An Essay on Future of the Democratic Party and Modern American Liberalism
Why “the Establishment” Lost the 2016 Election, and What We Can Learn; Or, Progressive and Populist Voters Matter.
These are the figures who excite the base in modern America, or at least this has been true since Obama beat Romney, if not since Bush beat Kerry…. and this is true despite Hillary Clinton being projected to win the popular vote.
In this modern era, it’s all about a push back against the smugness of the establishment and aspects of neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and globalization (with the many benefits of the modern -isms taking a backseat in the national conversation). In 2016, questions like “where did all the jobs go in the Rust Belt” needed real answers that resonated with the average American; And to those that answered went the projected spoils.
Voter suppression, sexism, Comey, media bias and air time, elites with their blinders on, a feedback loop on Facebook, aspects of the DNC, Wikileaks, and much else didn’t help established figures like Clinton or Bush, but 2016 was first and foremost won and lost via populism.
Below we run through the lessons we should learn from the 2016 election, and how that can inform the future of modern American “social” liberalism and the future of the Democratic party. This essay is directed at Democrats, but the lessons contained should be helpful to anyone regardless of political affiliation.
While the Democratic party lost the Presidency, Senate, and House to the Republicans, the real loss wasn’t for a party; it was for “the Washington insider establishment” on both sides of the isle (where the GOP felt the loss in the primary, and the Democratic party in the general).
2016 proved, “no, the election is not rigged,” “yes, your vote does matter,” “we live in a Republic, not a democracy,” “the parties have changed,” and “we have a two-party system where a third party can spoil the vote in a close election.”
But mostly, all things considered, 2016 proved that in a democratically minded Republican form of government in which people vote as, they do in America, it takes more than establishment politics to win over a frustrated working class in the information age.
In the primary, Bernie supporters came out against Hillary. Likewise, Trump supporters came out against the 15 or so mostly established GOP hopefuls for Trump.
Trump won his primary, but Bernie didn’t win his. The DNC didn’t want Bernie to win, and the RNC didn’t want Trump to win. While the DNC got its way, we all uncomfortably turned a blind eye to Wikileaks against our values. The RNC didn’t.
Meanwhile, the Presidential race was a mirror image of the primaries. The outsider populist nativist Trump beat the insider establishment Clinton in a race that mirrored the realigning Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams races in 1824 and 1828.
The primary contender Jeb Bush had many good conservative qualities, and, in ways, he was the consummate Republican.
Hillary Clinton had a long list of progressive accomplishments, and she was in ways the consummate Democrat but that was the problem.
They were both symbols of the Washington establishment, and this cost them their primary and presidential wins respectively. In all case, America had a Brexit, like Putin to the Rothschild bank, a slight state-based, but not popular, majority of voting Americans have symbolically turned against the globalist establishment with a strong nativist sentiment. Meanwhile, it is likely others simply negated to vote from lack of an energizing force. In all cases, the message is the same.
This isn’t a fluke; it is a trend. In the case of Clinton’s campaign, it is a trend that cost over a hundred million upfront and who knows how much it will cost on the backend.
Earlier this year, the IMF asked if neoliberalism was oversold; I suggested that it hadn’t been sold at all, certainly not to progressives, who are more likely to hear about neoliberalism from Chomsky than a supporter of fair-trade mixed-market globalization. Progressives, who may have supported Hillary had they had more facts about the environment in which she was established or would have at least certainly supported a centered Bernie, looked to simpler messages that stuck it to the elites putting their social wants aside to shake things up a bit.
It is common, in any era, for there to be a disconnect between the higher and lower classes. This is the theme of civil wars, revolutions, and most ideologies from classical liberalism to socialism. This is the division between democracy and aristocracy. This is the argument between worker’s rights and employer rights. This is the argument between young and old, minority and a native majority, labor and capital, oppressed and oppressor, etc.
In 2016, the Obama coalition of progressives, neoliberals, and general social liberals looked to their conservative qualities, their TPP, their markets, their tech industry, their mixed-market healthcare reform. Unfortunately, they looked past the key issues of the young progressive radicals like the occupy wall street movement, the big banks, the pipeline. Of course, they would; the connection between these, neoliberalism, and winning elections was never explained well. Progressives were teetering between Jill, Bernie, staying home, and supporting Clinton. While some bit their lips and voted Clinton, her campaign lacked the months of loud support for Clinton that was sitting there as wasted potential or filtered into petty arguments on social media.
Where the Democrats could have been fighting against the Republican establishment as a solid left of centered progressive values in terms of military, markets, and social justice, they were becoming a center left-right establishment synonymous with the very corporations Trump was rallying against.
Obama fought for “hope and change.” Hillary was trying to sell “more of the same” while Trump was selling “taking the country back again.”
People always vote for change; we knew this. Democrats knew that behind their biases, which told them if they just buckled down behind Hillary, it would work. She deserved it; women would come out strong enough. Bernie supporters wouldn’t stay home or vote for Trump. This was all incorrect. Democrats had the blinders on because Clinton was great in so many ways. In many ways, she was like Adams. She lost just as Clay and Adams lost in 1828 and the left lost in 2016. Should Democrats form a new party as they did with the Whigs? Or, do they try to salvage and rebuild a Democratic Party coalition, somehow avoiding the mistakes waiting in the wings of the machine?
Trump won by margins that could, if you are generous, be explained by stay-at-home progressives. Had perhaps neoliberalism been sold a little more honestly, or if neoliberals had realized their backbone was the progressives instead of trying to slander the Bernie supporters, perhaps there would have been no Brexit or Trump. Had the Democrats run the Bernie Sanders, we may not have not lost any Hillary voters, or perhaps the older generation would have in turn rejected Bernie’s leftism. It is hard to say in retrospect. Certainly, it wasn’t going to be easy to beat Trump either way.
Perhaps selling democratic socialism and neoliberalism are both surefire ways to not win, and perhaps it’s time to rethink a centered position that can win in 2020 and that finds that sweet spot in the middle people will come out for?
All Democrats can do now is move forward. Luckily this new environment provides fertile ground for forming a new coalition like the one described above.
American liberals need to lead with their progressive wing just as the right led with their Populist wing to take 2016. Romney taught the lesson to the GOP, Obama should have taught it to the Democrats back in 2008.
As for the Republicans, who hardly need moral support or a helping hand at the moment, the same lesson stands. The nativist populist vote is important. The people just voted for change. If they don’t get it, if the establishment Republicans try to snake their way in and prevent change, and that leads back to a Romney-like figure for 2020, we could find these same lessons needing to be learned again.
The bottom line, all factions matters, we are one America in a two-party system. We are two aspects of the human condition manifesting as political parties in a struggle for a majority based on the way the electoral system works.
It may hurt liberals to lose 2016, but a loss for one America is a win for the other; and as a country that can be seen as a good thing.
Where Hillary would have had a large right-wing base feeling like the election had be stolen, and those already 8-years-sick of Obama ready to block her policies and bring lawsuits, they instead have 4 years to put their ideas to the test. Four years for Republicans to take the offensive and for Democrats to play defense and be critics.
Ultimately, this election gives us an opportunity for the country to heal, and for American liberalism and even the establishment to lick its wounds and come back stronger than ever. We really are a progressive, nativist, populist, establishment, and “stronger together.”