This is part 1 of a 2 part postmortem of the 2016 presidential election. Part 2 is here.
The 2016 election was a shitshow, top to bottom. The candidates failed, the media failed, the federal government failed, state and local governments failed, polling aggregators failed, the DNC failed, DKos failed. We all failed, and we have an orange proto-fascist as our reward. And judging by the factions and fights among liberals, we are all still failing. The reason is simple, we never paused to figure out how and why we failed. Almost everyone here has the exact same convictions and political calculations they had a year ago. Like members of a millennial cult, our failures have made us more certain of our convictions rather than less.
Ever since the election, I have been arguing that we need a real postmortem—that we all need to look at, and consider, how we failed. What seems like a grim metaphor of a postmortem is actually not nearly grim enough to describe the pain of what we all must do. A postmortem concerns the dead, but we are very much alive. I say we need a postmortem to blunt the horror of what we are really doing—a vivisection on ourselves. If we do this right, its gonna hurt, its gonna hurt real bad.
So let me begin with my own prior convictions. If, as I say, we all need to face up to our failings, I must be clear about mine. In the most abstract sense, I hope to make the United States into a nation that resembles Norway, less the whale killings and petrodollars but better able to deal social diversity than Norway. I know that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. From the start of the election in 2016, I expected I would vote for Bernie in the primary, and when he lost, vote for Hillary in the general. I expected that Bernie would get about 30% of the primary vote, and I thought Hillary would win the general election with about the same margin as Obama in 2012.
On the republican side I thought the primary would be between Ted Cruz and one of the “mainstream” candidates—Bush, Rubio, Kasich. I considered it possible that Rand Paul might get enough votes, and Cruz and the establishment candidate would be balanced enough so that the republicans might have a contested convention, with Rand Paul the kingmaker. I thought Trump was a laughably awful candidate, and I was smug in my predictions of his demise. Once Trump won the primary, I was confident that the eventual democratic nominee would wipe the floor with him, with the potential of an Obama 2008 level blowout. So, lets just say my predictions about the republicans were a touch off.
I have a lot to say about all of this. For that reason, I will do this in two parts. The first, today, will focus on the 2016 democratic primary.
A Postmortem of the 2016 Democratic Primary
My predictions of Bernie getting about 30% of the vote in the primary was wrong. His message of economic justice was compelling enough to win about 43% of democratic primary voters. Simply put, significant numbers of democratic voters were swayed by his economic arguments. Its a complex issue, but I have become more and more convinced that it can be explained by one graph.
Since 1972 economic inequality has been increasing, wages have stagnated, and judging from the results of the primary, significant numbers of democrats are pissed. They are pissed at both republicans and establishment democrats—and they are right to be. Since 1972, there have been both republican and democratic administrations, and yet neither democrats nor republicans have done anything to significantly address the wage stagnation that is the source of growing economic inequality in the United States. Looking at the chart above, at best you can say democratic administrations have a slightly upward wiggle, republicans a slightly downward wiggle—and that’s only if you squint really hard. Many democratic voters are demanding that wages should be 73% higher than they are—that we not only need to be increasing wages, we need to reverse the economic stagnation of the last 45 years. Nothing Hillary proposed comes close to this, and nothing she said in the campaign came close to acknowledging the scale of the problem. Hillary was the establishment democratic candidate, and lets be honest, nothing she proposed was gonna do anything other than a squint worthy wiggle in the above chart. This is why Bernie did so well in the democratic primary. He over-performed my expectations, primarily with younger voters, on the strength of his economic message.
Bernie lost the democratic primary because he failed to perform as well with non-white voters as he did with white voters. That surprised me. Neither Hillary nor Bernie were anything resembling a civil rights leader, but both had solid and similar voting records on civil rights. They could both be described as good, but not great, allies in the fight for civil rights. Each had a few really nasty comments and votes in their past, but both had repudiated most of those votes and remarks. At a basic level, I saw no obvious reason for Hillary to disproportionately earn the votes of non-whites—but she did, and she did convincingly.
This chart is from YouGov, who did pretty good work polling the popular vote in 2016 (they predicted Hillary winning the general by 3%, she won by 2.1%). This chart shows some very important things. First, it shows Bernie did well, very well, among the young. But it also shows something else, that among both young and old, Bernie did worse, much worse, among non-white voters. To be clear, if we broke the age ranges down more, we would see that among the millennials, Bernie won the non-white vote—but even among the millennials, he still won less of the non-white vote than he did the white vote. Based on the YouGov polls, Bernie performed about 20% worse with non-white/older voters and about 15% worse with non-white/younger voters. If Bernie had merely broken even with Hillary on the non-white vote, he would have been the democratic nominee.
As I said, I was surprised how badly Bernie did with non-white voters given that I could not see how he was significantly worse than Hillary on civil rights. But he did do worse, so there must be a reason. I see four possibilities.
1. Electability. Non-white voters are more conservative (small c) than white voters. That is, non-white know that their lives will be markedly worse under republican rule than democratic rule. Non-white voters do not believe republicans and democrats are the same, because they know damn well that in terms of civil rights, they aren’t. Seeing Hillary as the safer bet for the general election, non-white voters voted defensively.
