Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election. We’re more than a month out, but for many of us the reality of her loss has taken a while to sink in. But now that the Electoral College votes have been cast, we’re faced with the reality of Clinton’s historic defeat. What remains to be seen is the meaning we will make — we Democrats, liberals, and Leftists — of what has transpired.
Unlike physical events with their simple explanations — “Why did the window break?” “Because he threw a rock” — historical events are opaque and complex, providing fertile terrain for endless commentary and analysis. Many, if not most, of the explanations on offer are true at some level. They point to one of the many causes that led to Clinton to lose and Trump to win. What remains contested is which of the many causes were decisive for Clinton’s lost. And, of course, that matters because the multiple meanings we might make of the past pave alternative roads toward the future.
So why did Clinton lose?
The public explanations on offer from the Clinton camp mostly point the finger at forces outside their control. Just days after the election, Clinton told a group of donors that FBI director James Comey’s late-breaking inquiry into her emails had cost her the election. She expanded that story in December, in another address to top donors, and also cast blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin for the hacking scandal that led to the release of internal emails from her campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). These two “unprecedented” events, she said, led her to lose votes in crucial swing states. Somewhat ironically, a sub-point in many of these Clintonian explanations has been the incompetence of the media and their general unwillingness to tell the story of the election to Clinton’s liking. Clinton surrogates, including her husband Bill Clinton and her campaign chair John Podesta, have repeated these talking points.
The FBI certainly does seem to have mishandled the Clinton email investigation and Russian interference with a U.S. election is deeply troubling. Both undoubtedly undermined Clinton’s campaign in an area where she was especially vulnerable, namely the public’s perception of her as an (un)trust-worthy candidate. And, the corporate press does need to sell papers, so the Clinton email scandal and the DNC email leaks were certainly a gift that kept on giving.
That said, the function of these explanations from the Clinton campaign is largely as a defense mechanism to shield the campaign — and indeed the entire Democratic establishment — from any serious (self-)criticism. In essence, they send the message that “liberalism is working just fine” — if only the FBI and those pesky Russians (not to mention those Bernie Bros) would have left things well alone and the press would have done its job and gotten the story out. In other words, these explanations protect and maintain the status quo within the Democratic Party.
Another line of postmortem analysis focuses on the technical details of the Clinton campaign. Clinton didn’t visit Wisconsin once as the Democratic nominee and the campaign only put resources into Michigan in the final weeks after polls shows a tightening race. Some faulted Clinton for focusing so much on the rising American electorate — young people, people of color, and women — while ignoring white voters (and indeed pouring scorn on them with her “basket of deplorables” remark). Others point out significant problems with her “data-driven” ground game that swept in after four years ignoring voters and then rebuffed hard won, first hand knowledge from local community members, all while relying heavily on multi-million dollar TV ad buys.
These explanations are significant. They carry broad implications about how campaigning should be done: who we should reach out to, how we should reach out to them, and when we should do both. They are also contentious, particularly when it comes to the question of how many resources should be put into reaching out to different constituencies. Clearly demographics is not destiny, as some had once supposed, but how we respond to that truth in a rapidly diversifying America is a vital question for Democrats, liberals and the Left. I will not offer my own thoughts on what lessons can be gleaned from this kind of technical analysis, but I certainly agree that reaching a proper diagnosis is important.
In the weeks since the election, another significant line of explanation has been that Clinton lost because the electoral system is rigged. The most prominent among such accounts has focused on the Electoral College. Indeed, this was the second time in 16 years that a Democratic presidential candidate has won the popular vote but lost the White House.
What I find interesting and somewhat perplexing is that in the aftermath of this year’s election the commentary cut both ways. Some petitioned electors to vote for Clinton and insisted that this year’s election results are precisely the reason the Electoral College was created in the first place. Others pointed out that the Electoral College was a concession to slave states and demanded the Electoral College be abolished henceforth in favor of the popular vote (a far more sensible account, in my view).
A much less discussed, but equally important, line of thought is that this was the first presidential election since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and the first election in which some states (including Wisconsin and Michigan) implemented new voting restrictions including photo ID laws and reduced access to the ballot box.
Now, both these accounts, and a host of other similar lines of thought, are fundamentally correct. Our electoral system, like the entire political-economic system itself, is thoroughly rigged. At the same time, when you play a game, you know the rules — and once the game is in play, you need a plan to win with the rules you have, not the rules you want. In any event, the lesson seems clear. Now is most definitely the time to work (harder) to change the rules. We should fight like hell to expand and deepen democracy now and in the future, both at the federal and the state level.
Another line of explanation focuses on what we might call “the narrative” of the Clinton campaign. Despite massively outspending Trump in ad-buys, Clinton’s message apparently failed to resonate with voters. Indeed, in many ways, Clinton had no story, only an endless string of policy proposals cobbled together with attacks on the other guy. But there were other differences as well.
Trump told a positive story about what America could be (‘Great Again’), while Clinton focused almost exclusively on a negative story about Trump himself (a misogynistic, xenophobic, racist who is no role model for our kids). Trump’s story focused on what he’d do for supporters (‘Make America Great Again,’ negotiate better deals), while Clinton’s story focused on what supporters could do for her (‘I’m with her’, your vote can help me break the glass ceiling for all women). Trump’s story had plenty of bad guys (immigrants, Black Lives Matter activists, big donors, Washington insiders), but Clinton’s story had no villain. Trump heard and expressed voters’ pain (‘I AM YOUR VOICE’), whereas Clinton’s story was tone deaf (‘America is already great,’ ‘America is great because America is good’).
