How liberalism led itself to defeat on election night

Dartanyan Edmonds

The election results came like a volcanic eruption, taking many Americans by surprise, shaking the pundit class to its core and spewing thick smoke in the eyes of confused Americans.  Donald Trump’s performance shocked the political and media elite as he snatched victory from Hillary Clinton. I didn’t believe that he would win the GOP nomination, let alone the presidency. But despite everyone’s shock, political observers shouldn’t have been surprised. The polls—even though they were wrong—indicated that the gap between Clinton (who was poised to win by a landslide in mid-October) and Trump was closing.  Yet this wasn’t due to an increase in Trump’s momentum, but a decrease in Hillary’s. 

Clinton’s lead diminished as devastating WikiLeaks releases prior to the election revealed dark secrets about her and her campaign.  And if that hadn’t been enough, there was James Comey.  Comey’s decision to reopen the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s email server infuriated liberals partially due to the impact that it could have had on the election.  

 As liberals saw that Trump was winning the election, they looked to these and other causes of Trump’s win including racism, third-party candidates siphoning off votes from Clinton, etc.  

But while all these explanations may have some plausibility to them, they’re wrong.  While it’s true that Clinton’s lead further diminished when FBI director Comey relaunched the investigation, her poll numbers were going down before that.  And her numbers went back up after Comey closed the investigation.  And while it’s true that some third-party candidates may have taken some votes from Clinton, it’s not clear how much that affected the outcome.  No third-party candidate put enough of a dent into either Clinton or Trump to sustain a blow, and the demography of the electorate is probably what mattered the most. 

As the race on Tuesday night tightened, it became clear that Clinton needed two Midwestern states to have a shot at winning: Wisconsin and Michigan.  After losing Wisconsin, it was clear that she was essentially finished and why this was the case: working-class whites didn’t want a continuation of the Obama era.  

This truth seemingly vindicates the racism theories explaining Trump’s win that many liberals have been propagating.  But I’m afraid that the truth is much more complicated than that.  Going back to the primaries, there’s very good reason to believe that some of Trump’s voters were bigoted: Trump ran on thinly veiled xenophobia to win over some voters, retweeted white supremacists and so on.  But there’s a flipside to this fact: many of last Tuesday’s Trump voters supported President Obama in 2012.  States like Michigan and Wisconsin, which voted for President Obama in 2012 (and where many working-class whites live), went for Trump this time.  So it’s hard to argue that Trump won only or primarily due to racism.  

Whether many liberals have realized it or not, the moves the Obama administration has made on cultural issues and Hillary Clinton’s promises to continue those moves apace alienated working-class white voters.  As Ramesh Ponnuru points out at Bloomberg View, many working-class whites are culturally conservative—a fact Bill Clinton understood well in the 1990s.  Bill Clinton, while still maintaining a kind of liberalism, moved rightward on social issues in a way to appealed to these voters.  But today’s progressivism has done quite the opposite: instead of taking these voters’ cultural anxieties seriously, too many liberals disparaged working-class whites as bigots. On issues like immigration, certainly some supporters of stricter immigration enforcement are bigots.  But some people simply don’t believe that it’s wise to increase immigration levels, as Clinton’s policies promised to do.  That isn’t an inherently bigoted position to have and many voters hold it. 

Instead of listening to working-class whites’ cultural concerns, liberals moved leftward on cultural issues and condescendingly shamed culturally conservative voters.  (Remember Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment?) 

This comes on top of the fact that many working-class whites live in downtrodden communities, where suicide and opioid addiction are high, familial breakdown is prevalent and wages have been stagnant for far too long.  President Obama once remarked in response to Trump’s gloomy convention speech at the RNC in July that gloom isn’t most Americans’ reality. “I hope people the next morning walked outside, and the birds were chirping, and the sun was out. And this afternoon people will be watching their kids playing sports teams and go to the swimmin’ pool and folks are going to work, getting ready for the weekend,” the president said.   

But this just isn’t the reality for many of Trump’s voters. They don’t see the sunny, warm image Obama and the Democrats painted over the summer. Democrats would have been much better off addressing Trump voters’ concerns than dismissing them. Now they’re reaping what they have sown.