HOW IT FELT (AND STILL FEELS)
On Election Day I covered the polls at Takoma Park Elementary School for the Montgomery County Democratic Party with my wife and several neighborhood friends. It was a true pleasure to see American Democracy in action up close at the public school my children had attended.
I enjoyed talking to friends and neighbors as they came to vote, and the results were generally good: we got a great new progressive Congressman (my neighbor and constituent Jamie Raskin), plus an excellent Senator in Chris Van Hollen, and Hillary Clinton easily prevailed in Maryland.
But it was ultimately a bittersweet day -- with the bitterness in a historically heavy dose -- due to the outcome of the Presidential race. For me, as a lifelong Democrat, with over 35 years in politics and government; having worked for and with public officials like Father Robert Drinan, U.S. Representative Barney Frank, President Obama, and Maryland State Delegate Heather Mizeur; and as someone who has fought for fair treatment for everyone in our country and for more equitable economic opportunities for all, the election of Donald Trump is a disaster.
While Trump’s true views are in many ways unclear, the positions he presented and the version of his character that emerged in the campaign are in conflict with virtually everything I believe about compassion in politics, good government, and basic human decency. His blatant appeals to racism, sexism, xenophobia and anti-semitism (among other forms of bigotry) can’t be written off as typical campaign rhetoric. They’re truly un-American, and they have caused long-term harm to our society.
Like a lot of progressives, I’m still processing Trump’s victory. But I’m setting down here my current thinking on the election and my sense of the next steps for progressives. Sorry about the length of this commentary – maybe writing has been therapeutic.
WHAT DID (AND DIDN’T) HAPPEN
The day after the election my next door neighbor reminded me of a conversation we had while we were shoveling our sidewalks after this year’s January blizzard. I told her then that I didn’t see any reason Trump wouldn’t win the Republican nomination, since his views were largely in synch with the GOP base, and that he’d be a tough opponent for Hillary Clinton, because – fairly or not – many Americans held a negative opinion of her, and her gender and age would regrettably also likely be challenges.
By the time of that snowstorm, my family was sick of hearing my fears about Trump’s potential victory. I say this not to claim any great skill as a prognosticator -- on Election Day, I thought Clinton would probably pull it out, given what the polls were saying -- but because I think it’s important to consider Trump’s victory in a broader context of how the Republican Party has evolved over the last few decades.
It’s possible that voter desire for change, Trump’s political style, the backlash against a black President, and the negative views many folks had of Clinton are enough to explain his win. Plus, you can’t rule out some obvious (at least in hindsight) mistakes by her campaign. And let’s face it – lots of people still weren’t ready to support a female President, and there was voter suppression in some key swing states.
Perhaps there are deeper explanations (like voters with authoritarian personalities preferring a figure like Trump), since the motivations for much of voter behavior takes place below a rational level. As the more detailed numbers continue to emerge, I’ll leave the deep data analysis to the experts. But to begin to understand next steps for progressives, I think it’s important to consider some of the other explanations for Trump’s win that have been advanced. It’s crucial to keep in mind that over-generalizing about tens of millions of voters is a mistake, meaning that what appears below doesn’t apply to every Trump voter.
Trade Policy. One of the main reasons many pundits put forward to explain Trump’s appeal is that working class white Americans who have lost their place in the economy are attracted to his anti-free trade rhetoric. The difficulty with this argument is that, over the past several decades, on major trade proposals including NAFTA, it’s been progressive Democrats who have consistently opposed or sought to improve trade deals in terms of their impact on working people. So, voters primarily concerned about trade policy should have been Bernie Sanders supporters, and I’ve seen little evidence of an overlap between Sanders primary voters and Trump general election voters.
“Traditional” Values. It goes without saying that there were 16 Republican candidates equally or more conservative than Trump on a range of traditional values issues -- including abortion, the role of religion in society, LGBT and other family issues, etc. -- that GOP primary voters could have backed. So it seems doubtful that the thrice married, profane business mogul really won the primary or the general election because Republican voters cared much about those issues. Or if they did, they easily abandoned their previously heart-felt positions on issues like divorce and loose sexual behavior to take a flyer on someone who pandered to them on abortion, which seems to be the case for many evangelical voters.
The Trump Style. Trump’s truth-telling is supposedly another reason his supporters love him. He’s not, they claim, a “typical” politician who will say one thing and do another. But if you probe a centimeter below the surface, his supporters say they don’t really think he’ll build the wall or deport all the undocumented workers or keep out Muslims. That’s just campaign rhetoric. Indeed, the few policy morsels that have emerged since the election suggest Trump will back-pedal on some of his signature issues, with no evident drop-off in his support. Which means his coalition doesn’t mind supporting someone who’s just like one of those career politicians who will say anything to get elected. So, if you knock out the trade, traditional values, and truth-telling arguments, what’s left? It’s getting harder to believe that more of his supporters don’t embrace the bigotry he peddled.
