[This is part of a longer piece, but I really want this part to be separate–it’s about Democrats trying to relitigate the 2016 election. And my basic argument is that we’re engaged in demagoguery about that election.]
In a healthy deliberative situation, people will consider the policy first and faction second. In a culture of demagoguery, people frame every issue as “us vs. them.” We’re in such a culture now, and the US was in such a culture in the antebellum era. And I think that culture meant that the people who wanted to deliberate—who wanted to consider various policy options, listen to various sides, think about the long-term consequences for all of us, who had a broader vision of “us” (one that included everyone affected by policy decisions), were demonized. And they are now.
And, unhappily, there are within the Democratic Party the two factionalized narratives about 2016 mentioned at the beginning. My basic argument about them is that they’re both wrong, as are a lot of narratives about 2016, insofar as they say that progressives’ winning more elections just requires… anything, or that it’s obvious that progressives need to do…. anything. What makes those narratives wrong is that they are monocausal (one thing caused our problems and/or one thing will solve them), and they rely on naive realism (the notion that the truth is obvious).
Factionalized narratives say “there are two choices, and every right-thinking person chooses this one.” Deliberative narratives say, “there are many choices, and each has to be assessed in the circumstance, and each one has to be considered in terms of the past and future.” Factionalized narratives say the right answer is obvious; deliberative narratives say it isn’t. People committed to factionalized narratives say “everyone does it.” I don’t think that’s true.
And I think the comparison to the very similar antebellum situation explains why I don’t think everyone does it. I’m not convinced that this simultaneous entirely factionalized reasoning and condemnation of faction was “true of both sides.” I didn’t read a lot of Northern newspapers from the 1830s, so I can’t say whether they were just as much engaged in doublethink regarding factionalism (it’s great and every member of the faction should do it and every member of the faction should condemn factionalism), but my reading of the Congressional Record suggests they didn’t. The book I never wrote was about how proslavery rhetors tended toward deductive reasoning (the facts on the ground must be these because that’s what my principles say they should be) on every political issue before them. The rhetors who were antislavery (or just nonproslavery) tended to reason inductively, and say that a principle must be wrong because the facts on the ground suggest so. I think that’s a research project that could be useful for thinking about our current political situation—to what extent are people holding their premises safe from disproof?
For instance, William Lloyd Garrison had a journal, The Liberator, and he also had a very specific stance on abolition. Within the community of people who believed that slavery should be abolished immediately, there were profound and passionate disagreements about whether: slaves’ engaging in self-defense violence was justified, the Constitution was neutral on slavery or actively proslavery, abolitionists should insist on immediate and full citizenship for all slaves, abolishing slavery necessarily meant full citizenship for women. Garrison had his views on those issues, which he held passionately and argued for vehemently, he was no saint (Frederick Douglass noted that Garrison was not free of racist notions), and he may not even have been right in his arguments, but his paper published full and fair arguments against his positions. He believed in his arguments so thoroughly that he was willing to read and publish arguments he thought wrong.
How much current media could withstand that test? How many citizens could be like Garrison, and read and publish arguments with which we disagree? And this isn’t even setting a high bar, since Garrison was far from perfect—in fact, he was deeply flawed. It wouldn’t be that hard to be Garrison, and yet most of us fail to meet that low bar.
Antebellum proslavery media never published anything critical of slavery, and the factionalized southern media never published anything critical of their faction. What they did is what’s called “inoculation.” The goal of this media was to become the only source of information for its faction members, and they did that through reprinting articles about the evil behavior of outgroups (even about completely fabricated non-events). The main thrust was 1) deliberation is unnecessary because all you need to know is that we’re good and they’re bad; 2) DON’T LISTEN TO THEM—here’s what they’re going to say, and it’s obviously stupid and evil; 3) there is a war on us, and anyone who doesn’t recognize that is either knowingly or unknowingly on the side of our enemies.
