Discover more from Slow Boring
How Hillary Clinton unleashed the Great Awokening
Time at last to refight the 2016 primary
The 2016 presidential election was obviously an important moment in American history. But one important aspect that I think remains somewhat under-discussed is that the cycle, starting with the primary campaign, put the Democratic Party into a kind of wormhole of misperception that it has been struggling ever since to come out from.
This is a high-level narrative about 2016 that you rarely hear but that I think is broadly true:
After eight years of Barack Obama serving in office, the national policy mood had — for predictable if somewhat mysterious thermostatic reasons — swung somewhat to the right.
Rather than running a candidate who promised to be somewhat more moderate than Obama, Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton on a platform of being somewhat more progressive than Obama.
Republicans, having lost twice in a row, nominated someone who agreed to abandon the conservative view on Social Security and Medicare while successfully fudging on dropping opposition to same-sex marriage.
This combination of ideological repositioning and thermostatic public opinion should have set the stage for a commanding GOP victory, but their candidate was scandal-plagued and incompetent, so Democrats came this close to winning.
The clear lesson for Democrats was to next time pander more aggressively to public opinion and for Republicans to nominate people with Trump-y issue-positioning but who are not scandal-plagued buffoons.
Instead, Democratic Party elites shifted leftward on policy while rank-and-file Democrats decided the most important thing was to nominate a white man, and Republicans convinced themselves that Trump was some kind of political magician.
Part of the issue here is that Democrats have consistently chosen to interpret the fact that Trump is a scumbag as indicating that Trump is an ideological extremist, when these are just different questions. But I think in some ways the bigger and more unconsidered issues have to do with how the 2016 primaries played out. In particular, Clinton got spooked by Bernie Sanders’ stronger-than-expected early showing and decided to respond by outflanking him to the left on social issues. I believe that this backfired and caused Sanders to do better with moderate Democrats than he otherwise would have done and also bolstered his popularity with the general electorate.
But both Clinton and Sanders seemingly believed that her efforts in this regard were highly effective.
After the primaries, the Sanders team decided they needed to outflank the establishment by moving even further left on identity issues, and the establishment decided that front-loading identity issues was their ticket to holding an incipient socialist takeover at bay. So while the question in the 2016 primary was something like, “should we move left on identity or on economics?” the answer ended up being, “let’s do both.”
Misreading the Iowa caucus
I’ve run this backfire theory past some people involved in BernieWorld, and they think that I’m wrong.
But I think I’m right. The context, you have to remember, is that for most of 2015 the Sanders campaign wasn’t a real presidential campaign. Everyone understood that the primary was a Clinton coronation after the progressive wing failed to persuade Elizabeth Warren to run. Bernie was running a nominal protest race to draw attention to his key issues and to pin Clinton down on a couple of points like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But then he somewhat unexpectedly caught fire with young people. In part because of the clarity of his vision, but also in part, I think, because Democratic Party leaders had a mass forgetting about how angry people were over the Iraq War.
People being upset that Hillary Clinton went along with Bush’s war was the key issue in the 2008 primary, and she lost. People who wanted to see a mainstream Democratic Party woman elected president should have remained mindful of this and put forward someone like Amy Klobuchar or Kathleen Sebelius or anyone who didn’t have this specific vulnerability. But they got sloppy and forgetful and closed ranks around someone with a huge, obvious weakness.
And it was then, when Sanders caught fire and essentially tied Clinton in the Iowa caucus, that she rolled out a new argument — not just that people should be excited about electing the first woman president but that Bernie Sanders’ economics-focused message was itself racist and sexist.
“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton said, kicking off a long, interactive riff with the crowd at a union hall this afternoon.
“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?”
“No!” the audience yelled back.
Clinton continued to list scenarios, asking: “Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”
Clinton also extensively hit Sanders from the left on gun regulation and started deploying academic jargon about intersectionality in her public-facing communications.
She went on to win the nomination thanks in large part to overwhelming support from Black voters, which I think superficially validated the idea that this strategy was effective.
But if you go by the numbers and take state demographics into account, Sanders’ performance in Iowa was weaker than in later states. That’s especially true when you consider that he consistently did better in caucus states than in primaries.
In other words, if Clinton could have put up Iowa-level numbers among white voters across the board, she would have done even better than she actually did.