In some ways, even if Clinton had told a better story, she still would have been the wrong messenger. How could someone who took hundreds of thousands of dollars for making speeches to Wall Street bankers give voice to today’s anti-corporate backlash? How could someone who is taking big money from campaign donors credibly call for campaign finance reform? How could someone who has spent much of her professional life at the center of American politics condemn the Washington establishment? Although, the fact that a billionaire could effectively pose as a populist every-man shows that the mismatch between message and messenger is not insurmountable.
Now, these are all things that were within Clinton’s control (at least at some point and to some extent). But there are also things that weakened her campaign and her ability to serve as a messenger that were outside her control. She is a woman in a profoundly sexist world, seeking the vote of the profoundly sexist American public. (A not unrelated article about how Trump won could expand in great detail on his mobilization of American racism, sexism, and xenophobia to propel himself to victory.) Clinton has also been subject to a conservative smear campaign for most of her adult life. And these things matter.
So even if Clinton presented herself differently, for instance as a populist standard bearer, she might have failed. This isn’t to say she shouldn’t have tried. Many of us on the Left, including Senator Bernie Sanders, were trying to push Clinton left-ward not merely because we are Leftists, but because we wanted to make her a more viable candidate. We felt that the time for a story about incremental change to improve the system has past because, for too many American, the current system is failing.
And this leads to what seems to me to be one of the deepest causes of Clinton’s lost. Since the financial crash of 2007–2008, the neoliberal system has been in crisis. And the crisis of the economic system has expanded to create a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling class, including the financial, political and cultural elite. Populist regimes (both right and left) have already taken governing power abroad and the 2016 presidential election saw populist contenders on both the right (Trump) and left (Sanders).
Trump’s victory over Clinton signals just how profound this crisis of legitimacy has become. A billionaire fraudster with no relevant governing experience and no concrete legislative plans beat out one of the most qualified candidates in history despite the fact that her political operation was far stronger than his. Why?
Among Trump voters, 83% said the candidate quality that mattered most was that a candidate “can bring change,” something that might matter significantly given that 78% of them also said their financial situation was worse today than it was four years ago.
An Election Day poll of 10,604 voters conducted by Reuters/Ipsos is even more enlightening in terms of exposing the crisis of legitimacy that the ruling class faces today. Among the entire electorate, a full three in four voters (75%) agree that “America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and the powerful;” 68% agree that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me;” and 76% believe that “the mainstream media is more interested in making money than telling the truth.” One poll is hardly definitive, but this does suggest that the financial, political, and cultural elite have been quite profoundly discredited.
So then, one of the most significant reasons that Clinton lost is because the ruling class, of which she a part, faces a crisis of legitimacy. And her historic loss reveals just how deep this crisis has become.
What are we to make of this fact? And how can we use it to help us win?
First, we can work to extend the crisis of legitimacy to include Trump and his Administration. Clearly, Trump benefited from the current crisis and managed, despite also being a member of the ruling class, to position himself as an anti-establishment outsider. Of course, Trump is a fraud and a liar — our job is to expose that fact to America.
What’s more, I think Trump’s policies are unlikely to resolve the contradictions within neoliberalism that have come to a head in recent years. As such, the system seems likely to remain in crisis — we could see another financial crash or large-scale warfare — and so the crisis of legitimacy faced by the ruling class seems likely to persist, at least for the time being. We should use Trump’s inability to resolve the crisis to discredit him.
Second, now is the time to clean house. The establishment — in particular the Democratic establishment — has been discredit by their loss in this election. If Democrats and liberals want to win, they should join the Left. If they resist, the Left should remove them from power. This is true not only when it comes to Senate and House leadership and the contest to select a new DNC chair, but also at the level of state parties. The Democratic Party must be taken over wholesale as an instrument of everyday people. As much as this is a matter of ideology, it is also a pragmatic matter. In this political climate, establishment candidates and campaigns will fail. Continuing to run them is madness.
Finally, if we want to win, we must abandon reformist proposals and put forward a bold vision to remake America and reshape the world. Even though the next few years will see us primarily on defense at the national level and facing uphill battles in many states, we should find ways to wage defensive fights offensively. That means using these fights to tell a story of who we can be and what we can do together.
It is unclear how long this current system crisis will continue, but eventually modifications to the system are likely to emerge and the crisis (hopefully) will dissipate. What remains in play is whether the Right will shape the future or whether we will. Thus, now is the time for a massively ambitious political project that brings together diverse constituencies and identities around a shared vision of what a post-neoliberal system could be.
Of course, we will only win the future if we understand the past. There is no one simple explanation for why Clinton lost and Trump won the 2016 election. To borrow a line from Stuart Hall, “you lose because you lose because you lose.” In history, nothing is inevitable (thank goodness) and everything is complex. But making better sense of what’s come before makes the road ahead that much clearer. Which is important given that world hangs on the route we follow.
Note: This article first appeared at Medium.com. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons.