In all the hand-wringing by Democrats in the wake of their shattering defeat in the US elections – Did James Comey lose it for us? Was the ground-game too weak in Michigan? – many seem to be overlooking the glaringly obvious point: they lost to an extraordinarily unpopular candidate. Exit polls on election night confirmed what approval surveys had always said: Donald Trump is disliked by a substantial majority of the American public.
In short, this was an election gift-wrapped for the Democrats. Still they managed to bungle it. So working out where the party lost a few thousand votes here and a few thousand votes there, or pointing out that Hillary actually won more votes than the president-elect, misses the point. All the indicators suggested that the right Democratic candidate could have won this election handily, possibly in a landslide, bringing Congress back into the party’s hands. The result never should have been this close.
Which is to say, Donald Trump didn’t win this election. Hillary Clinton lost it. Not surprisingly, she has come in for a lot of flak as a consequence. But to blame it on poor Hillary is itself only a partial answer. Yes, she has never been terribly good at campaigning, and media pundits with long and gauzy memories have an annoying tic of comparing her unfavourably to her husband.
But memory is selective. People forget that Bill Clinton won the 1992 election only because a third-party candidate split the electorate, and won a second mandate in 1996 amid a debt-fuelled boom against a weak candidate – and even then could not pull off a majority of the vote. Barack Obama, he was not.
Nostalgic liberals also overlook that no small part of Hillary’s weakness in 2016 was her husband’s legacy. Young people and African-Americans stayed home in larger numbers than usual in part because Barack Obama wasn’t on the ballot; but in no small part, too, because they don’t see what would be so great about reliving the 1990s. Unlike the baby-boomers, they were too young to benefit from the dotcome bubble or the housing boom. They got shafted with the debt which resulted. And they know that the rise in black incomes resulted in no small part from the fact that the Clinton crime-bill eliminated much of the poor black population by, well, locking it up (as I wrote in a recent column for the Jamaica Gleaner).
The inescapable conclusion is surely that in 2016, Americans were sick of the establishment. That seemed screamingly obvious throughout the entire election season, when insurgent candidates in both parties torpedoed the old guard. The Republican establishment sank. The Democratic ship managed to patch up its hull and make it to port only because the Clintonites had such a lock on the party, that all prospective opponents tapped out before the race even began. It was left to a septuagenarian socialist from a small state to single-handedly almost bring the party establishment down. Only by pulling out all the stops, as the WikiLeaks revealed, did the Clintonites hold the ship.
However, this was a journey doomed from the start. But lest we read too much into Trump’s victory – fascism is back, American is turning its back on the world, etc., etc. – it bears noting that the vote for Trump was itself a vote against the establishment. He would be mistaken to read too much into the result. A recent Washington Post poll found that a mere 29% of Americans believe Trump has a mandate to implement the agenda on which he campaigned. Instead, 59% want him to cooperate with Congressional Democrats, among whom Bernie Sanders is emerging as a leader. For his part, Sanders has said he’ll cooperate with Trump on those parts of his agenda he shares – trade deals that pay more attention to the needs of the working class, a big infrastructure-building programme – and block him where he veers into extremist rabbit-holes. That would appear to be just what a majority of Americans want.
Is Trump an enormous existential threat to Western values? Quite possibly. But so was the neoliberal establishment, which was leading us on an inexorable path towards submission before an increasingly powerful, undemocratic, global corporate elite and its political allies (who got rewarded handsomely for their loyalty – not for nothing do you get a quarter-million at a pop for telling bankers they’re doing a great job). The American electorate repudiated one candidate without endorsing her opponent. That presents progressives with a great opportunity to begin redefining the Western order along more just lines.
It may look like the worst of times. But who knows, it might yet be the best of times.