A Simple Thought on the US Election

I have seen a lot of people, over the last few weeks, putting the blame on various different factors for Hillary Clinton’s loss. “It was the FBI!”, “It was BernieBros!”, “It was Putin!”, “It was Jill Stein!”, “it was fake news!”, “It was voter suppression in North Carolina!”

These are mostly being used to argue that Clinton “should” have won, and that she ran a good campaign. In fact, though, I’d suggest that they prove the opposite.

Before we go any further with this, to get something out of the way, I obviously wish Hillary Clinton had won. The set of possibilities for a Trump presidency, as far as I can tell, runs from “corrupt kleptocracy run by the worst President since the US Civil War” as the best option, through “installing a permanent fascist dictatorship”, all the way to “nuclear Armageddon and destruction of all life on the planet within a year”. There is no possible scenario left that doesn’t involve a lot of people, including people I love, dying.

Clinton, by contrast, would have been another Obama. People would still have died, but far fewer of them, and there might have been at least some improvements to the lives of at least some marginalised people.

So given the choice between Trump and Clinton, there’s no choice there.

But the thing is, it should never have *got* to a choice between Trump and Clinton.

See that list up at the top? It’s true. Every one of those things is “to blame” for Clinton losing, because the loss was narrow enough that had any one of those things been different, she would have scraped a win.

But almost every one of those things above could have been predicted before the start of the campaign. There are *always* sore losers who supported another primary candidate — Clinton had her own “Berniebro” equivalents in 2008, the PUMAs. There are *always* more ideologically pure third party candidates running — remember Nader? It was obvious that one of America’s enemies would try hacking both major parties’ data and to use that to influence the election — Russia and China are two of the biggest state sponsors of hacking, and neither are exactly known for their commitment to the sanctity of the electoral process. And “fake news” has been around as long as the Internet — Snopes has been around for twenty-one years now, and the reason for its existence has always been to combat the kind of bullshit that the media has suddenly woken up to in the last few weeks. The voting rights act was overturned three years ago, and plenty of us made a huge stink about it then.

The only one that *might* not have been predicted even four years ago is the FBI involvement. And even that should have been a possible factor taken into account, given that Clinton was already under investigation at the start of the campaign. And they should have been prepared for *something* like that, if not that exactly — there’s a reason “October surprise” is a phrase. *SOMETHING* was always going to come up just before the election that would make the front-runner look bad. Everything else should have been factored into the calculations *years before the primary campaigns even started*.

The fact is, Clinton was up against someone with no previous political experience, who personally insulted journalists for major newspapers, who had no idea of the basic requirements for the role of President or what the job entails, who is charmless, abrasive, physically repellent (shouldn’t be a factor but it is), a habitual liar, an open white supremacist, and a self-admitted multiple sexual abuser.

When *that’s* your opponent, it takes a special kind of incompetence to even let it get close enough that losing is a possibility. It should have made Reagan vs Mondale look like a close-run nailbiter.

The fact that it didn’t — that it got close enough that normal, expected, political events could cause her to lose — shows that the Clinton campaign was fundamentally flawed.

(And yes, I know, more people voted for her than for her opponent. The skewed Electoral College is something else everyone has known about for years).

And I think the reason it was flawed is that people have learned the wrong lessons from Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Obama. In all three cases the narrative seems to be “a preternaturally charismatic and charming figure, up against an unpopular, long-serving, corrupt and decaying government, and offering an ideologically bland programme of right-centrist managerialism, campaigning with a message of change and hope, managed to get the more leftwing of the two major parties into power — it must be the ideologically bland right-centrist managerialism that did it!”

The fact is, we have seen many other attempts to replicate Blair, Clinton, and Obama over the years. Having the same programme and an uncharismatic leader who was already in power led to abysmal defeats for Al Gore and Gordon Brown. Ed Miliband, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg all seem (rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly) like cargo-cult copies of Blair without the charisma, and none of them are exactly watchwords for political success.

On the other hand, Justin Trudeau kept the “going up against a really unpopular government” part, and the “being ludicrously charismatic” one, and the “change and hope” one, and added in an actually radical programme for government (compared to that party’s history and to Canadian politics right now) and moved his party from third to first place. And incidentally, while the Blair government was a right-centre-authoritarian one, the manifesto on which Blair was elected in 1997 was a radical one.