So, in a democracy, a lot of public discourse was about how political deliberation was not only unnecessary, but actively bad (and unmanly). And they condemned the other side by presenting bastardized versions of “the other side’s” argument, as though they knew that their position of “it’s absolutely clear” would be weakened by showing the other side in a reasonably accurate way. And this fascinates me about authoritarian discourse: there is an odd admission that authoritarian discourse relies on single-party rhetoric, that it can’t withstand argumentation. So, perhaps, what it’s claiming isn’t so obvious?
The goal of much political discourse in the antebellum era, as it was in Thucydides’ era, and as it is now, was the establishment of a single-party state. Thus, much democratic discourse was oriented toward the destruction of democracy in the name of only allowing one faction to participate in the setting of policy. Unhappily, that is the argument happening on the left. The argument—whether centrists or progressives should set the policy agenda—is profoundly and irrationally anti-democratic because it’s making the assumption is that the Democratic Party must be a single-faction party. Why make that assumption?
Arguments for policy only seem sensible when the policy seems to arise naturally from a narrative about our current situation. The two dominant purity policy solutions arise naturally from two different narratives about why we are in our current situation. So, in order to argue for a non-purity policy, I have to show what’s wrong with both purity narratives about 2016.
And, really, there are a lot of plausible explanations about the 2016 election. There are, loosely, two purity narratives: first, that Clinton lost because too many of Sanders’ supporters were fanatics who refused to be pragmatic and vote for a less than pure candidate (let’s call that fanatical group Sandersistas, and let’s call the people who promote this narrative the Clintonistas); second, that Trump is President because the DNC foisted a weak milquetoast candidate on the Dems instead of an energizing progressive with a clearly populist policy agenda. But it’s worth looking at all the other narratives as well (I’ll list eight here and mention a few others along the way).
But before even going into them, it’s important to remember that Clinton won the popular vote by a large amount (that’s important for every explanation). And she was predicted as having a 95% chance of winning; the most dire polls put her chances at around 70%.
One factor to keep in mind is that a lot of Obama voters went for Trump, and the first explanation is a lot of them were motivated by sheer sexism. Second, the Right Wing Propaganda Machine had been attacking Clinton for 25 years, and if you throw enough mud, some of it sticks. Third, voter turnout. Fourth, her campaign blew it because they focused on meetings with big money donors toward the end rather than hand-clasping in battleground states because Clinton was arrogant. Fifth, voter suppression. The sixth explanation is millennial sexism. Seventh, there is the argument that Sanders poisoned the millennial vote. Eighth, the DNC was wrong to go for a third-way neoliberal instead of Sanders, who would have won (a surprisingly complicated narrative, explained below).
1 and 2. The first and second can be combined in that they represent simply the problems that come with a candidate who has spent a lot of time committing the crime of being a woman in public. And there is an argument that her faults in those regards are reasons she shouldn’t have gotten the Dem nomination. I sometimes hear those arguments made by people who like Clinton and her policies, and I understand the impulse behind them. I certainly met even young people who had what even they admitted was an irrational aversion to her—the research is pretty clear that it’s harder to remember that every attack on a person has been debunked than it is to have a vague cumulative semi-memory that the person is guilty. For some people, that Clinton had these liabilities was a reason that she shouldn’t get the nomination, and I think there are two versions of that argument—one seems to me reasonable (even if, ultimately, I disagreed with it) and the other is disturbingly anti-democratic.
The first is that, even if it’s through no fault of her own, Clinton was carrying unsurmountable liabilities, and therefore Democrats voting in the primaries shouldn’t vote for her. Women who have also committed Clinton’s crime often bristle at this argument, since they’ve heard it as the reason they can’t be promoted (“unfortunately, sexist men just don’t work as well with women, so you’ll never be a good manager”), given certain jobs (“juries just don’t like women lawyers”), pursue certain careers (“people just don’t trust the financial acuity of women money managers”). Their argument is that you don’t reduce sexism by pandering to it. And that’s a good argument.
But I also think it’s not unwise to think strategically about the likelihood of a candidate winning. So, while I wasn’t persuaded to vote against Clinton in the primaries on the basis of the argument that sexism and propaganda made her a bad candidate, I don’t think people who put it forward are spit from the bowels of Satan. They’re just people with whom I disagree.