2. Trust. Non-white voters have been repeatedly promised shit from democratic candidates only to get mostly ignored once the democrat is elected. As such, non-white voters are looking for a long, prominent record of support for civil rights. Absent that record, non-white voters are wary of any new candidate promising their support for civil rights. While Bernie had been voting the right way forever, being the senator from Vermont meant that civil rights were never that big a part of his campaigns. He did not have the same record of outreach or the same ties to non-white voters that Hillary had.
3. Bernie’s Racial Blindness. Non-white voters can see the racism and racial blind spots that whites usually don’t. Non-whites recognized that the reason Bernie didn’t talk about civil rights as much as economic justice was because he simply cared more about economic justice. It wasn’t that Bernie didn’t care about civil rights, he did and he does. Its that when it comes down to a hard decision between civil rights and economic justice, Bernie will choose economic justice. This tendency was revealed in Bernie’s campaign kick-off, where he championed economic justice and literally did not say much of anything about civil rights except for women’s rights. Throughout the campaign, Bernie “learned” and “expanded” his outreach to non-white voters, but for many non-white voters it was already too late. Bernie needed a record of active engagement with non-white voters from before his campaign even started, or at a minimum from day one of the campaign. It also didn’t help that every so often, about once a month or so, Bernie would punch himself in the dick with another tone deaf comment on race/gender.
4. Bernie’s more rabid, racist and race-blind supporters. Yeah, they existed. The one’s screaming about “identity politics”, attacking John Lewis, and on, and on. Honestly, every candidate has their asshole supporters (Hillary sure did), and anyone with half a brain knows to listen and vote for to the candidate. But I honestly wonder if the shear volume of the asshole Bernie supporters actually had an impact, in part because they were confirming what many non-white voters were already worried about with Bernie. When combined with Bernie’s periodic tone deaf race/gender comments, I think the asshole Bernie supporters might have had a significant negative impact on Bernie’s campaign.
What I know from the polling is that Bernie did far worse with non-white voters than I would have predicted based on his voting record. He and Hillary were more-or-less similarly OK on civil rights, but Bernie received about 15-20% less votes from non-white voters than he did with white voters. That’s a real thing. I am not sure I fully understand why so many non-white voters were turned off by Bernie, but Bernie performed worse than he did with white voters in every age group, and every economic group. I think my four explanation may have some truth to them, but I do not know which are most critical. Like Bernie, I’m a white guy from Vermont. I recognize the problem Bernie had with non-white voters, and by listening to non-white voters I think I have some understanding, but I am sure there are both nuances and glaring omissions in my analysis.
Based on the 2016 democratic primary, I have come to a few conclusions as to my own mistakes.
1. I grossly underestimated the damage that democratic inaction on wage stagnation and economic inequality has done to the liberal coalition over the last 45 years. Sure, I opposed economic inequality—I could talk the talk. But at the end of the day I underestimated just how angry 43% of the liberal base was. I did not appreciate the degree to which, in terms of economic inequality, democrats and republicans have been very similar in not giving a shit. Yeah, democrats are better, but with the exception of Obamacare, not significantly better. The fact of the matter is that as the establishment candidate for the democratic party, Hillary had very little credibility for those who have seen their wages stagnate and the rich get ever richer. And yes, that included her speeches to Goldman-Sachs, her support for NAFTA, and the overall Davos style globalism that she represented. I thought that Hillary was “good enough” on those issues. I was wrong.
2. I grossly underestimated the racism (and sexism) and race blindness of the progressive side of the liberal coalition and I underestimated the damage that racism and race blindness would cause. Those on the progressive left who keep saying that civil rights is “identity politics” or a distraction from economic inequality is truly shameful. While wages have stagnated over the last 45 years, with the exception of LGB rights, over the last 30 years the advancement of civil rights for women and minorities have stagnated as well. As for LGB folks, they fought and won. The LGB movement was not a distraction, it was a model for what we all should be doing (Please note: I have intentionally left out ‘T’ in LGBT because transgender discrimination is, if anything, worse than it was 30 years ago). Bernie lost the primary because of the progressive left’s racism (and sexism) and racial blind spots, allowing Hillary, who is no great shakes on civil rights, to win the democratic primary. It really is that simple.
Based on all of this, I am changing the way I think and act on a few things. First, I will no longer pretend that the democratic party is doing anywhere near enough on economic justice. I do not say this because a significant portion of the liberal coalition is demanding wage stagnation and economic inequality get addressed, I am saying this because the Democratic Party’s failure on this issue is both real and inexcusable. I need to stop being an apologist for the Democratic Party on this, they suck. In ways large and small, establishment democrats show themselves to be uninterested in real economic reform. That must change, and I’ve no intention to be nice about it.
Second, I will no longer stay quiet about liberal racism (and sexism) and racial blind spots. Those members of the liberal coalition who denigrate “identity politics” and who see civil rights as less important than economic justice are a stain on the liberal coalition. They are the reason the progressive side of the liberal coalition keeps losing. I need to stop tolerating and accepting liberal racism, or pretending it isn’t there. Liberal racism is real, and it is a cancer in the liberal coalition.
Update: I have published part 2 here.