Put simply, centrist policies don’t appeal to the electorate. People will vote for them over obvious evil (again, Trump *did* lose the popular vote, as did Bush jr against Gore), but they won’t do so *enthusiastically*. They’ll vote, but won’t persuade five of their friends to vote too. They *will* turn out to get rid of a government that’s already harming them, if it’s bad enough and has had enough of a “chance”, and they will then vote for centrist policies if they’re packaged as a change from the norm, as “coming from a town called Hope”, as “things can only get better”.

But “the same thing you’ve already got, but certainly nothing much better, and run by a competent-but-dull administrator” has as far as I can remember only won for John Major in the UK in 1992, and he was from the party of the right, which has a different set of priorities from the left.

Put simply, there’s nothing less electable than “electability”, and the sooner the mainstream left realises this, the better for all of us.

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6 Responses to A Simple Thought on the US Election

  1. prankster36 says:

    Interesting thing about Trudeau is that there was *definitely* some strategic voting going on. A lot of typically NDP seats went Liberal. It helps that he’s at least superficially, socially progressive so leftists felt comfortable voting for him, and he had the charisma combined with being part of a respected political dynasty, but still, the priority for a lot of people was clearly getting Harper and his conservatives out. So strategic voting can be a thing when people are up against a sufficiently disliked candidate.

    It’s possible one of the big problems in the US was that everyone was told repeatedly that Clinton had it in the bag, so voters didn’t mobilize–but I definitely think they *can* be mobilized strategically, even more or less of their own volition. There was criticism, rightly, of Clinton running on little but “Trump is bad” but if she’d combined that with the narrative that he was the front-runner instead of acting like she was just going to breeze to the presidency I think it would have been effective enough. (And to be fair everyone, including Clinton and Trump, legitimately thought she had it sewn up, but that doesn’t mean you stop working.)

    • plok says:

      I think it was weirder than that. Strategic voting didn’t work last time, and also Quebec went mysteriously orange, not really very strategically at all but it was the ONE THING THAT REALLY CHANGED, and the change was far-reaching. Is there a way the Liberals tack to the left of the NDP, if they hadn’t been rendered so incredibly irrelevant in the last election? Yet meanwhile I was amazed at just how very strategic everyone was being with their vote, and it sort of looked like Harper wasn’t even popular enough to win by splitting the left, yet we were being strategic anyway. In my riding the Liberals and NDP were both beating the Harperites pretty handily either way, with the NDP slightly ahead all the way along…this is in a riding of millionaires, mind you…yet at the end of the day, the Liberals’ margin of victory was CRAZY BIG. Something about a seventy-percent voter turnout (instead of 53% and 58% or whatever it was the last two times running), and everybody being soooo CAREFUL about their vote, constantly checking on twenty different kinds of poll numbers and talking to one another about them, right up until voting day…so those margins contain a real mandate, not just a majority, but as far as I can tell But it wasn’t supposed to happen. Except, I’m still not sure if anything happend the way it was “supposed” to. Non-Canadians, I have to tell you that the strangeness just kept coming. Seriously, the Harperites were doing crazy Price-Is-Right stunts with giant Batman pennies and weird Freedom Rallies Against The Foreign Jihadists. It was NOT NORMAL. The NDP tacked right to steal away the Big Middle of the centrist voters and it JUST WASN’T THERE. We all voted strategically, but it came out really odd. People voted for Trudeau to run deficits in order to investigate missing and murdered indigenous women, and I’m GLAD THEY DID, but I gotta confess I never saw it coming.

    • plok says:

      Sorry, bit ranty, but what I mean is that Justin wasn’t just charismatic but he also promised charismatic stuff. And I think that made a really big difference This was a war of identity politics fought on so many fronts that Harper couldn’t win it — you can’t claim Canadian Identity with Justin-Bloody-Trudeau paddling around you in his canoe wearing a buckskin jacket, you can’t out-Daddy’s-at-work-now-honey Thomas Mulcair, and you can’t get away with bullshit statistics about your environmental record with Elizabeth May in the room. On so many topics, he had no traditional Tory position to retreat to! So in the end, it came down to what everybody else disagreed about.

