On the early morning of November 9th, nearly every voter in America probably found themselves wondering; “what the hell just happened?”
In the aftermath, everyone seemed to have their theories and reasons as to why Donald Trump was elected president. Jenee Desmond-Harris’s piece “Trump’s win is a reminder of the incredible, unbeatable power of racism” from Vox.com attempts to answer that question by asserting that racism was the driving force that got Donald Trump elected and that the white voters who pulled the lever for him harbor intolerance and racism as well. It’s a popular argument, and has seemed typify the response from some members of the Democratic Party and the political left from November 9th onward. Harris cites multiple studies, previous statements by Trump, and CNN exit polls to reinforce her claims. However, I believe the entire basis of that argument, whether members of the Democratic party and their supporters believe it to be true or not, poses an enormous problem for Democrats moving forward.
Even if Harris’s argument wasn’t flimsy (It’s emotionally based, entirely subjective, and by and large, breaks the cardinal rule of statistics: correlation doesn’t equal causation), I’d still argue that relying on it is hurtful to the Democratic party because of the message it sends a key contingent of its voters. The fact is, yes, Trump did indeed win an enormous number of white voters, but many of them were former Democrats from reliably blue states, in a historically blue geographic region (the rust belt), who switched sides last fall, and attacking them may only alienate them further. If that gives the Republicans the advantage in the rust belt, it would be catastrophic for the Democrats (PA, OH, MI, WI & IA are worth a combined 70 electoral votes), that to me is the issue here. If Harris wants to blast Trump to high heaven, then by all means, she should do it. It’s blasting his voters that I consider to be dangerous, and Harris does that throughout the article. For instance, in one segment, titled “Almost any way you slice it, white people supported Trump on Election Day and nonwhite people didn’t,” Harris opines: “These huge swaths of white voters were willing to overlook the many ways in which Trump was unqualified, temperamentally unfit, and dangerous and represented a massive threat to American democracy.”
“The most generous interpretation is that white voters chose him despite his racism, not because of it. But that’s a very difficult case to make, given his massive weaknesses.” Actually, it’s a very easy case to make. Hillary Clinton was also a historically unpopular candidate, and ran a historically poor campaign. To illustrate that point, after the Democratic National Convention in July Clinton did not make a single campaign stop in Wisconsin, a reliably blue state that was polling tighter in 2016 than it had in the past, but did find time to visit Arizona, and Utah, states that turned blue only once over the last fifty eight years. Clinton would not only become the first Democrat to lose Wisconsin in over a quarter century, but the state’s incumbent Republican Senator, Ron Johnson, was re-elected in a monumental upset victory over his Democratic challenger. Meanwhile, Arizona and Utah went Republican, yet again. In North Carolina, a critical swing state where the average ACA premiums are expected to increase by 40% this year, Clinton sent Lena Dunham to campaign on her behalf. Trump, who promised to repeal the ACA during the campaign and made more visits to the state than Clinton, won it by more than three points, and Richard Burr, North Carolina’s Republican Senator, was re-elected by an even wider margin.
Many of these voters that the Democratic party lost last fall actually voted for Barack Obama not once, but twice. Trump flipped six states, (and one congressional district in northern Maine worth one electoral vote) that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and three of those (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania) last voted Republican before many of us in this class were even born. Harris cites a three year old study, where a political scientist from Harvard gauged the reaction of a small handful of white people after they sat next to a pair of Latino men on a train in Boston as evidence that the hundreds of thousands of voters throughout the rust belt who supported Democrats over the last quarter century somehow turned into racists over the last four years. I believe that other factors, such as healthcare premiums (remember North Carolina where premiums increased by 40%? According to a CBS poll from late October 2016, when asked whether Obamacare hurt or helped people, 53% of North Carolina voters said “hurt” as opposed to only 38% who said “help.”), the condition of our economy (62% of voters rated the condition as “poor” according to CNN exit polls, and Trump won them by 31 points), or our country’s trade deals (according to CNN, the majority of voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan believed international trade took away U.S. jobs) played a big role in their decision. The bottom line is that there’s no evidence to suggest that all those people in Wisconsin, who, for the last 32 years voted for Democrats (including the nation’s first black president twice, and Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay individual to be elected to the U.S. Senate) became racists at some point over the last few hundred days because they decided to support a Republican in the last election cycle. Labeling these voters as racists could potentially estrange them further.
Were there Trump voters who held outright bigoted, intolerant and abhorrent beliefs? Absolutely, and while it’s important that their behavior is unequivocally denounced, they also made up a relatively small fraction of his support. For that reason, I think it’s bad for the Democratic party, and the political left to give them credit for Trump’s victory because it sends one of two messages, and neither bodes well. Either it means that they’re choosing to focus on a few thousand bigoted lunatics from the fringe of society over the millions of Ex-Democratic in the midwest and all throughout the country who abandoned their party last November, or they’re grouping those ex-Democratics into the same bucket along with them. Whichever it is, neither gives off the vibe of John Cusack holding a radio, and at this moment, that’s who the Democratic Party and its supporters need to take a cue from.
Simply put, the Democrats need to carry those voters in order to win the electoral college, and if they want to lure them back, the first step to making that happen would be to try and understand why they left the party in the first place. Dismissing their concerns or angrily fixating on their genetic makeup certainly won’t do the trick. What will? I think Yair Rosenberg, a political commentator who supported Hillary Clinton during the campaign said it best on twitter the morning after the election: “[I t]old [my] students today: key lesson of election is liberal politicians need to deal w[ith] their electorates as they are, not as they wish they were.” The bottom line is that the Democrats need to win back the moderate vote in order to take back control of the government. How can they do that? Taking Rosenberg’s advice would be a pretty good starting point.