A Winning Liberal Strategy For 2020: Scolding The ‘Hard Left’

With the 2018 elections only a few months away and with the 2020 election season about to commence, concerned citizens should begin devising strategies for wresting back control of the House, the Senate, the White House, and many blocks of affordable housing in Washington DC back from the feckless Republicans dunking the American republic in the Trump swamp. Fortunately for Democratic voters, liberals, progressives, members of the ‘hard left,’ and sundry other disaffected Americans, a winning strategy has already been devised by those who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. The simplicity of this strategy is bracing; it requires little to implement, and can be carried out all day from home, while traveling or commuting, or in-between breaks at work.

Here is how it goes: on social media and indeed, on all available media outlets, blame the loss of the 2016 election not on those who voted for Donald Trump but rather on those who did not vote for Hillary Clinton. (This strategy does require the person doing the blaming to overlook the fact that a large-scale political event like a once in four years presidential election is massively overdetermined with multiple factors playing significant causal roles–like the design of the American electoral system or campaign strategies of choice. Be that as it may, such considerations are mere distractions to decisive action in these times.)

This blaming can proceed along several axes: an easy one is to pick one out of the long list of political, social, economic, and legal disasters that have befallen the Republic since that fateful November 9th in 2016, and to say “This is on you <Bernie bros, doctrinaire leftists, Marxists, postmodernists, or whatever>!” A variant of this is “Well, I hope you are happy, Bernie-Jill Stein voter-bro, you got what you wanted!” or to mutter “But, but, her emails!” (The latter, however, suffers from a simple confusion; the ’emails’ were of great concern to Trump voters–well known for being sticklers for security in all matters pertaining to internet communications–so the liberal scold here runs the risk of not directly addressing the demographic he or she would like to castigate.)

The success of this strategy is all but foretold. After all, not only did this sort of premptive scolding work to great effect in the lead up to the 2016 election, but as a vast literature on political and community organizing shows, shaming, blaming, and scolding are proven strategies for building broad political coalitions. Such imprecations always make their target eager to build alliances with those doing the blaming; their moral and political faults so clearly identified and laid out for all to see, they can now return to the fold with their tails tucked between their legs, all the more enthusiastic about the education they are to receive in how to correctly exercise their adult electoral franchise.

Readers will be happy to know that the implementation of this tactic is well under way. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement appears to have been the flag drop, and we’re off. Time to sit back and dream about impeachment, veto-proof legislation, and a huge, massive, bomb of a blue wave.

Democratic Party Mulls Forced Population Transfers As 2020 Strategy

The Democratic Party’s planning for the 2020 elections, as expected, began on November 10th, and have only picked up pace since then–even as party officials and campaign strategists engage in the proverbial struggle to drink from the fire-hose of hot takes seeking to assign blame for the 2016 electoral fiasco. But consensus is emerging, driven largely by the two issues that have most preoccupied party thought-leaders and influencers ever since Hillary Clinton’s concession speech: the banal evil of the Electoral College and the staggering margin of victory that Clinton enjoyed in the popular vote (three million and counting.) That consensus seeks to minimize the demographic dynamite that torpedoed the Clinton Campaign–by way of forced population transfers of minorities, arguably the most reliable voting bloc for the Democratic Party, to those underpopulated regions of the United States that currently enjoy disproportionate representations in the Congress and Senate. As one party leader put it, “We need to take some of those three million votes and put them where they count, where we know they can make a real difference; we need more brown and black folks out in the countryside, up in the mountains. They can’t keep clinging to the coasts. This damn electoral system isn’t changing any time soon; we need to change the country instead.” (There is ample precedent, of course, in American history for such population transfers. Native Americans can relate chapter and verse about the Trail of Tears for instance; and one might plausibly view the KKK-prompted post-Reconstruction migration of African-Americans to regions distant from the Deep South in a similar light.)

