12 Notes From a Political Autopsy

Richard Eskow

Somebody once said that healing is the process of reclaiming our own biographies. Millions of people are trying to heal right now, but their stories remain unwritten.

What killed the Democrats’ chances? People are still sifting through the data, but here are twelve notes from the ongoing political autopsy.

1. The people aren’t the problem.

After all the voter suppression, after the sexism and racism, Hillary Clinton still won a healthy majority of votes. And yet, her opponent took the prize. That’s a bitter loss – one Congressional Democrats know all too well.

Americans rejected Donald Trump. A broken electoral system anointed him anyway.

Don’t condemn the voters. Condemn the system.

2. Even when you’ve been cheated, there can be room for improvement.

Politics is a rough game. Anybody who didn’t expect the Republicans to lie, cheat, suppress, and manipulate hasn’t been paying attention.

People who lose to cheaters have two choices: give up, or figure out how to beat them next time.

Victory and victimology don’t coexist very well. If Democrats want to win, they’ll need to be tough, clear-eyed, and self-critical. Which means:

3. Don’t pretend you didn’t lose.

“Trump gets 47% of vote,” one Democratic writer tweeted sarcastically. “Yep, better blow up Dem Party.”

Democrats lost all three branches of the federal government, along with some governors’ chairs. Clinton neglected key states, then lost them. The party’s message didn’t connect. Surely something needs to change.

“There is not a wholesale rejection of the Democratic party and the Democratic brand,” said Democratic think tanker Simon Rosenberg. Then he acknowledged that Democrats have less power now than they’ve had since 1928.

Face it: This was a devastating defeat. Trump faced multiple accusations of sexual assault. He was so psychopathically unhinged during the campaign that even many of his own voters doubted his fitness for the job. His party’s ideas are disliked by a majority of the public. On some topics, like Social Security, they’re even disliked by a majority of its own voters.

Under the circumstances, Trump and his party should have lost overwhelmingly.

4. Accept responsibility.

Instead, Democrats lost the presidency on a technicality – one they understood in advance.

In any other human endeavor, people know that failure leads to changes in staffing and strategy. Politics should be no different.

On a very related note, the Obama Administration never held Wall Street’s fraudsters accountable. Instead, Attorney General Eric Holder uttered a remarkable phrase:

“It remains true that, at some institutions that engaged in inappropriate conduct before and may yet again, the buck still stops nowhere.”

Here’s one lesson from 2016: the buck always stops somewhere.

5. It’s not about settling scores. It’s about changing the game.

This isn’t about getting even or saying “I told you so.” It’s about fixing a problem. Many voters see the Democratic Party’s current leadership as part of a selfish elite. Many draw no hope from its message.

Elections can be decided by more than one factor. Yes, FBI Director Comey dealt a possibly fatal blow to Clinton and her party. But so did some unforced Democratic errors. If you want to focus on the things you can change, here’s a place to start:

Voters across demographic lines want to change the system. They deserve a clearly presented program for ending the rule of big-money politics, building a fairer economy, and ensuring decent living conditions for every American.

Incremental change is no longer enough. Democrats need to think big.

6. Trade was decisive.

Clinton’s opposition to the TPP trade deal rang hollow because she had supported it in the past. Obama kept pushing it, and Clinton never vowed to fight it in a lame-duck Congress. So voters believed Trump instead.

“If you look at a map of where the U.S. has lost manufacturing jobs since 2000,” John Judis points out, they are “all states that Trump won, and in the case of all but Indiana, states that Democrats campaigned in, and had won in the past.”

The Democrats’ blue wall of industrial states has fallen. Clinton lost them by slim margins, but those margins were decisive. The trade issue was one of the factors that very likely changed the election’s outcome.

7. Some people got it right.

Rep. Keith Ellison warned of a Trump presidency last July and was laughed at on live television. Now Sen. Harry Reid wants Ellison to lead the Democratic National Committee and give it some “new thinking.”

Bernie Sanders warned the DNC last August that Democrats would not retain the White House or regain the Senate “unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout … the same old, same old will not be successful.”

It turns out that Sanders was right. “I have experience in the system that failed you” is not a winning message.

The people who got it right then should be heeded now.

