demographic was actually divided on the subject.

I suppose it is also plausible to point to Hillary’s “personal identity”-politics of wanting to be first female president. Ironically, she criticized Trump (tried to tag his brand) with being a narcissistic demagogue because he kept talking about himself like he will solve everything, when his consistent campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again” (a generic theme people in hard hit areas would understand and appreciate), while Clinton ran various slogans that included “Ready for Hillary” and “I’m With Her” (which on top of blatantly narcissistic appeals to what demographics exactly?). In contrast, Trump successfully tagged her brand with being “crooked” and connected with Wall Street. The fact that Clinton thought not releasing her paid speeches to Wall Street corporations was on par (to the US public) with Trump not releasing tax returns (maybe he didn’t pay taxes!) shows someone completely out of touch with the electorate she wanted to represent. One was a question of how she would be as a president, the other was about him personally…  and even if he hadn’t paid taxes, that would be a mark of distinction to many upset by the government, like revealing he was John Dillinger (a celebrity bank robber popular during the depression).

As much as I don’t like it, branding is real. Trump understands it, and in a race where one person gets it and another is clueless, well, it’s like swimming with a shark and thinking you’ll be fine because you’ve won so many swimming trophies while the shark hasn’t won any.

The Deciding Factor

Without question, Hillary’s loss was due to many combined factors (including some not discussed here). [11] But these examples show that there may have been more direct, obvious explanations than the “silent majority” narrative… a set of factors that were sufficient to cost her the election, accounting equally well for the record of relative Democratic losses described by Dan, while having the benefit of accounting for all of their victories. [12]

As such, it seems mistaken to use this election to label the championing of social change as the primary cause of electoral losses for liberals, and to argue any political party’s activities toward social change should be altered to match an as yet unproven “pace” demanded by some silent majority.

Regarding criticism of identity-politics, it is sufficient to point out that in order to attract voters from the heartland, which are necessary to achieve an electoral victory, Democrats must take their concerns seriously (and anyway as a matter of good governance they should). Democrats should also weigh the necessity of demanding social change (which cosmopolitans may desire) at the federal level, where time and effort might be better spent addressing concerns common to all.

I am wary, and admittedly weary, of messages going further than this… to claim that inequalities must be left unaddressed because they will shock or somehow provoke a backlash by some conservative segment of the population. In my lifetime this has been a recipe for no change, or regression. Bill and Hillary Clinton were perfect examples of not just delivering no change, but regression under the guise of a “let’s move forward by catering to the demands of the right” liberal facade.

This spirit of concession laden, creeping-if-any-advance-at-all incrementalism was rejected by Obama and on the power of that promise he was put into power (as should be noted, over Hillary). That she seemed likely to return to such incrementalism, especially with her pick of VP, may explain her losses as well as anything else discussed.

US history gives plenty of examples of social change occurring over short periods of time, forced through the power of the government, to the benefit of many. Some resulted in incredibly violent backlashes, yet few were worth regretting just because there was a backlash.

It is true that many modern progressive “goals” seem mere luxury items, cosmetic or vanity project conveniences, at times demanding more oppression or violation of civil rights in their implementation than what they seek to counter. That forms a valid argument against specific policies. By all means fight them on that basis. I will. But that is not sufficient to support an argument for blanket, pre-emptive hesitation by liberals in deference to an alleged body of voters in the heartland (as if they were a monolith incapable of compromise).

More important than the Democratic party coming to grips with some glacial “pace” required by a silent majority, is understanding the basics of modern politics. That is where (to my mind) the Democrats failed in spades this year.

Real fiscal responsibility is a tough sell, especially when combined with advocacy for government run social programs (and still harder in light of policies that are failing). Such appeals will require a candidate that the public is somewhat familiar with or can become familiar with in a short space of time, who appears honest, and is associated (branded) with success, particularly to the working class. Underdogs are fine, but the story of a policy wonk making good is not likely to draw support.

Any candidate must have genuine charisma. It is not sufficient to discuss “qualifications” or “experience”. POTUS is an elected office and no one is entitled to it based on time served.

And during periods (like now) when time in government is viewed as a liability, parties must look for someone who is not firmly status quo. Get someone who promises to shake things up, and looks like they will because they are not beholden to the system as it stands. [13]

If Democrats are to be a force for liberal interests in the future, these are the lessons I’d say are better learned, rather than returning to the crypto-Republican approaches of Bill Clinton.



1) Dan’s essay (https://theelectricagora.com/2016/11/11/the-silent-majority-strikes-again/) was an engaging analysis, which— even if I did not agree with the idea of a silent majority needing to be catered to— I completely agree with his criticism of certain elements emerging from liberal quarters and the best ways to deal with political campaigning in a diverse society.  Here are some relevant passages (editing for space and to exclude statements I disagree with)…

“The point is not the relative merits of any of these [social] issues… but the… aggressiveness with which they were pushed; the immediate resort to sneering and insult and accusation when resisted; and most importantly, the image being projected that the government, media, and professional classes were all for it, while the lowlifes and rubes on the farms and in the factories (what’s left of them) and in the shitty little churches were against it.  How could this not provoke resentment, resistance, and backlash?… Re-embrace Labor, by showing that you understand that in a country of three hundred million plus people, not everyone can be an investment banker, lawyer, surgeon, or waitress… Remember that thinking you’re right, no matter how certain you may be, doesn’t mean that those who don’t are just going to roll over or disappear;  that politics is, in good part, a matter of figuring out how to either (a) work with those with whom you disagree, (b) manipulate those with whom you disagree, or, if you have the political strength (c) overwhelm those with whom you disagree.  And above all, understand — really understand — that  if you can’t do (c)… you’d better figure out a way to do (a) or (b) or else you can forget about winning any presidential elections in the near future.”

2) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/opinion/sunday/the-end-of-identity-liberalism.html_r=0 …and… http://townhall.com/columnists/michellemalkin/2016/11/09/identity-politics-in-america-a-postmortem-n2243296 …and…
http://dailysignal.com/2016/11/16/obamas-contribution-to-our-identity-politics-climate/ …and etc… but just for balance here’s a clip which has both Dan and my views bandied back and forth… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3-uNxmNj5o

3) Dan focused on the off-putting, insulting nature of liberals in advancing liberal social agendas.  Yet Trump did great in the heartland using the same off-putting, insulting language games to attack more conservative, mainstream Republicans.  So it seems that maybe being insulting is not itself a negative to conservatives in the heartland.  You can see this mentioned by a surprised “heartland” voter in the last link I provide in #2.

4) The history of Clinton’s victories are much more complex than my or Dan’s over-simplified narratives make out. In his first election, the Republican party faced a major rift based on policy, with a third party drawing double digit figures away from Bush Sr.. Without this rift it is unlikely Clinton would have won at all. In his second election, the rift continued with the same third party drawing a smaller, but still significant number of votes away from the Republican candidate. Rather than being politically astute, Clinton owes much to third party “spoiling” of Republican chances (which really means Republicans screwing up). This is in contrast to Obama who won a pretty straightforward one-on-one battle with Republican John McCain.

5) Many liberals seem to be using this opportunity to punish portions of the left they either don’t care about or actively dislike. Treating election results as semi-karmic punishment from a conservative bogeyman, to make them behave. See what we get when you do that! But it may be counterproductive to assume voters were reacting to what one thinks is the worst the left has to offer (where much of it rarely touched people’s lives outside college campuses and social media), rather than reflecting on the possibility core working assumptions or behaviors, some of the best the left has to offer, failed in some way (which generated a legitimate reaction against central—not fringe—activity that had broad real life negative effects).

6) Bernie Sanders may have been an old white male, and socialist to boot, but his brash, outsider charisma was captivating, especially to youth and the working class. Polls showed him popular at the national level far beyond Clinton and Trump. That the DNC worked against him in support of an establishment insider with little pull beyond the Democratic base, particularly after Trump’s victory indicated an anti-establishment sentiment existed among conservative voters, suggests a lack of political savvy.

7) If we are supposed to look to the conservative heartland for answers of what Democrats keep doing wrong, perhaps it would be useful to consider the research of Jonathan Haidt (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_foundations_theory). He has studied differences in moral preferences between conservatives and liberals. Liberals tend to emphasize fairness over other values, while conservatives treat values more equally (including things like loyalty and purity). This could explain a lot. While liberal cosmopolitans put up candidates with plenty of time in office thinking it is only “fair” that the candidate with more experience should win, conservative heartland voters may instead see people “tainted” by their relationship with a bureaucratic entity they distrust, forcing the question if the candidate’s loyalties lie with it instead of them. In the end, the heartland seems to prefer a less polished, more human Joe Blow who they can relate to and so establish feelings of loyalty and purity (from corruption by the system), than a sleek and technically impressive Robbie the Bureaucratic Robot.

8) Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock on SNL skit deliver some perspective on election night: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbeatG_M4JE

9) Among many Scott Adams videos, I’d start with  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwVHgjDFGwU …and…  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55NxKENplG4

10) Trump on transgender/bathroom issue… http://edition.cnn.com/2016/04/21/politics/trump-transgender-bathroom-law-debate/  … LGBT flag… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGbRYJ4gbHI … and having an openly gay speaker at RNC… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2cemLrzpr4

11) If there was a single conservative issue that seemed to help Trump, by bringing mainstream republicans back to support him despite their open loathing (and prior rejection) of him, it was abortion. That Clinton signalled she would not be a staunch supporter of abortion rights (by picking Kaine) it may be that she removed that as a strong point distinguishing them and so allowed anti-establishment concerns to move further to the front of voters minds.

12) Dan discounts Obama’s victories which involved some measure of identity-politics, by the fact that Trump will “erase” his legacy. First, it is still way too early to tell how much of Obama’s legacy will be “erased” by Trump. Second, just because a close election netted a candidate an ability to change prior policy, does not form an argument that the previous campaigns (which did in fact win) and policies (attempted if not fully enacted) are somehow fatally flawed and incapable of success in the future, much less unworthy of having made the earlier attempt. Third, it ignores the fact that Bill Clinton’s legacy was undone in parts, first by Bush Jr. and then (to some degree) by Obama. Finally, it ignores that some liberals feel Bill Clinton had very little “legacy” worth mentioning.

That last point is worth expanding on. Dan detailed some of the compromises, which some considered sell-outs, that Clinton engaged in. He left out dismantling the economic security net that had been in place since the New Deal, a long running Republican’s wet dream. Since then I’ve considered Clinton the best Republican President the Democrats ever had. Frankly, I’m not concerned with box scores of Democrats versus Republicans, simply the advancement of social issues that are important to me, using representatives that both reflect those interests and a competency likely to move them forward. Obama was such a representative, even if he failed on many counts. The Clintons never were, nor did they present a model of anything I would suggest as successful beyond cynical self-promotion by playing a tune for both sides (mostly the right) and seeing which paid off.

13) Two excellent videos Dan cited in commentary at another site, which discusses the sweeping global nature of anti-establishment sentiment (which helped Trump): https://youtu.be/qxBzcynHGEE  …and… https://youtu.be/WfRImQV4Arc … plus I will add one directly relating Brexit and Trumpism… https://youtu.be/qxBzcynHGEE


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