The sheer audacity of this plan has injected new life into a party thought to be moribund in its political theory and praxis alike. In one fell swoop it will accomplish the following: place reliable Democratic voting blocs as fifth columns in Republican strongholds; beat the founding fathers at their own game; use the unwashed to triumph over the unwashed; and, of course, introduce multiculturalism to formerly monochromatic regions of the US. (San Antonio, San Diego, and many other Sans have too many taco trucks as it is; some of them could be profitably deployed in, for instance, the Florida Panhandle, the Mississippi Delta, and the prairies. Similar considerations apply to soul food–though not to hiphop.)

Objections to this plan have been restrained, an unsurprising turn of events for a nation preparing for an administration that is equal parts Barnum and Goebbels. Little cover will be needed to accomplish this, and indeed, little force will be too. The Democratic Party is counting on being able to sell this electoral strategy in much the same way it has sold its goods to its members for ever so long: if you do not comply, do not pack up bag and baggage and move to regions picked out by our data management consultants on the basis of calculations that have revealed where your presence will have the most electoral impact, you will be stuck with the Republican Party again.

Who could resist such an enticement?

The 2016 Elections: Chronicles Of A Disaster Foretold

In October 2008, I went door-knocking in Wilkes-Barre, PA–for the Barack Obama campaign. (Earlier, I had donated a total of $100 to the Obama campaign, making two contributions of $50 each.) I was assigned a map of a neighborhood, along with names and addresses and an indicator of whether earlier in the election season, the voter at the indicated address had said they would vote for Obama or not. I met a mixed bunch during my travels; some of those who opened their doors to me were friendly, some were brusque. (I did not bother visiting homes which bore a McCain-Palin sign outside.) On one occasion, I ran into a gentleman standing in his driveway, made a few initial queries, and then got down to inquiring into whether Barack Obama could rely on his vote in the upcoming election. He said yes, because he was sick of ‘things not changing around here’–but then almost immediately launched into a loud and vitriolic diatribe. Against Hillary Clinton–who was not a presidential candidate, having been defeated by Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.

It was all there–the standard elements of the critique of Hillary Clinton that American voters are used to hearing from ‘the right’: she’s untrustworthy, she lies, she’s a crook. As my interlocutor spoke, he grew visibly irate, waving his smoke-emitting lawn-mowing implement in my face. I came away shaken, having been made very aware of the fact that there were voters in this supposed ‘swing district’ in a ‘battleground state’ who were willing to vote for the Democratic Party’s candidate, but not for Hillary Clinton.

In 2012, I did not contribute money to the Obama campaign and neither did I go door-knocking; it did not seem like the campaign needed my help on either front. Like many others who had voted enthusiastically for Obama in 2008, I had felt some of my enthusiasm ebb; not enough hope and change I could believe in. I wondered whether Obama would take Pennsylvania again; he did. In the 2016 election season, I wondered again about that man in the driveway; I could sense there were others like him in that part of Pennsylvania; he was a recognizable member of an identifiable demographic. A working-class white man who had seen better days and was tired of waiting for ‘politicians’ to hear his voice. (My friend was wearing a baseball cap, natch, with a pick-up truck parked at home.)

Throughout this election season, over and above my expressed criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I remained uneasy about her deep and abiding unpopularity with large segments of the American electorate and with her visible identification by yet others as ‘part of the problem.’ In 2008, Obama had presented himself as the candidate of change; it had been easy to portray Hillary Clinton as a member of the establishment. Eight years on, Clinton had become ever more entrenched as a member of the establishment; when she ran in 2016, the best she could offer was ‘more of the same.’ To folks like that man in the driveway in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Donald Trump won the 2016 elections not just because of folks like that; he won because wealthy and upper-class whites voted for him too; he won because racism and sexism and xenophobia and chauvinism have not lost their power to seek out scapegoats and indict them for a host of crimes. He won because millions of voters who voted for Obama in the last two elections, could not bring themselves to, and indeed did not, vote for Hillary Clinton. Some of these voting predilections were visible early in the voting season; they formed the basis of the skepticism about her candidacy, and for some, the greater hope of the Bernie Sanders campaign. (Trump also won because of the vagaries of the American electoral system, which has been broken since time immemorial.)

Sanders’ primary win in Michigan indicated that: a) polls were not working as well as they might have been expected to b) Democratic strongholds and ‘bluewalls’ were not reliably so c) that in areas with economic downturns, job losses, and particular demographics (like Wilkes-Barre, PA) establishment candidates would suffer in comparison to ‘outsiders’ promising to shake up the ‘system.’ Very few seemed to care or listen; the Democratic Party was committed to getting its candidate across the finish line by any means necessary, including, if needed, the systematic denigration of the Sanders candidacy and the coalition that supported him. It was a fatal mistake.

The populist appeal of Sanders was lost, as was the energy and idealism of his campaign; those vital ingredients remained visible on the Trump side. The folks who attended Trump rallies all over the country were not any more racist or chauvinistic than the ones who came to McCain-Palin rallies in 2008, alarmed about the possibility of a black man with a Muslim middle name becoming president; they can be counted on reliably vote for the Republican candidate every four years. They were not the ones spelling trouble for the Democratic Party; the ones that were really the harbingers of electoral doom for the Clinton campaign were those who had thought change was coming in 2008 and 2012, who could not abide the thought of voting for an establishment that is now viewed as only concerned with its personal enrichment. The weight and power of party machinery would bring a candidacy for Hillary Clinton; it wouldn’t bring a presidency. It especially would not bring a presidency because there were some voters Clinton would never be able to persuade to vote for her, the ones who would unify any unease about a Trump candidacy into a solid anti-Clinton electoral bloc. In the last days of the election season, I had come to believe the polls myself and confidently predicted a win for Hillary Clinton; I had forgotten about that man in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

All has become ashes; American has elected a fascist to the presidency. Those who castigated the Sanders campaign for its lack of realism and chose to live with their own particular fantasy will be reconciled to this new state of affairs much more quickly than those who saw this disaster coming, and whose personal fates will be severely implicated in a Trump presidency.

A Trump Win And The First-Past-The-Post System

Every election cycle, we learn all over again, the bad news about ‘swing states’ and ‘undecided voters’ and ‘independents.’ There are ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ and then there are ‘states in play’: those electoral precincts in the nation whose demographics make their electoral outcomes uncertain. Every election cycle, the political candidates of the two parties concentrate their campaigns funds and energies on these states and their citizens. But it gets better: within those swing states, there are ‘swing districts’ (the others are reliably ‘red’ or ‘blue’.) And so we get an even finer-grained concentration of campaigning efforts on those districts; they receive the most attention in terms of speeches, door-knocking efforts etc. It turns out, bizarrely enough, that as a result of this nation’s first-past-the-post electoral system, an entire presidential election can be swung by the polling results of these districts–whose number runs to about thirty or forty.

From this rather bizarre fact some conclusions can be drawn:

  1. It does not matter if crucial demographic blocs like Hispanics despise Donald Trump; if they are not present adequate numbers in these swing states, they can huff and puff all they want, but they will not dent his chances. Every single Latino in California–a blue state–could vote for Clinton; it will not increase the number of electoral college votes California will give to her. (The anti-Trump Hispanic vote will, of course, affect the vote in red states like Texas and New Mexico and Arizona, but it is not clear that it will turn the state ‘blue.’)
  2. If red states and blue states retain their electoral color codes, the Trump-Clinton contest will come down to those swing states whose names we hear during most election seasons: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida etc. Here, Bernie Sanders supporters would do well not to vote for a third-party candidate. In resolutely blue states they may, if they choose, vote for a third-party candidate of their choice. (I did precisely this in 2012, in New York, where a win for Barack Obama was all but guaranteed.) An argument has made the rounds that even in ‘blue’ states Sanders supporters should vote for Clinton to grant her a mandate with adequate and appropriate authority, presumably to ride out the post-election fracas that will ensue with disgruntled Trump supporters, who will remain convinced the election was ‘stolen.’ (As I’ve noted previously, even a Clinton win means a very divided and fractious polity, one riven by the same bitter partisanship that led to many legislative logjams and parliamentary brinksmanship during the Obama years.) I do not know if this claim will have any traction with those Sanders supporters who imagine that such a mandate can only embolden Clinton to pursue precisely those misguided policies they most disagree with.