      Uh…in my reading…

      (I swear to God this isn’t just a digression, but really does connect to an actual proper comment about the substance of the post…!)

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  3. plok says:

    Ha, “there’s nothing less electable than electability”! I am gonna quote that little observation something fierce…

    So this is the first effort at a “what happened” thing that I’ve seen which makes sense to me, because it doesn’t assume more than it knows, and that’s really refreshing. The U.S. news is still scratching its head, saying stuff about how the Democratic Party didn’t (and I definitely do quote) “pay enough attention to the concerns of white working-class Americans.” God, what an ugly analysis that is! I’m gonna call it, uh…”dangerously reductive”? After you hear it for the millionth time, it comes across pretty clearly as “Clinton failed to court the UKIP vote enough”, just buys into all that stuff way too uncritically. Interestingly, in French (as I just learned), “alt-right” doesn’t translate effectively, so francophones just say “racists” instead? That particular kind of euphemistic wish-fulfillment just doesn’t get past the language barrier…

    But “there’s nothing less electable than electability”, yeah. To briefly touch on Trudeau again, he wasn’t supposed to be particularly electable, but aside from the charisma factor it seems that you can put some fairly progressive policies in front of a fairly progessive populace, and actually get them to vote for you. Who knew? He’s enjoyed a very long honeymoon that the interpreter-faction of the news media can’t believe has stretched on so interminably…though the news-reporting faction is having a whale of a time!…basically because he found himself a base and he’s managed to keep them fairly satisfied with his performance. Looking in from the outside, when I saw Clinton’s campaign compete with Trump’s, I saw Clinton’s campaign mopping the floor with it on a daily basis…won all the debates, her convention kind of kicked ass as a rebuttal to the RNC, Trump did every single stupid thing in the Stupid Thing Playbook…I mean, she WON, right? Clearly she won. Just didn’t get elected, is all. And I wonder if it’s because she didn’t have a “base”, There always going to be people who would vote for the Hitler Platform because they approve of the policies, and I hesitate to think of that as a “base” any more meaningful (and probably much less so) than “people who’d like to vote for someone who isn’t Trump”…yet it’s like what Ta-Nehisi Coates said, almost: everything Hillary did wasn’t enough to clear the bar that sexism raised to seven feet, whereas clearly for Trump that bar was just lying on the ground and all he had to do was just not trip too badly. The Hitler Platform can also rope in people who are not technically pro-Nazi ideology, by appealing to this negative human prejudice or that…it’s just a theory, but it seems to me that if you’re the sort of person who’d say something like “Hitler, Gandhi, they’re all the same, all liars” then you would be a bit riper for the Trump-plucking than the Clinton-plucking? But I don’t think those are “the concerns of the white working-class”, unless WWC really does just mean “despicable racist”, which I think is, as above, “dangerously reductive”. Trump will probably have some sorted of a twisted “honeymoon” with his base, and maybe even what we’re seeing right now IS the honeymoon, which maybe indicates just how small his base really is…but it’s hard for me to imagine Hillary’s honeymoon, if she had won. I don’t know who she would’ve been on it with!

    Not saying that’s the difference, of course…but it sure is odd.

    Or it would be, if “there’s nothing less electable than electability” wasn’t my new lodestar!

  4. David Brain says:

    The other mistake that all political parties seem to make is that the time to rebuild and reform themselves is just after they’ve been elected (preferably in a landslide.) Not just after they have lost horrifically, because they always seem to learn entirely the wrong lessons whilst they are tearing themselves apart. It always takes a decade or even more for them to recover and all that usually happens is that they end up right back where they started. There’s a faint chance that Labour might not end up there, but that would only be if they end up split again, which would be almost as bad. (I guess that no-one remains who can remember what a debacle 1983 was.)
    The Tories don’t even seem to have noticed that they are on life-support themselves and are only surviving because of the weird perception of “party politics” that we have in this country. It’s often demonstrated that people clearly support quite radical, usually lefty policies when they don’t know which party is proposing them and then they are frequently surprised when they find out. To me, that’s where the problem seems to lie – it’s the ignorance of the voters, not the cynicism of the politicians that’s at issue; that seems to be part of the US crisis as well.
    No, I’m not calling the voters stupid. It’s the things they don’t know they don’t know that are the problem. (Or, worse, the things they think they do know.)

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