8. Bigotry and economic fear aren’t mutually exclusive.

Clinton’s campaign was savaged by sexism. Many Trump voters were motivated by racism. But others, many of whom voted for Obama, were driven by economic fears.

Not all Trump voters were racist. For that matter, not all were white. Trump won a reported 8 percent of the African-American vote. Exit polls showed 29 percent of Latinx voters going for Trump, although a poll by Latino Decisions showed the figure at 18 percent. Either way, these numbers stand as a rebuke to the Democrats.

Keith Ellison understands the balance between race and class as well as anyone. “We need to address the needs of people who have been living in stagnation,” Ellison said after the election. That’s the kind of vision Democrats need.

The interconnectedness of race and class is one reason why the activists of Black Lives Matter drafted a progressive economic platform. As one of its authors said, “there is a broad recognition that many of the roots and causes of police violence in black communities are both racial and economic.”

9. It’s hard to win the votes of people you dislike.

If you’re one of those Democrats who have been flooding social media with disparaging remarks about “low information voters” or “lazy millennials,” please stop.

Politics is a retail business. If you are a politician or party activist, your job is to win over every voter you possibly can.

If voters don’t vote for your team, they haven’t failed. You have.

Too many Democratic activists spent this campaign season insulting and belittling voters they might have won over. Polling during the primary showed that social media users felt that Hillary Clinton’s supporters were more aggressive than Sanders’. Stories like this one were not uncommon. It’s hard to complain about low turnout among voters you’ve been insulting.

Granted, there was and is nastiness on both sides. That’s wrong. It’s always foolish to alienate people whose votes or help you’ll probably need someday.

Don’t be a hater, be a persuader.

10. The Democratic Party needs a “Democracy Spring.”

Big money has dictated the priorities of the DNC and many Democratic candidates for far too long. The party needs a populist uprising, a re-democratization that energizes it with small-dollar donors and engaged activists.

Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison understand that. So do Elizabeth Warren and Harry Reid and several other leaders. So do the thousands of engaged activists who are ready to support a party of real change.

But a party cannot serve two masters. Did Wall Street’s money help Team Clinton gain more votes? Probably. But it also hurt Democrats by diluting their message.

11. The left isn’t the enemy. It’s the future.

Don’t blame Bernie. When Clinton took the gloves off in the primary, he did too. That’s how primaries work. If you’re angry that Clinton’s Wall Street speeches hurt her, be angry at her choices – and at our political culture’s tolerance for turning government service into private-sector wealth.

But don’t blame Sanders voters for this loss. By the time of the Democratic convention, more than 90 percent of them had already indicated they would vote for Clinton. That’s pretty selfless.

Clinton would still have lost if Jill Stein hadn’t run (even if you assume, as neither Ben Jealous nor I do, that most of her voters would otherwise have voted for Clinton.)

Stein got less than 1 percent of the vote. 43 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote at all. Which is more important?

Many nonvoters were the victims of suppression, but many others were the victims of despair. Studies have found that nonvoters are disproportionately young, low-income, and minorities – all groups that lean heavily Democratic.

And yet some Democratic Party stalwarts are exploding with rage – not at the leaders who caused this debacle, but at voters on the left who voters who largely went for Clinton.

A fact: If millennials had determined this race, Hillary Clinton would have carried all but a handful of states.

Another fact: During the primaries, Bernie Sanders got more millennial votes than Clinton and Trump put together, and by a lot.

The future is left. That’s a future to embrace, not one to fight. Democratic turnout increases nationally when candidates call for real change.

This anti-left resentment is being stoked for ideological reasons. It’s a bad idea, because …

12. This is the call-up.

Like it or not, mainstream Democrats and the independent left are now in a form of shotgun wedding. They’ll need to work together for the next four years.

Trump’s bigotry, bullying, and contempt for democracy aren’t a deviation from the modern GOP. He represents modern Republicanism in its most distilled form. Soon he’ll have the power to turn his ugly words into even uglier deeds. (When it comes to mass deportation, he’s already started.)

Mutual enmities will need to be set aside for the common good. The left and the party faithful may be angry at each other, but they’re on the same side now, locked together in a nonviolent political movement to resist Trumpism and remake American politics.

That sounds like a story worth telling.

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