Saturday, November 12, 2016

Democracy's Debacle

I suppose I should write something about last week's election. I've been sick to my stomach all week, feeling chronic maladies that make me wonder how many of the ill consequences I will actually hang on to experience. Admittedly, this reasoned forbiding was made more personal by the death and funeral of a friend and the sufferings of another. It probably didn't help that I've spent so much of my time re-reading old notebooks and blog posts going back to 2001, where I offer a strongly worded and reasoned accounting of the ongoing disaster Billmon liked to refer to as the Cheney Administration. (I haven't gotten up to the Obama era yet -- itself a lengthy chronicle of growing dismay, especially at the mental illness that so many Republicans have fallen into, but also at the haplessness of Democrats, especially Obama.)

Since 2001, I've written some five million words in the notebook. The majority of them have been on music, and I've occasionally mentioned movies, television, books, and more personal matters, but at least one million of those words have been addressed to clearly political topics (especially war). A few people do appreciate what I've had to say, but I've never managed to attract any attention beyond old friends and folks who initially tuned in for music reviews. So when confronted with results like last week's, I can't help but feel that I've wasted fifteen years of my life. I've never been, nor ever will be, a political activist, let alone a nuts and bolts political strategist. I'm starting to feel like I should hang it up, focus on other projects, and let others carry on.

Still, I guess I do have a few things to say. I haven't read many of the post-mortems, least of all the efforts of the usual suspects to shift blame (but for some examples, see Annie Karni: Clinton aides blame loss on everything but themselves). Rather, I did what I usually do, and looked at some numbers. (I mostly got these from Wikipedia and Google, perhaps not the most authoritative sources, but likely to be close to accurate.) First, they show that there was no groundswell of support for Trump. He got 817 thousand votes less than Romney did in 2012 (while losing by 5 million votes), and he only got 168 thousand more votes than McCain in 2008 (while losing by 9.5 million votes). In total votes, the Republican share has been effectively flat over the last three presidential elections. If the voter base has grown (which would be expected given that the population has grown), you could even argue that the Republican share has been declining. They didn't win this time because they gained ground. They merely lost less than Clinton did: she finished with 5.4 million fewer votes than Obama got in 2012, and even so was only done in by a quirk in where those votes were distributed, a bias rigged into the electoral system.

You might wonder about the effect third parties had, but it was negligible. After polling close to 9% for most of the season, Gary Johnson collapsed at the end, receiving 3.22% of the vote. Jill Stein suffered a comparable collapse, dropping from 3% peak polls to less than 1% (0.96%). Both of those candidates ran in 2008, and both did better this time (Johnson was up 2.23%, Stein 0.60%), but their 2.83% increase was a tiny fraction of the increased unfavorable ratings of this year's major party candidates. If Clinton could have magically counted all of Stein's votes, her plurality would have been larger -- as it was, Clinton received 439 thousand more votes nationwide than Trump did -- but even a 1.3% popular vote margin wouldn't have been enough to flip the electoral college in her favor (she would have picked up Michigan and Wisconsin, but not Pennsylvania -- Stein got 48,912 votes in Pennsylvania, but Trump led Clinton by 67,636). At most Stein accounts for one-sixth of Clinton's deficit.

In the end, it's hard to see anyone other than Clinton to blame for that 5.5 million vote drop off. Indeed, one can argue that her deficit was even larger against reasonable expectations. Economic indicators have generally been favorable, and Obama was enjoying his highest approval numbers in a many years. Moreover, Trump was a glaringly deficient, utterly ridiculous opponent: Clinton's poll numbers surged after each of three debates when viewers could see them side-by-side, even more so after the party conventions. She appeared to have the more unified party behind her. And she had more money than Trump (although Trump had pulled ahead of her in "dark money" and benefited from millions the Kochs and others plowed into down-ballot races). So you have to ask: why didn't enough people come out and vote for her?

In some cases they did: she ran ahead of her polls in Nevada, where the "get out the vote" campaign was focused on Latinos (and Democrats feared losing a critical Senate seat). But I have to wonder if she had any effective "ground game" at all in states where polls showed her leading, especially the states that ultimately sunk her: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Could be that Democrats were over-confident there, or just lackadaisical: how many people there didn't vote because they assumed their votes weren't needed? (And how many were turned away by nasty voter suppression laws?) As I understand it, Clinton didn't appear in Wisconsin after the primary. And while she did campaign in Pennsylvania, the big push there was to win over suburban Republicans, not to fortify the party base.