The second version of this argument is more disturbing. That argument is that the DNC should have put forward a “better” candidate. I find this disturbing because I don’t think the DNC should “put forward” any candidate. I realize that is, at least to some extent, what all organizations do—the elite in the organization try to position for election the people they think will make the best candidates—so I’m not naïve enough to think the DNC will remain absolutely neutral (and, in fact, I ranted at a lot of DNC fund raisers during the primaries because I was outraged that there were DNC-funded ads attacking Sanders). But, the absolute most the DNC should do is put its finger on the scale (and even that is problematic, discussed below)—Democrats need to elect candidates, not have them selected for us. Because Dems haven’t been doing well at the level of Governor or Senator, there weren’t a lot of possible candidates. Warren, Biden, and Booker all had reasons not to run, and other possibilities weren’t experienced enough. Thus, I reject the basis premise that the DNC should have selected any candidate for the Dems.
Third, voter turnout. Although there is some debate as to whether voter turnout cost Clinton the election, there remains a strong argument that it did. Or, at least, there’s a consensus that better turnout among nonwhite voters would have helped Clinton. But even people who agree that voter turnout would have led to a Clinton victory disagree as to what that factor means. Some people connect it to the argument below—that voter suppression was crucial in the election. Others argue that yet another reason that Dems (or the DNC) shouldn’t have gone for Clinton—she didn’t have the charisma to get people to put up with the (probably deliberate) long lines in heavily Dem polling places. Some people argue that the low voter turnout out was Sandersistas who refused to vote for Clinton (part of the narrative that they cost Dems the election) but I’ve never seen good evidence for that claim—it’s belied by the demographics of Sanderistas versus the low turnout. My impression, admittedly just from listening to (or reading) people who didn’t vote or didn’t vote for Clinton but might have, was that they believed the polls; they were certain she was going to win, and so didn’t think it was necessary for them to vote. They either didn’t vote, or engaged in a protest vote (to show the DNC that there are progressive voters). I’ll admit that, especially for people for whom voting would have required considerable sacrifice (such as taking unpaid time off work), this seems to me a reasonable attitude—95% is pretty much a sure thing for most people.
Fourth, the argument that Clinton’s campaign blew it because they focused on meetings with big money donors toward the end rather than hand-clasping in battleground states is unfortunately often connected to presenting Clinton as arrogant. And I have to say that I get twitchy when anyone uses the word “arrogant” in regard to a powerful woman (or powerful nonwhite).
It is not actually clear that Clinton did make a mistake with serious consequences in her strategies. More important, when we engage in hindsight, and consider counterfactuals (something I do in my scholarship frequently) we have to think about whether our sense that the outcome was obvious is the consequence of knowing the outcome. If you know of the dotcom crash of 2001, you can look back to various factors in 2000 and see all the evidence that it was coming, and then you can think to yourself what idiots people were for not seeing it. (You might even find quotes from some people who predicted it, and think what idiots everyone was for not listening to those geniuses). But that’s just intellectual shoulder-patting. Certainly, there was evidence of coming disaster, but there was also evidence that this was a new model of economic growth—you have to look at all the evidence people had in front of them in the moment and understand what reasons they gave for the choices they made.
To make considering counterfactual anything other than 20/20 hindsight, you have to ask: Were the choices reasonable within the context of that evidence, regardless of outcome?
Even if Clinton made the wrong decision, and there were people at the time who said that, the question should be whether she was making a decision that was obviously unreasonable in the moment, and I don’t think it was. For instance, her believing polls doesn’t make her arrogant—I think it’s reasonable for someone with her background to think she might know what she is doing. And what she was doing was believing the polls, and spending her energy getting money to throw downticket.
Had Clinton decided not to meet with big money donors and had instead worked on ensuring she won a supposedly unlosable election by on the ground campaigning, and had she won, I think the same people who are lambasting her now would be lambasting her as arrogant for just trying to get herself elected instead of raising more money for Dems generally.
