Friday, 18 November 2016 

That other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.

It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

– The empathy bit in Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” speech

There is a persistent confusion in most political commentary, and the election of Trump shows that this had better be sorted out, and quick. This confusion rests on the relationship between politics and society, and especially an increasingly common habit of projecting what is going on politically directly on to society.

One example during the campaign were the occasional profiles in the better quality press trying to explain the thinking of Trump supporters (usually when he was doing relatively well). The more “thoughtful” pieces did real profiles on real people, talking of their real concerns, anger at politicians, and how their communities are struggling against globalisation, job losses, blah, blah, blah.

Leaving aside the inherent bias that meant Trump voters had to be “explained” whereas Clinton supporters did not, the problem with these profiles is not just that they more reflected the prejudices of the writer than anything else, but that they were sourcing the rise of Trump in the wrong place. Stagnant wages, distrust of political institutions, concern about the flight of jobs, have all been a feature of the US electorate for years.

Furthermore, the breakdown of exit polls showed that there was no major realignment in the electorate. In fact, by and large, Democrats voted for the Democratic nominee and Republicans voted for the Republican nominee, in what some have described as “tribal”, but could have just as easily be described as “normal”.

What was decisive this election round was not what was happening in the electorate but in the political parties, and they way their breakdown meant these issues could no longer be ignored. The issue was not so much why voters voted for their respective party nominee, but why two such weak candidates were the nominees in the first place.

Trump is a product of US political decline. The source of that decline is the difficulty the US has in maintaining a global framework to exert its influence, especially since the end of the Cold War. This has worked its way through the domestic political scene and it has especially affected the party that previously most benefited from that framework, the Republicans.

It is why the Republicans have only won the popular vote in one election (including this one) since the end of the Cold War – in the midst of that ersatz Cold War, the War on Terror in 2004. The Southern Strategy set up by Nixon and Reagan, a coalition between the upper middle class and the southern post-segregation whites, was glued together with Cold War ideology that proved difficult to replace.

The hollowing out of the Republicans’ political project was personified by the Republican establishment’s choice this election, Jeb Bush, a nepotic pick of a non-entity who had little resonance even within his own state party, let alone anywhere else.

But Trump not only swept aside the Republican establishment, but also what had been the GOP establishment’s main opposition within the party, the conservatives and fundamentalists clustered around the Tea Party (remember them?).

One of the striking things of the primaries was how charges that Trump was not conservative enough, that had been used before by the likes of Ted Cruz against mainstream Republicans, simply didn’t stick. Partly this was helped by Trump’s stand against immigration and radical Islam, but his moderate stance on most social issues showed that the strict ideological rulebook did not apply. This mish-mash meant that even well after winning the nomination, Trump was still seen by registered voters as the most moderate Republican nominees for more than a generation.

So Trump walked into a vacuum to take the Republican nomination. But in the general election he faced a Democratic party that was almost in the same state. As the Democrat establishment pick, Clinton was a phenomenally weak choice. She had already lost once to an outsider in 2008, Obama, and struggled to put down even a weak outsider like Bernie Sanders in 2016. Against Trump, she found it little easier.

Much has been made of the white swing towards Trump in the election, but it wasn’t much. Trump had a bigger swing with non-educated whites but lost on educated whites, a bigger swing with white men but lost with white women (although still won more than Clinton), won with whites in rural areas in the mid-west but lost in the cities on the west coast.

Yet what was probably more of interest was what didn’t happen, namely a swing away by African Americans and Hispanics.

The exaggeration in the white swing comes from the media projecting a political view provided by the Democrat version of Trump onto the electorate. But in their targeting of minorities, the Democrats did much the same thing themselves. This was one reason why the media could not imagine a Trump win, which was little to do with the polls. The assumption was that with Trump having (supposedly in some cases) insulted different voting groups, it would surely translate into punishment in the polls.

It never happened. Trump increased his vote (slightly) with African-Amercians, Latinos and Asian Americans. Perhaps like whites, other factors like the economy, corruption etc. might have figured, who knows. This slice ‘em and dice ‘em view of minority voters reached ludicrousness levels, such as on election night when it was expected that a high Latino vote in Florida would be bad for Trump because Cubans would be upset over Trump’s comments about Mexicans, and they’re all the same, aren’t they?