Reaction Against Elites. But wait, pundits say, it’s about working class white voters sticking it to the elites. I guess that means me: a financially comfortable male, living in Washington, who worked for the Federal Government, and is now a local elected official. Some may argue it’s impossible for me to empathize with economically struggling Americans. But working to help address these economic concerns (not just in the trade context) has been a prime focus of my efforts in politics. And the elected officials I worked for would have had more success addressing those challenges had there been less GOP obstructionism. Indeed, there’s little evidence of mainstream Republican leaders today sincerely caring about that set of issues. For the anti-elite argument to be valid, Trump voters should have thrown out Congressional Republicans, who are – at least – equally responsible for their economic plight, at the same time they voted for Trump. But very few incumbent Republicans were defeated.
One measure of whose interests are paramount in the circles of government is who the President is, and who the Presidential Administration represents. For me, thinking about the Commanders-in-Chief we’ve had since I was old enough to pay attention to politics, there’s been one President – Barack Obama -- who came pretty close to representing my views in an overall sense. There were eight Presidents in that period, three of them Democrats. Having 8 years out of 48 hardly sounds like big league elitist domination. So, while I grant that progressives haven’t done a good enough job of explaining what we stand for, especially in the economic sphere, it’s hard not to conclude that for much of the Trump coalition, the bigoted things he said were a major attraction. Below are a few other relevant factors.
Future Shock. A few decades ago, we knew who our international enemy was. Sure, the U.S. and the Soviets fought proxy wars, and it could be hard to figure out who was on which side without a scorecard, but there was a sense of stability, despite the nuclear threat. In addition, we had a functioning capitalist system – there were ups and downs, but the overall scheme could be relied upon. Even communications technology made sense. Phones and televisions occasionally got upgraded, but the basic setup was predictable. By 2008, we no longer knew exactly who our international enemies were or where they lived; our economic system was upended; and communications had been radically transformed through the Internet and social media. People were experiencing future shock, and – sadly -- adding a black President to the mix seemed to be too much for some Americans. When Obama haters said they wanted to “take their country back,” it meant take it back from those who had allegedly seized it, but also take it back in time (perhaps to an era when a black president was inconceivable).
Election Trends. It’s difficult to argue you’re an agent of change who’s going to keep doing the things the previous Administration did. Just ask Anthony Brown what that’s like at the state level here in Maryland. Since the current version of our two party system was established around the time of the Civil War, we have had exactly two instances of a President serving two full four year terms followed by another full term for a President of the same party: Rutherford B. Hayes succeeding Ulysses S. Grant, and George H. W. Bush following Ronald Reagan. In 2016, once again people wanted change. Even in progressive, pro-government Montgomery County, voters backed term limits for the County Council by more than 2 – 1.
Republican Party Evolution. Since 1980 Republican operatives and strategists like Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, largely as a tactic to win elections, have promoted a series of untruths (tax cuts promote growth; government solutions never work; anti-discrimination measures caused the housing crisis; same-sex unions threaten traditional marriage; all anti-poverty programs have failed, etc.). This strategy helped Reagan in 1980, and was a major factor in Gingrich’s House takeover in 1994. Many voters, and even rank and file members of Congress, think of these ideas as genuine policy concepts as opposed to being shorter term electoral strategies, and they’ve become articles of faith (Obamacare opposition is the latest example). An entire generation has grown up in our country rarely hearing positive things about government, and now it’s almost impossible to move any legislation through Congress. Trump’s campaign was a logical continuation of this trend, and the GOP establishment that created the fictions are now reaping their own bitter harvest (or, like Senator Mitch McConnell, amorally abandoning any pretense of commitment to our democratic system).
So, is there a mandate? Trump and GOP leaders claim there’s a mandate, but the argument is weak. First, Clinton got over a million more votes than Trump. And, there were more aggregate Democratic votes in US Senate races. With many Trump voters acknowledging they don’t agree with him on a host of issues, to the extent there could be a mandate, it’s more for Donald Trump’s personality and rhetoric than his policies. That’s what we now face, and it leads to the last part of this essay.
WHAT SHOULD (OR COULD) BE NEXT
1. Don’t tune out. It’s understandable in the short term – there’s a mourning period and doing the political equivalent of binging on ice cream or potato chips is fine, but then we have to engage politically. So…tune out in order to recharge; mourn, and then rededicate to the fight.