I think this criticism amounts to lambasting her for having believed the polls. Since it’s a criticism I’ve heard repeated by people who themselves cited the polls as authoritative in October, I don’t find it a very interesting argument.
Fifth, Voter suppression. This is an interesting argument. There are lots of arguments that there was voter suppression, and that it was enough to flip the election. But, it’s also disputed, and there are also major sources that are silent on the issue (such as 538). There are two reasons I think it probably did happen—or at least there was a determined effort to make it happen. The GOP Noise Machine works by deflection and projection (or, more accurately, projection as deflection) and the ginned-up fear-mongering about voter fraud quacks and walks like a projection/deflection move. If it is projection/deflection, there either there was actual voter fraud—that is, interference with voting machines—or voter suppression. But that’s sheer speculation on my part.
The more plausible reason to think there was voter suppression and it was effective is that the GOP has spent so much money, time, and effort trying to make it harder for nonwhites to vote. They must think it’s effective.
The sixth and seventh are generally connected—that millennials are sexist, or Sanders otherwise ruined the election for Clinton (every once in a while someone makes the claim about Stein, but that’s rare).
Let’s start with the Clintonista explanation that Sanders is entirely to blame (and keep in mind that isn’t Clinton’s explanation). It doesn’t hold up to empirical testing. It’s generally made on the basis of several leaps of inference. The best empirical support (and it isn’t very good) for blaming Sanders’ supporters relies on equating Sanders’ supporters and millennials, and that’s a false equation. Clinton won the popular vote, and lost by small amounts in key states. So, a good argument for Sandersistas having cost Clinton the election would show that there were enough of them in the very close states who didn’t vote for Clinton to have shifted the election. And I’ve looked for that data, and I can’t find it.
The closest is some numbers run by Brian Schaffner, who estimates that 12% of Sanders voters voted for Trump (but the number might be 6%). In a tweet, Schaffner estimated the state levels. If those estimates are correct, then, had all of those people voted for Clinton, she would have won. (All of this is explained in John Sides’ August 24, 2017 Washington Post article, “Did Enough Bernie Sanders supporters vote for Trump to cost Clinton the election?”)
So, does that mean that Sanders supporters cost Clinton the election, or, as another article terms them, Sanders “defectors”? Note the loaded language.
This whole narrative makes me nervous, especially since it’s taking Schaffner’s work as more definitive than even he says it is. And it seems to be getting used as a weapon in the purity war rumbling around the left—Sanders voters are unreliable, likely to defect, were too self-righteous to vote sensibly, or too unwilling to compromise. It’s also getting used by people who want to argue that Dems should have gone for Sanders, since it’s proof that he would have won. (It isn’t, since Clinton picked up more than that number in GOP voters who “defected.”)
First of all, we need to stop with the language of “defecting” and even “costing.” Even Schaffner points out that the people who did that weren’t typically Democrats, and they were racist. Sanders always did worse than Clinton as far as non-whites, but his defenders argue that he was changing his message, and he would have attracted more. Had he genuinely persuaded the public that he was not racist, he would probably have lost this 12%. Schaffner’s speculation is important to note: “I think what this starts to suggest to me is that these are old holdovers from the Democratic Party that are conservative on race issues. And while Bernie wasn’t campaigning on that kind of thing, Clinton was much more forthright about courting the votes of minorities — and maybe that offended them, and then eventually pushed them out and toward Trump.”
So, these weren’t Sanders supporters, I’d say—just people who voted for him in the primaries. And they certainly don’t represent anything important about Bernie-bros, or the young progressives who want the Dems to become more progressive—this isn’t that category. In fact, Schaffner’s evidence suggest that group did vote for Clinton, or, at least, didn’t cost her the election.
It might be that the fact that Sanders’ supporters repeated a lot of fake news reports and pro-Trump talking points on social media convinced others in their feed to vote Trump or third party, but I haven’t found a study to suggest that’s the case. My highly individualistic impression is that the people who voted for Sanders in the primaries and refused to vote for Clinton were the kind that had never voted for a Dem anyway (and didn’t vote for Obama, on purity grounds), or they lived in Texas, so they don’t really count as game-changers. I know that there were people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump, but the research doesn’t suggest that many of them were Sanders’ supporters who refused to vote for Clinton.
