The Democratic Party exploded Tuesday night.
There will be months of finger-pointing and internal reprisals over exactly what Democrats should have done differently. But the shocking thoroughness of the defeat is plain. Donald Trump ― a man who opened his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” ― bested Mitt Romney’s share of the Latino vote by 8 percentage points. He performed better among black voters than his 2012 predecessor, and he swept four Rust Belt states that President Barack Obama carried twice ― Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin ― under a harsher economy than we face today. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, which should matter, but does not.
How did this happen, and what now?
The exit polls provide some clarity: A significant chunk of Obama voters flipped to Trump. Trump won 10 percent of voters who approve of Obama’s presidency and 23 percent of voters who think the next president should “be more liberal,” according to CNN data. Trump significantly outperformed Romney among union households. He did 14 points better than Romney among whites without a college degree, according to The New York Times, and 16 points better among households with less than $30,000 in income. The Trump Democrat turns out not to be a myth, but a meaningful constituency that just cost Clinton the presidency.
Listen to The Huffington Post’s analysis of the 2016 election in the latest episode of the politics podcast “So, That Happened,” embedded below:
Optimistic Democrats have long believed the voter coalition behind Obama ― young people, brown people, lower-income people and a sprinkling of white professionals ― was a stable and growing majority that could always put Democrats over the top. Instead, its success in 2008 and 2012 may have had more to do with a uniquely talented politician who also happened to be the first black president.
Obama also glued together two otherwise hostile ideological factions within the Democratic Party. Time magazine hailed him as the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while he declared himself a member of the corporate-friendly, free-trading New Democrat coalition. Millions of Americans who love Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also love Obama. So do well-heeled technocrats who admire President Bill Clinton and economist Larry Summers.
This was reflected in Obama’s policy achievements. He expanded access to health insurance for millions of people and signed trade deals that undermined workers and enriched CEOs.
That same duality permeates Congress, where New Democrats have been battling New Dealers for 45 years. It is simply not clear that another politician is capable of keeping that team united.
Here’s how things were supposed to work: Clinton would call the shots, but work with Warren on cabinet appointments and key administrative posts. Things wouldn’t always go Warren’s way, but Clinton would throw enough bones to the populists to keep them engaged. Clinton could pursue a centrist agenda with a few progressive items and the party would stick together.
Instead, a dominance struggle between Sanders supporters and the Steny Hoyer wing of the party is already underway. Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is calling for a “complete restructuring” of the Democratic National Committee, and Sanders is promoting nominees.
The Clintons have been on the national stage for nearly a quarter of a century. An entire generation of Democratic operatives has grown up in a world in which it was always understood that the family would be a nexus of political power. This cohort expected to inherit the levers of government and is now without a patron. That fact, for the moment, gives progressives the upper hand in directing the party’s future. But because Democrats are certain to suffer devastating policy defeats under Trump and a GOP Congress, there will be no legislative victories that either faction can point to as proof its worldview can work. And further electoral losses are on the horizon. The 2018 map is terrible for Democrats ― five of their senators are up for re-election in Republican-dominated states, and four more in swing states. The losing side in the party leadership battle will be pissed off for a long time.
The American left, meanwhile, is a difficult beast to corral. The Sanders coalition wasn’t monolithic ― it included plenty of New Dealer populists, but it also brought in capital-S hammer-and-sickle Socialists who don’t really like the Democratic Party. Even under a progressive takeover, we can expect the bitter intellectual feuds between Bernie Bros and Hillary Bots to shift down the ideological spectrum.
Many are interpreting Trump’s election as a white supremacist backlash against the first black president and misogynist fear of a first woman president. After Trump’s vile campaign, it is impossible to conclude these were not significant factors.
But ugly attitudes don’t simply fall out of the sky, eternal and inflexible. A new paper from economists Rob Johnson and Arjun Jayadev looks at economic downturns from 1979 to 2014, and finds a tight correlation between unemployment and racism ― the higher the unemployment rate, the more ubiquitous the discrimination. A 2014 study from New York University psychologists found that racial animosity hardens under economic scarcity. Last year, three German economists found that “far-right” political parties almost always make significant gains after a financial crisis.
This doesn’t mean that economic insecurity is the sole cause of racism, but it does suggest that it can be a cause. They call it the Rust Belt for a reason. If Democrats want to stamp out the views that made President Trump possible, they will have to do a better job delivering economic gains to working people.
“We have been fighting out elections in general on a lot of noneconomic issues over the past 30 years,” Clinton recently told the New Yorker’s George Packer. “We haven’t had a coherent, compelling economic case.”
“So, That Happened” is hosted by Jason Linkins, Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney and produced, edited and engineered by Christine Conetta.