On the other hand, the Koch network seems to have put most of their money into down-ticket races, notably in defending endangered Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida -- all successfully, coincidentally tilting those states for Trump. (Also Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio, where Trump was expected to win -- Clinton didn't even contest Indiana or Missouri, although both states should be competitive. The Democrats did win three close Senate races, all in states Clinton won: Illinois, Nevada, and New Hampshire.)

All along, I basically felt that if Clinton could run a "get out the vote" operation comparable to Obama's in 2008-12, she would win handily. If any lesson has become a commonplace over the last 10-20 years, it's that you win elections by motivating your base and getting them out to vote. The bottom line is that Trump did that, and despite her advantages Clinton did not do an adequate job. What was unusual this year was that the primary motivator was fear and loathing of the other side, and that in turn led voters to excuse a lot of deficiencies in their own candidate. Of the two, Clinton's failure is far more spectacular, and far more damning, than Trump's success.

For starters, Clinton had a lot more to work with than Trump did. No major party candidate had ever had anything like the disapproval ratings of Trump. Moreover, he could be attacked on numerous fronts, starting with the gross dysfunctionality of his party's agenda and their obstruction against any constructive attempts to solve proven problems (e.g., health care, finance regulation, climate change). I think it was a tactical error on Clinton's part to focus instead on personal issues -- a tactic that Trump made irresistibly easy, but doing so exposed her own personality faults to greater scrutiny, and she could go overboard, especially with that "nuclear codes" thing which also reminded voters that the notoriously hawkish and anti-Russian Clinton could just as easily get them blown up. (From Karni's article above: "They explained that internal polling from May showed that attacking Trump on the issue of temperament was a more effective message." Internal? From May?)

Just before the election, Trump rolled out an ad that was quickly dismissed as anti-semitic: the problem was that aside from Clinton, all the "bad" people in the ad were Jewish (although they weren't identified as such); and since what made them "bad" was that they "control the levers of power in Washington," favor "global special interests," and "put money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations," that evokes the old anti-semitic trope of a secretive global Jewish cabal pulling strings all around the world. On the other hand, the thrust of the ad was plainly true (as far as it went): for several decades now, Washington has molded public policy to benefit special interests, especially large financial organizations, and Hillary Clinton was very much a cog in this process. I hadn't heard about the ad when I first saw it, so I was focusing on the explicit message, and for a while I thought it would have made a terrific Jill Stein spot. Then Trump came on, and of course it's ridiculous to think that he'll change any of this -- if ever there was a guy angling to get his share of the graft, it's Trump -- but his final pitch turned out to be prophetic: he proclaimed the election the last chance Americans had to stop Crooked Hillary, and that was one simple, concrete task they could carry out. And so, just enough people voted for Trump (and just not quite enough voted for Clinton) to make that much happen. After one of the most annoying and frustrating campaign seasons in American history, at least some people emerged feeling they had accomplished something. (On the other hand, had Clinton won, most Democrats would merely have been relieved, feeling they had dodged a deadly bullet, but aware that the next four years would be sheer struggle.)

The one clear result from this election is that Clinton is done. Having lost one nomination to Obama, having nearly lost another to Sanders, and now having blown a huge lead against Trump, she is a three-time loser, and at her age there's no way she's going to bounce back. And that's not only good riddance, it's a reprieve -- a chance for the Democratic Party to regroup and rebuild free of the dead weight of the Clinton legacy. Back in 1992 Bill Clinton came to Washington thinking he would show the Democrats a way to win in the post-Reagan oligarchy. All they had to do was to prove to the corporate masters that Democrats would be better for business than the Republicans were. As governor of Arkansas, Clinton had pioneered that formula, helping boost local outfits like Walmart and Tyson grew to become international giants. In Washington, one of the first things he did was to push NAFTA through -- over the protests of labor unions, but pointedly to subdue those unions, to weaken them and thereby proove his loyalty to his business friends. Even though Clinton managed to get reelected in 1996, his strategy could hardly be called a success: he cost the Democrats Congress in 1994, and all of his subsequent legislative accomplishments were compromises that Republicans agreed to because they understood that they only served to undercut the Democratic Party's base.

That was followed by eight years of Bush, which started with budget-busting tax cuts and ended with a complete financial meltdown and the worst depression since the 1930s -- conditions which, along with a similar loss of Congress in 2010, conspired to keep Obama from doing virtually anything significant to help his voters out. (His donors, of course, made out like bandits.) With Obama we effectively got eight more years of Clintonism, most obviously through a raft of Clinton-linked appointments, notably his hawkish secretary of state. What's happened in the 24 years since Clinton came to Washington is that inequality has blown up to unprecedented (nearly unimaginable) levels, we've been plagued by near-permanent war, and the Republicans have somehow convinced most Americans that government-by-Democrats can never work to their benefit. And they've een able to do that largely because Democrats like Hillary Clinton have played along. Her long history of complicity and collusion in all of this is the root of her problems, and it's why roughly a third of the country despises her so much they're willing to risk a fool like Donald Trump as president. (And in a country where 40% of the people have been turned off and never bother to vote, that's all it takes.)