But it was probably with women where this political thinking really fell apart. This was supposed to be the gender election. The first female major party nominee was going up against someone who, let’s be blunt, was arguably the most vulnerable to such a campaign for decades. The importance of gender and the first chance to elect a women President became an increasingly important theme of the Democrat campaign, with solemn visits to the grave of Susan B Anthony and reminiscinces of the suffragette movement, all wrapped up in the “I’m with her” slogan. As the New York Times said, “It was supposed to be the election in which women rejected the candidate who hates women in favor of the candidate who is one.”

Yet again, nothing happened. Incredibly, exit polls suggest Clinton did slightly worse against Trump with women than Obama did against Romney’s whose worst comment was something about binders.

Partly this was obscured by race. African Americans stayed at home, but especially women, where in absolute terms Clinton appears to have lost the vote of a thumping 1.4 million black women compared to 0.4 million black men. But Clinton also lost white women by 43/53, and failed to end the Democrat’s long running losing streak with white women only broken in the last 30 years by her husband in 1996. In absolute terms, while Clinton also did a bit worse with Latino women than Obama (but still won 68% of them), while Trump did a little bit better with Latino and African American women than Romney in 2012.

So despite all the expectations from the media and the Democrats, their gender based campaign flopped. Looking at it, it’s not hard to see why.

At the start of Clinton’s campaign she posed the election of a woman as President as a moment of change because, well, the President would be a woman. The trouble with that is that the US had already elected an African American in the previous two elections and it’s possible to argue you can’t signify change much more than that. The problem was also that this was all it did do, signify it. Nothing much really changed to meet the symbolism. So the idea that a woman in White House would mean anything more to people’s lives, female or male, was not obvious.

Then the gender issue really took off after the release of the video from 10 years ago of Trump on mic with Billy Bush, and the accusations of sexual assault that followed. While understandably Trump’s comments disgusted many, directly relating it to people’s lives was again not that straightforward.

It was especially telling on the issue that did directly affect millions of American women, abortion. In the third debate, Trump raised the issue of late abortion with an especially unpleasant retelling of “ripping” the foetus out in a late abortion. In one of Clinton’s best moments in the campaign, she made the obvious point that it was precisely in such a difficult moment that the ability for the woman to have control over her body was so important.

But there the issue died. It was striking that abortion was far less an issue in the 2016 campaign than it was in 2012, despite the Republicans having a candidate that openly called for a reversal of Roe v Wade (even if inconsistently, given his previous pro-abortion stance). Instead, the Democrat campaign was preferring to focus on Trump’s “fat-shaming” of a beauty pageant queen and his language and behaviour. These were great weapons in the culture war, and a wonderful opportunity for men to show their gallantry (especially anti-abortion #NeverTrumpers in the GOP) but not an issue directly affecting women’s lives like restricting access to abortion.

If the purpose of the Democrats’ focus on Trump’s personal language and behaviour towards women, instead of issues like abortion, was to draw away otherwise socially conservative GOP supporters, then that failed again. Senior figures in the GOP establishment like McCain used it as an excuse to exhibit their refined sensibilities (please don’t look up McCain’s comments on Chelsea and Reno in 2008) and do what they always wanted, to isolate Trump. But the GOP voters didn’t follow the establishment – just like they didn’t in the primaries. Whatever the movements around the edges, Republican supporters voted for the Republican nominee in around the same numbers as last time. The right’s talk of a resurgence” against PC etc. is as phoney as the left’s refusal to admit the flop of their “rainbow coalition” strategy.

In short, the 2016 election was one long culture war that had little real impact, but especially on the Democrat side. It was primarily a political crisis from above than a realignment from below. That crisis coincided with the failure of a political way of thinking that has, if anything, become even worse after the election.

