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Why We Lost

[Note: I don’t normally publish here my writings on American domestic politics, especially partisan politics, but I have not found another forum for these comments, so am offering them here in the hope of prompting self-reflection and discussion among Democrats and their supporters.]

November 18, 2016

Like millions of Americans who supported Hillary Clinton for president, I woke up on November 9 dismayed by the news, deeply disappointed by Donald Trump’s victory, and profoundly anxious about the future of our country. Others have described their emotions in stronger terms: shock, grief, fear, or post-traumatic stress. But we’re not hearing enough critical introspection or serious analysis of the economic and social forces that brought us president-elect Trump.

The issue is much bigger than Trump: Republicans have gained at least two governorships. The GOP will dominate 69 of 99 state legislative chambers, with complete control (governor and both chambers) in 25 states (compared to 5 or 6 for the Democrats). Republicans lost only two seats (of 24 they were defending) in the U.S. Senate and 6 (of 246) in the House. A full third of Democratic House seats and electoral votes are from only three true-blue states (California, New York, Massachusetts).

Why the broad-based Republican win? One hint: It’s the jobs, stupid.

According to the most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, civilian labor force participation is around 63%, its lowest level since 1978. For white men with less than a high-school diploma, it’s only about 46%. High-school graduates with no college (all races and genders) don’t fare much better, at 58%.

Labor Force Participation includes those who are working, as well as the unemployed who are looking for work. What about the others—over half of white men who didn’t graduate from high school, over a third of the entire adult population? They are retired, full-time students, full-time caregivers, or in prison. And this doesn’t count the under-employed, those who are working part-time but want full-time jobs, and those who have taken a cut in pay and/or benefits to remain employed. These are the economically disenfranchised and disenchanted.

Most of these people don’t live in the coastal states or in big cities. They struggle to make ends meet and are wondering what happened to the America they knew. Democrats and their allies in the media dismiss, demean, and even mock their concerns. We liberals and progressives don’t even begin to understand, or try to understand, the farmer in Iowa, the coal miner in West Virginia, the laid-off factory worker in Michigan, or the hairdresser and the construction worker down the street.

When people express concerns about crime or terrorism, we chastise them as racists.

When they question the social and economic cost of a huge underclass of undocumented immigrants, we call them xenophobic.

When they see their healthcare costs and health-insurance premiums spiral out of control, we lecture them about the benefits of individual mandates.

When their jobs disappear, we admonish them about free trade. We scoff at the uneducated, narrow-minded protectionists who don’t understand that globalization is good for everyone. (Free trade is indeed good on the whole, increasing the combined wealth of the U.S. and China and Mexico and all the rest. It’s good for the U.S. economy overall, raising total GDP and average household income. But the averages don’t account for our huge and growing inequality. The rising tide does not, in fact, lift all boats. It sinks some of them.)

We ridicule God-fearing, church-going, flag-flying American patriots. If they find gay marriage offensive or pick-your-own-gender school bathrooms threatening to their core values, we see it as further proof of their bigotry and lack of sophistication. We dismiss them as “deplorables” who “cling to their guns and religion.”

This “empathy gap” wasn’t simply Hillary Clinton’s perceived deficit. It’s the patronizing contempt of the “elites” and “establishments”—again, of both parties—led and amplified by the media’s echo chamber. Lip service to diversity and pluralism notwithstanding, our smug self-righteousness and intellectual-moral superiority blind us to the real challenges and anxieties of those who are not like us.

The 2016 election delivered what we liberals, and our country, deserve. Will we learn the lesson?

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Also published at The Times of Israel, December 16, 2016.

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