2. Don’t just protest. Protesting can help promote solidarity, gain adherents, and publicize issues, but it should also include lobbying and engagement with decision makers. If protests are just to help us get though our sorrow, and they don’t pretty quickly also include organizing, lobbying, and planning for the next election, then we’re a missing an opportunity.
3. Hold Trump and his Administration Accountable. We shouldn’t automatically be against everything he proposes, but we should hold him accountable for every bad idea, and that includes his appointments. Since Trump has few well developed ideas, he will be turning over a lot of the Departments to people with traditional GOP views or to radical right wing “reformers.” And, unlike Obama, Trump apparently thinks it’s hard to find good people for Administration jobs who aren’t lobbyists. So we need to carefully watch the people responsible for developing the details of his agenda, and speak out against them when necessary (starting with Stephen Bannon). Democratic Senators should prepare to use whatever powers they have, including the filibuster, to stop bad legislation and to block inappropriate nominees and judges.
4. Reject bigotry. The KKK, actions against Muslims and Latinos, anti-semitism, negative comments about the disabled and the LGBT community, and the ugly alt-right stuff have to be rejected outright. They should be aggressively and publicly fought by all of us. As noted above, many Trump supporters claim they didn’t support him because of his bigotry, meaning they supported him despite it. They now have an obligation to reject it when it emerges in the Administration. They might ask why it’s their responsibility to speak out. Well, African-Americans and Muslims are constantly called upon to speak for their entire community. Now it’s Trump supporters’ turn.
5. Engage with elected officials and NGOs. If you haven’t been engaging with politicians, and volunteering or supporting non-profit policy and advocacy groups you agree with, it’s time to change your habits. Let elected officials know what you think, even if it’s just sending messages to their offices or signing petitions. Don’t avoid contacting them because “they already agree with me” or “they never agree with me.” Both categories and everyone in between need to hear from you. It’s also time to become active with local, state and national non-profit organizations that you’re aligned with. In addition, social media is a great tool for engagement, but to effect change you have to go beyond simply posting your opinions. Use the technology to organize others.
6. Get involved in elections. Start planning now to get involved in future elections, including the state elections that will determine redistricting for the U.S. House. Redistricting will be based on the 2020 Census, and the Governors and State legislators in office then will have the main influence on the boundaries of House districts. In Maryland that will be whoever wins the 2018 Governor’s race and State Legislature elections.
7. Hold the media accountable. When you think of CNN keeping Corey Lewandowski on their payroll even when he was basically working as a Trump campaign employee just before the election, there’s clearly a problem. Two days after the election, I heard a CNN reporter blithely declare – as if it were a fact -- that Trump has a mandate. That’s just a couple of examples involving CNN. We’re all aware of many more across the media spectrum (like equating the foundation and family entanglements of Clinton and Trump, or giving scant coverage to many of Trump’s lies), and we need to start calling out the bad behavior wherever we see it. This means writing to media outlets, commenting on digital stories, calling to complain when necessary, and maybe starting your own blog.
8. Engage those with whom you disagree. We need to think about supporting programs that benefit those who are suffering economically, including folks who face challenges from globalization and actions to address climate change (most of us still use fossil fuels and we should help workers who have made their livings in those industries). We also need to understand that, just because we live in an area where most people agree with us politically, that’s not true for everyone, and it’s certainly not true throughout the country. So, find ways of reaching out to those with differing viewpoints to get a clearer sense of what they think and why (though you don’t have to be nice to people expressing bigotry).
9. Donate money. It would be nice to operate in a political environment where money didn’t matter. Right now we aren’t there (and we have a high hill to climb, given the likely makeup of a Trump Supreme Court). So contribute, whether to candidates or causes, more than you have in the past.
10. The Takoma Park Connection. In our city, we know how to think globally and act locally. Now we have to think locally and act nationally. Donald Trump has vowed on his first day in office to set in motion a plan to block federal funds to communities that have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities. While this could end up in court, we need to start planning for that and similar initiatives. And in fact the Takoma Park City Council has begun discussing how best to declare that we won’t be changing our sanctuary status. Equally important, we need to take action – like we did at the Takoma Park community solidarity event on the Friday after Election Day – to make it clear to our fellow residents of all backgrounds that they are appreciated and that we don’t tolerate intolerance.
I’ll be doing what I can as a Councilmember, Takoma Park resident and, yes, a patriotic American, to keep working for greater tolerance and economic fairness at all levels of our society, and I look forward to joining with my neighbors in that effort.