This political thinking was best summed up by Clinton’s now notorious “deplorables” speech. The speech was seen as a major gaffe of the campaign like Romney’s “47%” comment in the last election. But unlike Romney’s gaffe, or Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” comment in 2008, Clinton’s speech was scripted and broadcast to the media. It after all reflected the prevailing view in the media and political commentary that also saw the Trump electorate as either consigned to the basket of “deplorables” or deserving of pity.

The “deplorable” comment was quickly leapt on by the Republicans as a sign of the “contempt of the elite” towards ordinary voters, and helped give a unifying theme to a chaotic Republican campaign. But the real problem with the speech was subtler.

In fact, Clinton was not especially targeting Republican supporters as such, but Trump. Her argument was that Trump’s main failing was that through his language he was provoking the dark forces below. As she says, “we are living in a volatile political environment” and Trump’s irresponsibility was that he was “lifting up” the deplorables, and those were just angry at tough economic conditions had to be rescued from the same fate.

This is a key political argument of this period: that the public contains dark forces that politicians have a responsibility not to “lift up”. It was a concern during the Brexit referendum and reached its height in Australia where a public debate on same sex marriage was quashed because it was apparently less capable of holding it than Ireland without dark forces being provoked.

This heightened sensitivity to what politicians say, rather than do, has distorted important policy issues. One example during the campaign was deportations. Trump’s policy on mass deportations of 2-3 million people has rightly provoked outrage. The trouble is that this has already been a policy of Obama with barely any outrage at all.

Obama has deported nearly 3 million immigrants which is almost more than any previous President combined – i.e. a qualitative jump. Yet the sensitivity over language means it is only Trump attracting the outrage after calling some of the Mexicans rapists and drug dealers. No wonder Latinos directly affected by the policy struggled to see the difference.

That language and ideas drives society is understandably strongly held by those in politics, the media and academia whose jobs rely on that view. We all want to do good. The assumption that words mean as much to everyone else, and can offend or provoke, however leads to confusion. It projects assumptions of the power of ideas in the political sphere on society at large. It was why there was such a widely-held assumption in media and political circles that Clinton would win – and horror that she didn’t.

The political order is breaking up and this confusion is likely to get worse. Along with Brexit, Trump’s victory showed that the UK and the US, stabilisers of the world order of the 20th century, are proving the destabilisers of the 21st. Trump’s victory means there is unlikely to be stability anytime soon, and there is likely to be increasing concerns about what such instability will do in society, from those who should know better.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 18 November 2016.

Filed under International relations, Other

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4 responses to “Shock!”

  1. monkeytypist on 18th November 2016 9:16 am

    “Trump’s victory means there is unlikely to be stability anytime soon, and there is likely to be increasing concerns about what such instability will do in society, from those who should know better.”

    Why shouldn’t people be concerned? Is an unstable world order more likely to be neutral or benign than the neoliberal one?

  2. The Piping Shrike on 18th November 2016 11:08 am

    At one level, it totally depends what’s happening in society. Sometimes political disorder can result in times of significant progress.

    But directly projecting political disorder on to society will just confuse what is going on in society. Such as this election where significant political disorder occurred when not that much was changing in US society.

    On another level, a destabilising world order from US decline is concerning. Actually, I could argue Trump’s response is more pragmatic (and more similar to Obama on NATO etc.) than the hawkish noises coming from Clinton.

    But here I was more talking about the domestic scene.

  3. Mitchell Porter on 19th November 2016 6:50 pm

    “Obama has deported nearly 3 million immigrants … a qualitative jump.”

    L.A. Times says this is due to a change in what counts as a deportation. In the 1990s, there were 1 million deportations a year that weren’t counted formally because they took place near the border.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 20th November 2016 8:12 am

    As I understand it, the distinction is here between “returns” where immigrants are simply put on a bus and not registered, and deportations where they are. Under Obama, there was a decisive shift towards registering, i.e. what would be classed as deportations, probably to show that he was tough on immigration. I imagine it will be likely that a Trump will do the same.

    My point was here that such “toughness” from Obama was treated very differently from what appears to be a similar policy from Trump because of the rhetoric, which in today’s politics seems more important than what they actually do.

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