The Democrats Won the Culture War and Lost the Country

The election is over and now comes the reckoning, four years with a president most Americans believe is dangerous, unqualified and untrustworthy. So how exactly did this happen? A few days ago senior members from both campaigns convened at the Harvard Kennedy School for Government for the quadrennial postmortem. The presidential panel was the final assembly of the event and, predictably, it degenerated into something unseemly, most notably in an exchange for the ages between Jennifer Palmieri and Kellyanne Conway. Between outbursts, however, the panelists did manage an examination of the forces and events that led, depending on how you look at it, to Trump’s victory and/or Clinton’s failure.

Post-election conferences like the one in Cambridge are fun, inside baseball kind of stuff for political junkies to dig into but, especially this year, the conclusions will have broad implications for the future. There were a handful of factors whose impact was generally agreed upon at Harvard; the Comey letter ten days before the election, deeply flawed and misleading public and internal polling, Clinton’s nagging trust issues and third party voters. Among the public, on social media and cable news, Russian influence, fake news and miscounts have become the favored explanations for Clinton’s defeat. And virtually everyone at every level agrees that the Trump camp roused old fears and hatreds that many of us believed had been rightly relegated to the past in an effort to energize his base. But to conclude that those were the pivotal factors is misleading and potentially dangerous, it wasn’t only Clinton who suffered defeat, the Democratic Party experienced losses nationwide that need to be accounted for. Clinton’s political demise is instructive in understanding the larger failures.

Possibly the most startling failures of Team Clinton were the losses in Pennsylvania, the Midwest and Upper Midwest, states that have traditionally gone blue. It’s these failures that best illuminate how the Democratic Party has veered off course and become, for all purposes, a coastal political movement. Here again, there are many who are quick to attribute those losses to Jill Stein and Gary Johnson or voter apathy. After all, only 10,000 votes here or 70,000 votes there and Hillary Clinton is president. That answer is too easy, one accepts it at their peril. Instead, Clinton’s failure to secure the Industrial Midwest can be summed up in a phrase she might be familiar with: it’s the economy, stupid. And it goes beyond that, to something far more politically toxic.

Throughout the campaign the Clinton machine failed to deliver an economic message that resonated with what had been the Democrat’s traditional Middle America firewall; blue collar whites, the dues paying union members who helped carry Obama to office in 2008 and 2012. But Clinton cannot be held entirely at fault for this blunder, like many on the left she was caught up in currents that have been amplified by the social media echo-chambers; the politics of identity and culture that now dominate the left so profoundly as to crowd out nearly everything else.

In most respects, the Democratic Party already won the culture wars but they’ve continued to busy themselves trying to impose a future of strident, almost suffocating cultural tolerance to such an extent that they have ignored pressing, present day concerns, the mundane day to day realities most Americans face of putting food on the table and clothes on their kids’ back. Moreover, the party’s slavish devotion to issues of identity have become alienating and disqualifying for large swaths of the American electorate. As an example, at no point in the campaign did Clinton visit Wisconsin or Michigan and communicate an economic strategy on how to revive industry or retrain a workforce whose sense of obsolescence has become so entrenched as to be tantamount to a fully formed identity. In fact, she made no appearances in Wisconsin at all.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what the Democratic Party believes aside from equality for the LGBT community, people of color and women and curbing the relentless onslaught of global climate change. To be sure, these are important issues worthy of attention but they have become the width and breadth of the Democratic platform to the exclusion of all else. As evidence, one need look no further than this summer’s Democratic National Convention. By all accounts the Democratic Convention was a supreme success, well organized and orchestrated, complete with a handful of speeches that may well echo down through the generations. And yet, in hindsight it seems that the Democratic triumphalism about their successes on the social and identity battlefields was all there was, that electing Hillary was about hammering the final nail in the coffin of identity inequity. As if that alone were enough reason for the country to cast their ballots for her. Yes, there was some cursory lip service paid to TPP and a few other economic issues, a concession to the unlikely run of Bernie Sanders but, in the final analysis, the convention was part victory lap and part coronation of a woman who deserved the White House, according to many, largely based on her identity.

Thus far, the future doesn’t bode well. Even the march scheduled for January remains mired in Democratic identity politics. For someone like myself, a man and registered independent, the name of the march itself, the Women’s March on Washington, is predictably unwelcoming. The march would be more meaningful if it were presented as something larger than the concerns of a single demographic. Imagine the impact of an American March on Washington, the powerful image of citizens convening in defense of the republic and the preservation of everything that it stands for. That would be something to see.

Until the Democrats learn the lessons of Campaign 2016 they will continue to fail and pointing to a litany of external forces as the driving factors in Trump’s victory rather than looking in the mirror is a sure recipe for continued defeats. The Democrats need to stop trying to make the world better for gays or blacks or women or indigenous peoples and, instead, think about how they can make it better for every American in real and tangible and unglamorous ways. The party needs to shed its exclusionary posture and re-imagine itself as the American political party rather than the loose collection of parochial causes. Only then will the voters come back.

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