They said they were facing an economic apocalypse, we offered “retraining” and complained about their white privilege. Is it any wonder we lost? One after another, the dispatches came back from the provinces. The coal mines are gone, the steel mills are closed, the drugs are rampant, the towns are decimated and everywhere you look depression, despair, fear. In the face of Trump’s willingness to boldly proclaim without facts or evidence that he would bring the good times back, we offered a tepid gallows logic. Well, those jobs are actually gone for good, we knowingly told them. And we offered a fantastical non-solution. We will retrain you for good jobs! Never mind that these “good jobs” didn’t exist in East Kentucky or Cleveland. And as a final insult, we lectured a struggling people watching their kids die of drug overdoses about their white privilege. Can you blame them for calling bullshit? All Trump could offer was white nationalism as protection against competing with black and brown people. It wasn’t a very compelling case, but it was vastly superior to a candidate who enthusiastically backed NAFTA, seems most at ease in a room of Goldman Sachs bankers and was almost certain to do nothing for these towns other than maybe setting up a local chapter of Rednecks Who Code. We bet that Trump’s manifest awfulness would be enough to let us eke out a win. We were dead wrong. Here’s my version of the Democratic Party autopsy because, make no mistake, the old ways of the Democratic party must die.
“Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings were obvious from the beginning to anyone who bothered to open their eyes.”
It’s not like we couldn’t have seen this coming. Last year, in my new home state of Kentucky, Democrats were high on their chances of holding onto the governorship. Our candidate was thoughtful, reasoned, disciplined. Theirs was a brash ideological businessman. We were up in the public polls and both campaign’s internal polls by 5 points on election day. We ended up losing by 10. The party wrote this off as an isolated event. It wasn’t. Eight years ago, on a promise of sweeping change and optimism, we elected Barack Obama, took back the House, gained a supermajority in the Senate. We have been riding the high of this wave ever since as Republicans took back the House (2010), took back the Senate (2014) and absolutely decimated Democrats in governor’s mansions and state legislatures across the country. 24 states are fully controlled by Republicans at the House, Senate and gubernatorial levels. Amid the carnage last night, Kentucky’s state house, which was the last legislative body in a state won by Romney still holding for the Dems, was unceremoniously handed over to Republicans in a rout. But we didn’t seem to care much about these losses in the vast middle and South and Midwest of the country, so long as we kept our lock on the presidency. The arrogance of thinking that somehow we could ignore most of the country and still hold a claim on the nation’s highest office is breathtaking. Demographics are not destiny. Candidates do matter. And it is still the economy, stupid.
Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings were obvious from the beginning to anyone who bothered to open their eyes. I wasn’t the only one who saw before she ever entered the race that a card-carrying member of the global elite who helped usher in this era of record-breaking inequality was hardly the best fit for the moment. It’s hard not to feel let down by people like Vice President Biden and Senator Warren who clearly saw the problems with Hillary but didn’t step up for their nation when they were called. Bernie did his level best but couldn’t compete against a party terrified of the modest radicalism that made him so appealing. I do believe that a different candidate would have led to a different outcome. But Hillary’s coronation is also proof that the problems in the Democratic Party run much deeper than just one candidate. There’s a reason why nearly the entire party rose up to stomp out the promise of Bernie Sanders candidacy.
The slow drift in the Democratic Party was long in the making. It’s been many years since the Democratic Party decided to throw their lot in with the shiny world of corporate professionals, Wall Street financiers, and Silicon Valley gurus. We accepted the decline of unions as inevitable (it wasn’t), didn’t bother even trying to come up with an alternative source of worker power and embraced the new politics of money even as we talked out the other side of our mouths about oh how terrible all this flood of cash in politics is. If you just send in one more donation we’ll be able to get the money out! There was an incredibly revealing moment at the DNC. In an effort to rev up the crowd one of the speakers called out: “Who in this room works with their hands?” Silence. It was a lot more than one candidate who led us to this place.
I don’t want to downplay the role of racism and sexism in all of this, ugly diseases that erupt and fester in times of fear. There is no doubt that Donald Trump has surfaced an ugliness and tribalism that denies our common humanity. The idea once argued that we live in a post-racial America is clearly laughable. But in spite of all of this, I don’t feel despair for our nation. Am I afraid? Of course. I don’t think anyone, including Donald Trump knows what a Donald Trump presidency will actually look like. But we did not in eight years time turn from the country that proudly elected its first African American president to a bunch of angry Klansmen. Voters were offered a choice between a possibility of catastrophe in Trump and a guarantee of mediocrity in Clinton. Clearly, they picked the high-risk bet that they felt at least gave them some chance to escape the certain economic doom that they feel in their current lives. I know in my heart though that we can do better than Trumpism. And I see an opening now to push forward with the bold ideas that the Democratic party would have rejected out of hand last week.
Let me tell you something, if the economic reckoning has not come to your town yet, it is on its way. Go to East Liverpool, Ohio where I lived and still have a home. Where the jobs left in the ‘50s and again in the ‘80s. East Liverpool used to be known as the Pottery Capitol of the World and now it’s best known for a viral post by the police department showing two overdosed adults passed out in a car with a toddler in the back. Democrats and Republicans in DC have been looking at town’s like East Liverpool as the past, a dead relic to look down on with pity. East Liverpool is not the past though, it is our future if we don’t deal with the onslaught of economic changes knocking at our door. Consider this: in 29 states, truck driving is the number one job and it is one of the few jobs left that can provide a middle class living for high school grads. What will happen to the 1.5 million families who get their daily bread from a truck driver when all of those jobs are eliminated by driverless trucks? It’s not a matter of if but when. Are we going to teach all those drivers to code or retrofit windows or whatever other pathetic nonsense we’ve held up as a solution? This new reality is upon us. The markets are not going to magically fix it. Trumpism is nothing but a con by a charlatan who’s spent his life figuring out how to screw people. So it is up to us to figure out what a radically new social compact looks like that keeps America from devolving into a broken zero-sum game. Radical thought is required. Ground-breaking coalition-building between working class whites and people of color is the only path forward. It’s time to throw down for the future of our country. In Trump’s words, what the hell have we got to lose?