So, the notion that Clinton lost just because of Sandersistas doesn’t really make the grade of a falsifiable claim. It’s just a guess, and not even a very good one.
And why would we make that guess? There is much better evidence about other factors, such as voter suppression and overconfidence among Clinton supporters (who thought she had it in the bag and so they didn’t need to vote). 538 persuasively argues it was the Comey scandal and the impact on undecided voters (most of whom weren’t millennials). Why make a guess that blames fellow lefties? That seems to me unnecessarily and strategically unwise.
People tend to blame the outgroup for anything bad that happens, and, unhappily, it’s not unheard of for people to be more concerned about heretics than heathens. That is, we can be more concerned about cleansing our group of people who aren’t like-minded enough than about people who are openly opposed to us. It’s an irrational act to which people are drawn when the ingroup is shamed, and that’s what I think we’re doing. It seems to me a skirmish in a purity war.
It’s also incredibly patronizing and delegitimates a point of view—that Sanders was the better candidate—of people with whom there are shared goals.
I think this kind of move (like all skirmishes in a purity war) sets up a nasty dynamic—like two people fighting over who is at fault for burning the Thanksgiving turkey. Once a person says, “It’s your fault,” it’s incredibly difficult to get the conversation back into a useful realm in which people are problem-solving—it’s all about defending yourself.
I mentioned that I do know Sanders supporters who refused to vote for Clinton, some of whom never vote in Presidential elections (basically, any candidate popular enough to get a nomination isn’t pure enough for them—they liked that candidate when you had to buy the speech on vinyl at the show; it’s just hipster politics), but some of whom probably would have. And they live in Texas. In Texas, we are accustomed to being systematically disenfranchised, and every vote other than GOP is a symbolic action, so, although I disagree with that choice, I don’t think it’s evil or ridiculous or illegitimate or even unreasonable.
Eighth, Many people for whom I care deeply make the argument that the DNC was wrong to go for a third-way neoliberal instead of Sanders, who would definitely have won. In some versions, the argument is that the DNC pushed a lousy candidate onto the Dems and is therefore responsible.
I find it really weird that so many reasonable people make that argument without seeing how odd it is. It’s either false or nonfalsifiable (like the Clintonista narrative that blames Sandersistas). It’s also really patronizing since it delegitimates anyone who voted for Clinton.
I see this argument a lot. It necessarily has two sub-points: that Clinton only won because of DNC support, and that Sanders would have won the general election. That first argument, although repeated a lot in certain circles, has some implications that, I think (I hope), the people making it would reject if made explicit.
Clinton won the open primaries, and Sanders won the caucuses. So, by any reckoning, Clinton got more votes than Sanders. This argument says that she did so only because the DNC supported her. That’s a really offensive argument. If Clinton only won because of the DNC support, then the underlying assumption is that all those people who voted for Clinton would have voted for Sanders if the DNC had supported him—that they would do whatever the DNC told them to do.
I want to leave that out there because I really think that people haven’t thought that one through. Is that really an argument they believe?
That argument is saying that Clinton supporters were mindless sheeple who would do whatever the DNC told them to. The narrative is that Sanders’ supporters really know how to vote and how to solve our problems, and Clinton supporters were just mindless followers who don’t really know what we need and how we should vote.
That’s patronizing, just as patronizing as Clinton’s saying that Sanders supporters were young and misled. I think it’s wrong—factually, morally, and strategically–in both cases. Clinton supporters, like Sanders supporters, had good reasons and good arguments for their point of view; neither group should be delegitimated. And the second someone argues for delegitimating the other major group in a community, they’re engaged in a purity war.
Since Sanders never did as well with nonwhites and women as Clinton, and Clinton never did as well as Sanders with young people, any narrative that says THEY didn’t have legitimate reasons for supporting their candidate is just appallingly patronizing. It has to stop.
But, let’s take it a step further. Is it clear that Sanders would have won? The poll that Sandersistas cite shows that Clinton would win. So, either it’s a bad poll, or Clinton might have been a less good choice, but not bad.
