Sunday, November 13, 2016

November Surprise

“I know liberals made a big mistake because we attacked your boy, Bush, like he was the end of the world, and he wasn’t. And Mitt Romney, we attacked that way. I gave Obama a million dollars, I was so afraid of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney wouldn’t have changed my life that much or yours. Or John McCain. They were honorable men who we disagreed with, and we should have kept it that way. So we cried wolf, and that was wrong.”
—Comedian Bill Maher, explaining why Democrats should have held their epithets in reserve for a real “fascist” like Trump, on the HBO show Real Time shortly before the election
“You are part of the problem. You and your friends will die of old age and I’m going to die from climate change.”
—A Democratic National Committee staffer, venting to DNC chair Donna Brazile after the election, as reported by The Huffington Post
Well, that was a surprise.

A few weeks ago, in an email exchange with a Seattle friend, I did something that I should have learned long ago not to do. I made a prediction. I said that Hillary Clinton would win the election but that the country would be shocked by the narrowness of the margin. In Electoral College terms—and that was what I was talking about—boy, did I get that wrong. Not only did Clinton lose, but it was not even close.

Yes, Democrats can take some moral satisfaction in the fact, as National Public Radio keeps reminding me, they have won the popular vote in six of the seven most recent presidential elections—a span of 24 years. What will be more useful and productive for them, however, is to focus on the fact that, under the United States’ district/state voting system in the past 36 years, Republicans have held the White House for 20 of those years—and that does not include the impending four years of President Trump. More worryingly for the party, Republicans have won a majority in the House of Representatives in 10 of the past 12 congressional elections and won or tied in 8 of the past 12 Senate elections. Things are even worse for Dems at the state level. A Twitter tweeter pointed out the other day that Dems now need only one net loss of a state legislature to lose the ability, as a party, to block constitutional amendments.

How did things get to this place? For most of the past year the talk was all about the disintegration and destruction of the Republican party. There will be no lack of post-mortems and analysis and soul searching, but for now I will offer these observations:

• The practitioners and chroniclers of politics remind me sometimes of stuffy old English teachers. Just as the latter get so caught up in all their hoary grammar rules that they forget they are not the ones actually setting the rules, so the journalists and media analysts who have covered so many elections that they have no doubt about how the system works tend to forget who is actually collectively in charge of the country. Throughout the primary season the “experts” and pollsters told us continually that Trump had no chance of being nominated—only to be contradicted every week or so by new election results. Throughout the summer and autumn they continued on, telling us he could not win the presidency. During that span of time there were no inconvenient elections to contradict them—until the one on Tuesday. The leadership of both the major parties put way too much faith in the “experts” instead of listening and heeding citizens en masse.

• Republicans loosened up their nomination procedures, and their primaries became an unseemly food fight. By contrast Democrats, as confirmed by John Podesta’s and others’ hacked emails, tilted the scales from the beginning to ensure that Hillary Clinton was nominated. As bad as the GOP primary season looked, they had more candidates and those candidates—one female, one African-American, two with Spanish surnames, two in their 40s, three in their 50s—looked more like America than the old/white-skewing Democratic trio. And, for better or for worse, the ugly GOP process produced the next president.

• Substantively, a big problem for the Democratic party is that it approaches electoral politics the same way it approaches the economy—as a zero sum game. That approach keeps getting tripped up by reality. Both parties need to shift presidential debates back to ideas and policies rather than just carving the population into groups and pitting them against one other.

For those disappointed by the election, here is my attempt at a silver lining for you. If you believe that there is way too much money in politics and that deep pockets are determinative, then you should take comfort that the candidate who set an all-time record for the most money collected and spent lost and that the candidate who set a new benchmark for low campaign spending won. If that does not comfort you, then you need to assess whether support for campaign finance reform is genuinely one of your principles or merely a tactic. If you think Wall Street has too much influence in politics, the fact is that Wall Street’s preferred candidate lost.

For those who swore they would emigrate if Trump won, here is my suggestion. Try Canada. It is nearby and that dreamy Justin Trudeau will be just your cup of tea. The mythical socialized societies across the Atlantic may look alluring to you from a distance, but I have been over here now for nearly a decade and a half, and here is what I see. Yes, modern liberal culture holds sway in Europe more than in the U.S., but there is still more than enough populism, friction over immigration and refugees, suspicion of government, political dysfunction and mutual enmity to make you feel right at home.