How We Let the Orange Monster Win

by Benjamin Studebaker

Somehow Donald Trump is going to be President. Trump campaigned tremendously poorly, feeding us a steady stream of horrific gaffes, flip-flopping on policy, and taking political positions that sounded crypto-fascist. We managed to lose anyway. This is an existential moment for all opponents of Trump, whether you count yourself on the left or in the center. We need to have an honest conversation about what we did wrong so that we can make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

Looking at the map, there are six states Obama won in 2012 that Clinton lost:

  • Pennsylvania (Obama won by 6, Clinton lost by 1, swing of 7)
  • Ohio (Obama won by 3, Clinton lost by 9, swing of 12)
  • Michigan (Obama won by 10, Clinton lost by less than 1, swing of 10+)
  • Wisconsin (Obama won by 7, Clinton lost by 1, swing of 8)
  • Iowa (Obama won by 6, Clinton lost by 9, swing of 15)
  • Florida (Obama won by 1, Clinton lost by 2, swing of 3)

The Florida swing is negligible and within a typical poll’s margin of error–Obama clearly could have easily lost Florida in 2012, and Clinton could have won it easily this year. Even if Trump lost Florida, he would have 277, which would have been enough to win. The critical change this year is that Clinton couldn’t hang on to the rust belt–the only rust belt state she won was Illinois, where the exceptionally large size of Chicago dictates the outcome. These heavily unionized states are meant to be part of the Democrats’ heartland, and we need them. We don’t have enough electoral votes on the two coasts, and there aren’t enough cities, college-educated people, African-Americans, or Hispanics in the south or west to make us competitive in those regions.

We used to be competitive all over the country. In 1964, we ran Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater, another hard right kook, and defeated him handily:

In those days the Democrats relied on the New Deal coalition, which included educated liberals, the unions and working class, African-Americans, Catholics, and for a long time the south, which had a grudge against the Republican Party dating back to the civil war. When the Democrats passed civil rights legislation they began to lose their grip on the south, but the formula for a strong electoral performance was relatively straightforward:

There are always more people being stepped on than doing the stepping. If we can put all of our disadvantaged groups together we will always have enough votes to win. Throw in a few votes from socially minded college-educated liberals and you can win by a lot. Today the set of disadvantaged groups is a little different. There are fewer white Catholics and fewer southerners in the coalition, but there are also more Hispanics. But the formula is the same–assemble a coalition of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free and crush the Republicans.

Every time we don’t win, it’s because we fail part of our coalition. When we’re in office or on the campaign trail we forget about one of our oppressed groups. Maybe we start to take them for granted or maybe we start to think we don’t need them anymore. Who lives in the rust belt that we forgot about?

Working class whites.

Inflation-adjusted median household income in all of these states is little improved since the late 90s:

Michigan is still poorer than it was in 2007 and significantly poorer than it was in 1999. The same is true for Wisconsin. As recently as 2014, Iowa was even with where it was at in 1999. Pennsylvania didn’t surpass 2001 levels until last year. And most of this growth is not going to the workers. Between 2009 and 2013, much of the new income gains in these states went to the top 1%:

  • In Iowa, the top saw a gain of 12.8% while the rest only gained 4.8%.
  • In Wisconsin, the top gained 12% while the rest only gained 4.7%.
  • In Ohio, the top gained 17.3% while the rest only gained 3.9%.
  • In Pennsylvania, the top gained 8% while the rest only gained 0.2%.
  • In Michigan, the top gained 26.3% while the rest only gained 0.3%.

This happened while Barack Obama was president. It’s not all his fault–Republicans in congress frequently obstructed him. But when we’re not able to deliver the goods for important parts of our coalition, we need to explain why we’re not delivering and what they can do to help us do to break through for them. We needed a Democratic campaign that put these people front and center. We needed someone who would passionately explain to them precisely what the impediments in our system are to their prosperity and how we’re going to remove those impediments.

We didn’t do that. We told them that big change isn’t possible and told them to settle. And when they wouldn’t settle, we started scolding them. We told them America is already great, when it didn’t feel great to them. We told them they were privileged, when they didn’t feel privileged. We told them if they didn’t support us they were racist. Sexist. Xenophobic. Deplorable. They didn’t feel deplorable. We told them they had a duty to vote for the first female president when they didn’t feel like that person cared about them or respected them or had a plan to help them.

A lot of people today are mad at the white working class. They’ll point out that Trump’s policies are never going to help them, and that the working class is stupid and ignorant to support him. And there’s truth to that–if the workers truly understood what the real consequences of Trump’s policies would be, they wouldn’t have supported him. Indeed, some of the economic misery in these states is due to the policies of the Republican governors many of these same people voted for. But it’s not enough to tell people why they can’t support your opponent, and calling them stupid or racist isn’t going to win them over. We have to make them feel valued and show them that we care, that we have a plan to help.

In 2008 Barack Obama told the people of these states that he was going to bring hope and change. We didn’t deliver. We owe them an explanation for why we didn’t deliver and a plan to fix what’s broken about our political institutions. Instead we nominated a candidate who, for all her virtues, was precisely the person Obama ran against in 2008 on the grounds that she could not deliver change because she was too friendly with the people and institutions that are the problem. We can’t tell people in 2008 that someone can’t deliver change and then offer that same person up as the changemaker in 2016. They aren’t going to believe that. When you give people who are having a hard time a choice between more of the same thing and something different, a lot of them will pick something different, even if it’s an orange monster.

Over the last few years we’ve placed a lot of emphasis on the other parts of our coalition. We have stuck up for our voters of color, for our female voters, for our LGBT voters. But we’ve made whiteness a punchline. We make fun of these people for being uneducated, for being white trash, for being rednecks, for being religious, for owning guns, for living in trailer parks, for being addicted to meth. We’ve become casual about dismissing the concerns of working class whites. They’re the one group we still stereotype with impunity. We have to stop doing it. We have to show these people we care, that we believe poor and disadvantaged lives matter even when they’re white. We need candidates who will push for meaningful changes loudly and proudly that serve the interests of all our disadvantaged people, so our coalition is never split asunder in this way again.

Because when one of our groups gets left behind, we don’t win. We are only as strong as the weakest part of our coalition. And if you’re reading this and you’re thinking “well, demographics will shift, in 4 years there will be more Hispanics and fewer whites, and more Millennial voters and fewer boomers,” you’re missing something important. When we bring our whole coalition together, those demographic shifts are supposed to make it so we win by huge margins, so that the country is fundamentally transformed. If we leave the white working class behind, we’ll be gutting out narrow victories at best. We won’t have the seats in congress to do the things we want to do. We’ll just keep experiencing the last 8 years over and over. And what’s more, on a moral level we will have turned our backs on the working people, the people who built this party and built this country and do suffer from meaningful economic oppression that we have a duty to care about and take seriously. If we don’t do that, if we leave them to the wolves, we’re no better than the Republicans who prey on them.