The dependence of the results of this most momentous election on just a handful of states and consequently, a handful of electoral districts, should make most reasonable folks quite nervous. It should also serve as a reminder that the American electoral system is deeply, deeply flawed. This is not news; but this might just be the year the nation pays its heaviest price yet for the poor design of a vital political institution.

Bernie Sanders’ Campaign And The First-Past-The-Post System

It is a truism in electoral democracies that the electoral system–the particular methodology used to convert the individual choices of voters into a composite social choice–is a key determinant of electoral outcomes. Does the system allow you to rank all candidates by order of preference or does it ask you to only pick one candidate, your favorite? Can you assign numerical weights to the candidates or only a simple rank? And so on. The American first-past-the-post system ensures that the candidates with the most votes–not necessarily a majority of the polled votes–wins. In the presidential elections–thanks to the electoral college–this means that a candidate can be elected president without securing a numerical majority of the so-called popular vote. It also means that particular states and electoral districts–the so-called ‘swing’ or ‘battleground’ states–acquire a disproportionate importance in the presidential elections.  This is why New York, which is expected to resolutely continue voting Democratic in the presidential election is steadfastly ignored on the campaign trail, while Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania received dozens of visits.

Thus, the supposed electability or unelectability of a particular candidate is not so much a matter of nationwide determination of that issue as much as it is a question of electability in particular states and particular electoral districts. In the past some analyses have suggested that a US presidential election can be swung, nationwide, by the polling results from as few as less than two dozen districts, scattered over a half a dozen states. In 2008 and 2012, part of the reason for the success of the Barack Obama campaign was a comprehensive statistical analysis of voting patterns and poll results that led to the campaign focusing its effort in precisely those states and those districts whose results would result in large numbers of electoral college votes going Obama’s way. (During the 2008 campaign, I spent a day knocking on doors in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was a swing district in a swing state; Obama won there, a crucial factor in his final win in Pennsylvania and his eventual victory.)

All of which is to say that the greatest strength of the Bernie Sanders campaign remains his energetic and enthusiastic supporter base. They are willing and prepared to do the hard yards–in the all-important zones of decision. Though Sanders has been criminally ignored by the media in comparison to the other candidates, a win or two in the primaries will force greater coverage of his campaign and in all probability increase his fundraising revenues. Those monies will play a crucial role in sustaining the passion of those who ‘feel the Bern.’ And the smarts acquired during the Obama campaign are theirs to draw upon as well.  Sanders’ greatest challenge lies in the Democratic primaries, in beating a candidate deemed ‘inevitable’; if he wins, the prospect of a Trump or Cruz presidency will galvanize his support–and its fringes–even more.  There is also the small matter of the fact that Sanders’ so-called ‘socialism’ has its own populist appeal, which will bring some Reagan Democrat-like voters back to the fold.

When the primaries are over, and the Democratic nomination is settled, some states will vote Democratic as they always have; some will vote Republican as they always do. The remaining states and their electoral districts will become the focus of the two parties’ campaigns; and the winner will be the one who has the hardest working campaign workers, concentrating and doubling down on their work in the places that ‘matter.’ Sanders’ campaign has an edge, in this regard, over every other candidate. Even Trump. I do not doubt that Hillary Clinton were she to be nominated, would command an enthusiastic campaign force; it is just that the talk of Sanders unelectability simply do not take the considerations raised above into account while talking about his chances.