My read of the situation is that by relentlessly hitting Sanders from the left on immigration, guns, race, and feminist issues, she made him the candidate of choice for many moderate white Democrats. If she’d stuck with a more conventional strategy, casting herself as a moderate Democrat in the Clinton-Obama mode and Sanders as a left-wing socialist who wanted to raise taxes too high, she would have done better with these voters.
And the perception that leftist rhetoric on race was key to her securing Black votes seems wrong to me.
Black Democrats are more moderate on average than white Democrats, because in-group identification1 causes middle-of-the-road white people to be Republicans while it causes Black people to be Democrats. So if you just put up a normal Democrat against a socialist, the normal Democrat will win the Black vote.
O’Malley would’ve won
By the end of the primary, Sanders had a considerably higher approval rating than Clinton, which led a lot of people to infer that Bernie would’ve won in November.
I think it is hard to know for sure what would have really happened had Sanders been the nominee, but I don’t think the inference is crazy. What I do think is crazy is refusing to see what Sanders’ strengths were:
No scandals related to emails or buckraking speeches.
No vulnerabilities related to Iraq and NAFTA.
Clinton’s attacks from the left on immigration, race, gender, and guns made Sanders look more moderate.
In a binary comparison between Sanders and Clinton, these were very real strengths.
But in terms of broader lessons about American politics, all that follows from this is that Martin O’Malley would’ve won. Or Amy Klobuchar would’ve won. Or Cory Booker would’ve won. Bernie Sanders is an idiosyncratic politician with a lot of politically unpalatable positions (we need a huge tax increase to finance Medicare for All, we should shut down oil and gas fracking) that weren’t really litigated during the primary and wound up not being a strong part of his public persona. Nothing about the 2016 race suggested that adopting those ideas — as opposed to avoiding Clinton’s idiosyncratic weaknesses — would be a good idea.
There were, however, some in Sandersworld who shared my view that his positioning on identity issues was correct.
And you saw gestures in that direction in 2017 when he campaigned for a pro-life Democrat in Nebraska or even as late as 2019 when he was still going negative on open borders in terms that suggested a broader sympathy for immigration-skeptical views.
Broadly, though, as he geared up to run in 2020 his team abandoned this strategy and decided that in addition to being to the left of the establishment on economics, he needed to get left on identity. So he flip-flopped on gun issues, came out for abolishing ICE, and decided we should decriminalize illegal border crossings.
Defeatism about women
Donald Trump is, as a human being, a total piece of shit.
And the fact that somebody like that could ascend to the White House came as an unsettling shock to people who voted against him. Surely there should have been a penalty for his abhorrent conduct over the years?
It’s important for everyone to understand that all indications are there really was a penalty. Based on “the fundamentals,” you would have expected a Republican to win the popular vote in 2016. And based on the fact that Trump moved the GOP left on Social Security, Medicare, and some gay rights issues while Clinton shifted the Democrats left, you would have expected him to win big.
At the highest level, the striking thing about Trump is that he lost the popular vote even though people saw themselves as ideologically closer to him than to Clinton.
That’s a pretty straightforward story in which people looked at Trump and looked at Clinton and decided, rightly, that she was a much saner, more thoughtful, more qualified leader on balance.
But denialism about the ideological element of the race led people to believe, wrongly, that voters preferred Trump on personal qualities and that this could only be explained by overwhelming sexism. Indeed, in a weird way the standard feminist takeaway from 2016 became that America is so shot-through with sexism that any woman running for office would face nearly insurmountable obstacles. There is obviously sexism in the world, and when a woman does something high profile, she is bound to face sexist attacks. But I don’t think there’s any general evidence that women underperform in electoral politics, and there’s every reason to think Clinton would have won the election if she’d positioned herself as a bit of a moderate (“Clintonian,” one could say) alternative to Obama rather than promising to drive things further to the left.
Heck, Trump was such an unpopular scumbag that she almost certainly would have beaten him if not for the bizarre email saga or for the fact that she’d backed the Iraq War and NAFTA long ago.
Conversely, if instead of Trump the Republicans had nominated a sane, normal person who also disavowed the most unpopular elements of the Ryan/Romney agenda, he would have won handily. Either of those outcomes would have avoided creating the impression that the world was somehow turned upside down and generations of conventional wisdom about the role of ideology and issue-positioning in politics needed to be thrown out the window.
Racism, if you want to be rude about it.