Us liberals got crushed in 2016. And no, it wasn’t all because of Russian hacking, FBI meddling, or third-party candidates (even though, in part, it was). This past election was the left’s to lose, and it lost it. Internalizing this loss and realizing how we are at fault is paramount for the left if it is to move forward and take back the government in the future. The time for blame-games is over. The answer is in the mirror. I’m challenging liberals to look deep into their ethos and history to see the true political and economic factors at play in Trump’s victory.
Let’s see if we can recognize a pattern in the last four presidential victories. Bill Clinton, a southern Democratic outsider who promised to shake up the conservative political establishment. George W. Bush, a folksy Texan (perceived as an) outsider who promised to shake up the liberal political establishment. Barack Obama, a young, black Democratic outsider who promised to shake up the conservative political establishment. Donald Trump, an orange, bombastic outsider who promised to shake up the liberal political establishment. Every single presidential candidate who has won since the ’90s was perceived as a political outsider. Each winner symbolized change from the previous political order, tipping the political teeter-totter back in his party’s direction.
Now let’s look at the losers: incumbent President George H. W. Bush, incumbent Vice President Al Gore, established political figure John Kerry, experienced Arizona senator John McCain, established Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, and possibly the most politically experienced candidate in American history—Hillary Clinton. Notice a pattern here? Each presidential loser was an accepted part of the established political order.
Joining these two patterns into one clarifying narrative, we see that a candidate representing change won every single race in the last 25 years, each time defeating a candidate representing the establishment. Of course, every presidential race has its particularities and nuances, but it is clear that the American people have rejected the political system again and again. The most influential force in modern American politics has been anger toward the established political order.
This pattern played out yet again last November. There were many counties that voted for Obama twice and then switched to Trump. These people aren’t crazy or stupid. Rather, they are rational people trapped in a situation beyond their control.
What motivations lie behind this bizarre behavior? Why would someone vote for a candidate as liberal as Obama and then vote for a xenophobic demagogue? The answer lies in the eroding American economy. The average American has not seen a rise in their wages since 1979, while wealth has been funneled to the top 1 percent. This wage stagnation is more than just a faceless fact. Wage stagnation means that the lives of millions of families aren’t improving and haven’t improved in 35 years. Wage stagnation pits families against the narrative of the American Dream, fostering desperation, anger, and resentment toward the political and economic system that created their frustrating reality.
And while so-called “change candidates” have come and gone, each one perpetuated and fortified the stagnant status quo as president, regardless of party. Bill Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall (which regulated against the reckless trading that crashed the economy in 2007). Bush drastically cut taxes on the richest Americans. Obama made 82 percent of these tax cuts permanent. If you look at economic policy, the last three administrations appear nearly identical, each one perpetuating the same destructive “trickle-down-economics” the country has enjoyed since Reagan. Thus, the voters who hoped for change are betrayed when the same rigged economic system is allowed to continue. In the following election, they search again for the candidate who promises to end their economic malaise. And after each broken promise, more people give and become another one of the nearly 50 percent of eligible American citizens who don’t vote.
Seen through this broader lens, Trump is not an anomaly, but simply another vapid “change candidate.” He’s the false promise to change an economic system that has been bleakly stagnant for an entire generation.
Of course, Trump will perpetuate the status quo like his predecessors. He’s already shown that in his extremely pro-corporate policy initiatives thus far. When his supporters inevitably abandon him (not that he has many left with an disapproval rating of 45 percent) and as America’s economic woes continue, the Democrats need to be ready to strike. But how?
Liberals need to remember their history: members of the political establishment lose races. Hillary Clinton lost because she epitomized the accepted political order. Just like Gore, Kerry, and Romney, Hillary represented more of the same in a country that was begging for something radically different.
The political pendulum continues to destabilize, though. In order to appeal to these disenfranchised voters, candidates need to become more and more “different.” We will see candidates crazier (i.e. more racist, sexist, and overtly fascist) than Trump in the future, because politics has become a competition to appear the most outside the political establishment.
Instead of offering a false promise of change from a political insider, Democrats need to run honest candidates that don’t take a dollar from the corporate establishment at the heart of America’s economic system. The party should address the root cause of America’s grave economic disease and offer a different economic approach, learning from the failed policies over the past 25 years. Capitalism’s propensity is toward toxic inequality that can and must be addressed with bold governmental policy to strengthen unions, raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, break up large financial institutions, promote democratizing the workplace through worker co-ops, and revitalize social programs that help impoverished families get back on their feet. It is time for the Democratic Party to stop the ‘trickle-down-economics-lite’ that has been peddled for way too long, and to finally become the party of the middle class that it claims to be.
Unless, of course, the country wants more of the same political teeter-totter it’s been riding for the last 25 years. Then, by all means, let’s ride and ride until the sun sets on our fragile democracy.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Staff