Sanders might have done better because he has the dangly bits, and so might not have been hurt by sexism, but Clinton lost white evangelical women, and there’s no reason to think Sanders would have gotten them (especially since he would have had anti-Semitism against him—a mirror image argument of the “don’t vote for Clinton because other people are sexist”), and there’s even less reason to think he would have gotten nonwhites. He still doesn’t get issues about race, after all. He still talks about “working class people” when he means “white working class.”
Antisemitism in the US is a non-trivial issue, and there has never been a candidate who wasn’t a practicing something, so there isn’t any good reason to think that he could have won over any bigots that Clinton lost. Unhappily, I think arguing that we shouldn’t have nominated Clinton because of sexism logically implies we shouldn’t have nominated Sanders because of anti-Semitism. If you’re arguing for Dems needing to pander to prejudices, then you need to be consistent in that (and there are still huge swaths of American public opinion that equates “liberal Jew” and “communist”). And that’s why I think they’re both troubling arguments.
At the time of the poll that showed that Sanders was the better candidate, there was a counter-argument that the GOP wanted Sanders to be the candidate, as they knew they could win against a Jewish socialist, and so they were holding fire. I was extremely dubious about that argument, so I spent a few hours looking at my normal Right Wing Propaganda Machine sources, and I ended up deciding it was true. It was striking that there weren’t any negative articles about Sanders after October or so of 2015. For instance, Sanders’ wife had some complicated financial dealings (personally, I don’t think they were even on the same radar as Trump), but there was no mention of them in the Noise Machine. The few articles about him were about how Clinton was victimizing him. That doesn’t mean that supporting Sanders was definitely a bad idea and anyone who did was an idiot. It just means that it’s reasonable to have supported Sanders but unreasonable to think he would definitely have won.
And here I have to emphasize the point I’m making—I think politics is very rarely capable of definitely right judgments, and it’s almost always a question of probabilities. Thus, there are a lot of positions on an issue that are reasonable, but they don’t all necessarily turn out to be right. Being reasonable doesn’t guarantee that one is right, and turning out to be wrong doesn’t mean that one’s position was unreasonable. So, I don’t think it’s obvious that Sanders would have won, but that doesn’t mean I’m certain he wouldn’t have. I do think his situation was more wobbly than many people realize. Therefore, people who voted for Clinton aren’t (and weren’t) obviously wrong, and people who voted for Sanders aren’t (and weren’t) obviously wrong–the right answer is not certain.
What most of my lefty friends don’t know (since, unlike me, they are sensible enough not to wander around in the GOP Noise Machine) is that Clinton was slammed for being socialist. I saw this a lot on friends’ social media too (and still do). For instance, here’s the National Review, not even a very extreme site (not as rabidly factional as Fox, let alone hate radio): I think it would have been an issue for Sanders as a candidate—perhaps not fatal (Obama got past it)—but an issue.
And here’s another point for which I have no data other than listening to people. The evangelical right has thoroughly politicized their churches, as they did during segregation, and it’s all about abortion. Unless Sanders was going to change the Dem stance on reproductive rights (which would have lost him huge numbers of people), he would have faced opposition from them. So, again, I think it was reasonable to support Sanders in the primary on the grounds that he was most likely to win; I think it was reasonable to support Clinton on those same grounds. I think it was reasonable to be unhappy there wasn’t a third Dem candidate.
I think we’re reasonable people. The premise of democracy is that no individual or group knows what is best for the community as a whole, that a community benefits from having people passionately committed to different political agenda, that pure agreement is never possible but respectful and grudging compromise is good enough, that listening to people with whom you disagree is useful, that important political change happens slowly, and that being certain and being right aren’t the same thing. I think Democrats should value democracy. I think we agree to have at least that much democracy within our party, and that means acknowledging that difference as to which is (or was) the best candidate is perfectly fine—people might have good reasons for disagreeing.
If the Dems are going to win elections (rather than replay what happened in the 80s) we need to agree to disagree together.