It is one thing to lose an election to the most talented politician of his generation, a man with such a gift for rhetoric and such a compelling life story, that people were predicting he would be the first African American president of the United States back when he was a mere state senator in Illinois. It is quite another to lose to the most odious presidential candidate in memory, a reality television star with an impossible haircut who made no secret of his hostility toward Latinos, blacks, Muslims, and, above all, women. Hillary Clinton has now done both, and it’s the latter loss that no doubt hurts the most. For the first female presidential candidate in American history to be defeated by a man not even one-tenth as qualified as she is, and who seemingly takes sadistic pleasure in demeaning women to boot, is almost too sickening for words.
It also raises an inevitable question: How could Clinton have lost? Was she a uniquely terrible candidate, or were broader forces aligned against her?
In the days since her shocking defeat, Clinton and the Democratic establishment she represents have been buried in an avalanche of angry criticism. And much of it is deserved. She was the wrong candidate to run in an election defined by a swell of anti-establishment populism. She was nearly as odious to the American people as Trump herself, according to the polls; in fact, Trump was the only presidential candidate in modern history who was more disliked by voters. She bungled every controversy, real and imagined, apologizing only grudgingly when she was wrong (the private email server) and refusing to take seriously accusations of cronyism (the Clinton Foundation) even if they were overblown. It is no wonder that some are saying Bernie Sanders—a populist good-government crusader—would have fared better than Clinton against Trump.
These criticisms often fail to acknowledge the millions of people Clinton did inspire, particularly the women who believed they were on the verge of electing the country’s first female president. (She did, after all, win the popular vote.) They also fail to recognize that Sanders’s class-based approach to addressing our economic ills didn’t resonate with many minority voters in the Democratic primary, alienating a core element of the party’s base. But most glaringly of all, these criticisms reduce the election to the failings of one person, boiling it down to her inability to appeal to a clutch of disillusioned white working class voters in what used to be a Democratic firewall in the Rust Belt.
The enraged focus on Clinton ignores the broader historical forces at work. This was clearly a change election, a wave that was bound to dispel pretty much any Democratic candidate in its path. For the first time in decades, stalwart Democratic states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania went to the Republicans. It is all the more remarkable given that, unlike the last change election in 2008, we live in a time of relative peace and prosperity. The inequalities embedded in our economic system are undeniable. The U.S. continues to have a military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and has abetted wars in Yemen and elsewhere. But in the past eight years under President Barack Obama, the U.S. has made steady progress toward full employment and has vastly reduced its military commitments abroad, which in the Bush era resulted in thousands of American deaths, hundreds of thousands of injuries, and untold psychological damage to military veterans. In the simplest sense, one candidate in 2016 promised to uphold that progress; the victor promised to reverse it.
This election was about a much greater phenomenon than Hillary Clinton. We know this is true because a nearly identical political undertow has gripped other Western democracies. In Britain, a nativist campaign preying on the fears of immigration and economic dislocation resulted in the Brexit, throwing the country into total chaos. In France, the right-wing National Front is the preeminent political force in the country, after spending decades on the fringes. Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen and America’s Trump have all succeeded by sowing fear and hatred of the other. They lead movements that, at their core, are propelled by white revanchism, a raging against an increasingly globalized world that has threatened white power and diluted white identity.
But it is also becoming clear that the racist face of the resurgent right wing is, in important respects, superficial. To be clear, I find it almost impossible to forgive any person who voted for a blatant racist and misogynist like Trump. I agree with Slate’s Jamelle Bouie that, in attempting to sympathize with the plight of the downtrodden white who voted for Trump, we are in danger of perpetuating a false narrative of white innocence. And I think his election will set back racial progress by decades. However, the rise of the new right also has its roots in the financial crisis, a political earthquake whose deep, radiating repercussions didn’t quite register until Trump’s election. This is a response to what is seen as a corrupt order, one that perpetuates the power of a global elite at the expense of common people. It encompasses Republicans and Democrats, New Labourites and Tories, a Socialist like Francois Hollande and a conservative like Nicolas Sarkozy. It is a protest against liberal democracy as we know it, and it is no surprise that these grievances have found outlet in vulgar authoritarians whose core supporters want to blow up the system.
The first evidence of the revanchist backlash to Barack Obama was the 2010 midterms, when the country was mired in the aftermath of a deep recession. It now appears that the outlier in recent cycles was the 2012 election, in which Democrats held on to power through the singular charisma of Obama himself and the fact that Republicans nominated a straight-up plutocrat. But even though Obama rode to power on liberal anger at the war in Iraq, he was never a populist. In retrospect, he could have done his party—and his country—a favor by jailing some bankers.
What is to be done? In a prescient essay for The New Republic published before the election, the liberal academic K. Sabeel Rahman argued that the Democratic Party must absorb and channel the populist anger that has exploded to the surface. Crucially, he argued that this populism must be wedded to a program of inclusion, noting progressives’ long history of excluding minority groups from initiatives to protect workers and make the economic system fairer. The first step toward a new Democratic Party is to cut off its corporate wing, which adds no votes and undermines the party’s whole reason for existence: standing up for common men and women. This will hurt the party’s fundraising, but what good did Clinton’s fundraising prowess do against Trump?
Whether the party can combine its identitarian minority politics with an economic populism that includes aggrieved whites remains to be seen. One reason the Sandersistas fail to convince is that, while white working class voters may rage against corruption in D.C., it’s unclear they want its replacement to be socialism. There is the danger of veering so far left that the party turns into a Jeremy Corbyn–style rump party that has no chance of winning national elections. The Democratic politician who comes closest to straddling these two poles is Elizabeth Warren, but otherwise the bench is quite barren.
As the Democrats grope toward a new future, however, they can take solace in this: They can’t be much worse off than they are now.