I still find it almost impossible to imagine Trump as president, but I'm even more disturbed by what happened in the Congressional elections. The Republican Congress since 2010 has been nothing short of a public embarrassment. Most Republicans have been inveterate obstructionists, with nearly all adhering to extreme (and dysfunctional) ideological positions. The Democrats should have made Congress the central issue this election, much as Harry Truman won the 1948 election by campaigning against a Republican "do nothing" Congress. And if most Americans had clearly understood that message, they surely would have flipped both the House and Senate to the Democrats. But none of that happened. Sure, Democrats made modest gain: two Senate seats and seven House seats, but that left the Republicans in control of both chambers, with fat chance that Trump use the presidential veto will to tamper down their insanity (as Obama, at least, could do).

The only upside is that presumably Congressional Republicans won't feel compelled to wreck their own president's administration. They'll let him do that himself, although I full well expect them to contribute. The Republicans have been playing a weird game where they never get blamed for their obstruction or inaction. That's been going on since 1994, minus a respite when Bush was president. In effect, they've extorted the American people into giving them complete power this time -- recall that Republicans were promising to hound Clinton even if she won the election, and had vowed never to confirm any of her judicial nominees. A Trump presidency spares us that kind of discord (although he could still order prosecutors to go after Clinton -- something that would smack of petty vindictiveness, not that that's beneath him).

What the Democrats have long needed to do was to rebuild a real, effective party that squarely defends and promotes the interests of the majority of their voters. They haven't done this because the Clintons (and Obama) have been so remarkably successful at raising money from well-heeled donors, notably in finance and high-tech. The Republicans have a long head start building their party from the ground up, recruiting compliant apparatchiki to run for precinct and entry-level offices, giving them a coherent ready-built program and talking points, and promoting those who toe the line most effectively. This has resulted in Republican domination of state and local offices, and their gerrymandering has given the Republicans an edge in the House (even when Democrats get more votes). They have organizations like ALEC crafting pet legislation, plus think tanks and their extraordinary media network.

The Democrats have nothing like this, not least because they don't have a coherent program. They merely promise not to be as awful as Republicans, without even fully explaining why that might be, or what it might entail. If there's a silver lining in this election, it's that the DNC will abandon its "cult of personality" that only supports the person at the top (Clinton or Obama) and start to work toward rebuilding the party from the bottom up, formulating a coherent challenge to Republican right-wing dominance. This election debacle will cost us dearly: most obviously, the era when the courts would use constitutional rights to protect us from oppressive government will come to a quick end.

How bad it might all get is hard to forecast. Trump started his campaign by occasionally straying from conservative orthodoxy, but wound up pledging allegiance to nearly every wretched idea the Republican Party has embraced. As president, the main question will be whether he succumbs to ideologues like Mike Pence and/or Paul Ryan, or whether he resists and takes a less self-destructive course. (He has, for instance, already backtracked on Obamacare.) Same for foreign policy: does he provoke more war, or back away from destructive confrontations? I don't expect in any way that he'll become "Putin's puppet" but there are several areas where a closer relationship with Russia could reduce world tensions. On the other hand, no prospective Trump underling fills me with more dread than Michael Flynn -- I find him far more worrying than Trump's notorious "temperament."

Beyond that I don't really care to speculate. Like Reagan and Bush, his fetish for "free enterprise" and contempt for government will foster unimaginable corruption. Meanwhile, the usual Republican nostrums will fail, often catastrophically. We in Kansas have gotten more than a taste of how bad Republican fantasies can turn out. Now it's your turn. This isn't the first time I've been so sorely disappointed by the American people -- the Nixon landslide in 1972 and the Reagan landslide in 1984, both in spite of overwhelming evidence of malfeasance and sociopathy, were especially terrible, although Bush's narrow win in 2004 was even more painful. But we've grown up in a nation that's been warped by perpetual war with the world, a nation that has come to celebrate inequality and inequity, that has grown vicious and surly even while thinking itself beyond reproach. Trump has finally given America a face as ugly as the reputation we've garnered over decades. It still feels like a bad dream, but some day we must wake up and face ourselves. Hopefully that will be sobering.