Clues To The Election: An Amateur Analysis
November 24, 2016
I am no political scientist. Rather, I’m an amateur but passionate observer of our national political Thanksgiving Day family dinner food fights. Most everyone I know and read was surprised by the presidential election results two weeks ago, pundits, partisans and politicos alike. “What happened?” we seem to be asking. I certainly do not know, but when I face a question this complex, I prefer to try to break it down into plausible answers, something of a whiteboard brainstorm. At the same time, I have studied enough history to know that there are never single-issue causes for anything and that historical “truth” is always a patchwork. I am not equipped to fully explore every one of these possible influences on the 2016 presidential election, but I suggest each one played some role, smaller or greater, in the outcome. I welcome your comments, critiques and additions.
I believe each of these–in no ranked order–influenced the outcome of the voting:
1. We witnessed the most effective personal smear campaign in our history. The conservatives kept up a steady media attack on Hillary Clinton since the early 1990’s. A professional, educated and powerful woman with real policy chops and experience posed an existential threat to the RNC. They saw her coming and said and did whatever they needed to, truthful or not, to damage and disparage her. Even Gingrich restored his shine. Today, actual discussions are ongoing considering David Petraeus for top-level sensitive roles, despite his having been actually convicted of security leaks to his mistress. But Clinton was a house slipper in the Republican dogs’ mouths. An epic takedown. AS despicable a dirty trick as could be imagined. This was political, but I believe at its core it was misogyny.
2. Clinton was neither a great campaigner nor a warm and accessible public figure. Even liberals had to cringe often. Her actual platform was the most progressive ever, having been pulled left by the Sanders campaign, but she failed to connect us with it. She failed to relate to people left out of changing technologies and economies. She committed verbal gaffes that set her back, from her “deplorables” comment to telling us the truth about the looming death of old-style coal production. We were not ready for that much truth. I live in a very blue congressional district. In 2008 and 2012, we saw thousands of Obama-Biden yard signs and bumper stickers. People were proud. This year, they were very hard to find. Folks here voted for Clinton, but did not want to be known for that.
3. Dynasty fatigue. To some extent, voters are tired of the Bush family and the Clinton family. Even the Corleone family might have looked enticing to some. Clinton was seen as being an extension of the Obama administration, true or not, and voters simply wanted something new. Even a child in a man suit.
4. The right wing “truth factory” executed flawlessly. From InfoWars to Breitbart to Fox News and other political dumpsters of the fever swamps of the far right, the lies spilled forth like toxic sewage, too fast to check or vet, one after another. As a propaganda campaign it was brilliant but utterly evil. The Clinton campaign (and all campaigns, for that matter) played fast and loose with truth too, but our Pulitzer Prize-winning fact check resource at the Tampa Bay Times gives the platinum, gold, silver and bronze awards to Trump by a whopping margin. Fake news sites, innuendo, and a robotic parade of sound-bite-shouting surrogates kept the barrage of bullshit in the daily spotlight. This does not bode well for the future of fact-based, intelligent campaigns. The Republicans created a blueprint for subsequent campaigns that allows them to gloss over or obscure fact and rely on prevarication.
5. An uninformed electorate swallowed the fire hose of lies, wholesale. It is debatable among historians whether or not Lincoln made the statement about how often one can fool whom. But clearly, a lot of people were fooled a lot of the time this cycle. So many voters, when interviewed, based their preference for Trump on notions that could easily be debunked or outright refuted. Many voters distrust any media, experts, historians, recorded prior statements, books or reason. What they do trust is suspect and questionable. It’s easy, and, I suggest, unfair, to dismiss these voters a being ignorant, people who, otherwise, in their personal lives, are shrewd and intuitive. What makes people dispense with critical thinking and facts during elections and look the other way at behaviors we wouldn’t allow in our kids?
6. An impotent fourth estate nursed at the ratings and ad revenue teat and only finally woke up in October. Too late. Les Moonves of CBS said, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” in reference to the wink-and-a-nod media financing of the early Trump campaign. Jeff Zucker of CNN, Stephen Burke of NBC and other media CEO’s are complicit in selling out any practice of “equal time” for their own profits. I understand these are for profit entities and Moonves and the rest have a duty to their shareholders. But they also have responsibility as the fourth estate, which they traded for a fleeting handful of gooey quarters. It is a sad day when we need to look to the UK (The Guardian, BBC, The Economist and the Financial Times) for reliable news about the US. Shame. Shame. Shame.
7. All of us lacked any semblance whatsoever of intellectual rigor. When did we hear reporters diving deeper into candidate claims? “So, please detail exactly how China stole our jobs and how you will single-handedly bring them back? Please show your work.” More jobs, like lower taxes, are a dog whistle that never requires reason or details. Dozens, if not hundreds of claims that were outlandish or untrue stood without a challenge. Untenable plans and programs survived because no one asked specifically how they would work, despite a seemingly endless parade of “debates”, interviews and punditry . Today, sixteen days after the election, we are seeing that many of these promises were merely fleeting ad copy, or sheets of self-destructing gossamer bullshit, meant to inflame and enrage the gullible and gain votes. The Trump campaign has walked back a handful already, including “lock her up”, eliminating the ACA, abandoning the Paris accords, the effectiveness of torture and more, by the day. The candidate knew it was nonsense, but counted on his base to follow, confidant they would either give him latitude or would not be paying attention.
8. Hardline partisans would vote for a Republican corpse over a Democrat. I mean you, Kasich, Rubio, Cruz, McCain, McConnell, Ryan and the rest, spineless appeasers all.
9. Many new (and older) voters were inspired by Bernie Sanders’ bid. I was. Many of us, in my view, are politically inexperienced and have not lived long enough to know political change takes time, moves slowly, requires compromise and that, yes, we must prepare to swallow incrementalism. When McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy ran in 1968, many of us anticipated our little revolution was truly about to take flight. Getting behind Humphrey against the clear and present danger of Nixon was treason, even though ending the war was at stake. We shot ourselves in the foot. Then we pitched a Weatherman fit.
10. Conservatives continued to flog the idea of in-person voter fraud, despite overwhelming research debunking any widespread incidence of it. One could see this as a bait-and-switch to distract from actual, systematic and coordinated voter suppression in a number of states. These practices have been ongoing for years, and have been perfected by Republicans (who, mathematically and demographically have the most to lose if citizens vote in large numbers). Scott Walker turned this into an art in Wisconsin, and he is joined by North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Ohio and a total of twenty-two states that took legal measures to make it more difficult for US citizens to vote in 2016. Meanwhile, in Colorado, Oregon and Washington State, voting is as easy as registering one’s automobile by mail.
11. Third parties certainly had an effect on the election, likely pulling votes from both candidates. I do not anticipate the same vitriol that was aimed at Ralph Nader in 2000, and I have not yet seen any real analysis or polling of third-party voters asking who they would have voted for if there had only been two choices. It is unclear who may have benefitted. But a few votes this way or that…
12. Russia, Assange and the FBI played a role favoring Trump and the investigative work has only just begun. In today’s Washington Post, Craig Timberg reported, “The flood of ‘fake news’ this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation. Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.” And, what is Assange’s angle? Who are his allies? Was Comey merely hapless or a soldier? Is there a “master puppeteer”? I see a film in Fall 2017 starring Clooney, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton.
13. The anachronistic Electoral College once again contravened the popular vote, raising questions about its usefulness. Secretary Clinton won more popular votes than any man in our history, and as of this writing, she leads Trump by roughly two million votes, a greater margin than JFK in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Carter in 1976 and GW Bush in 2000. The “College” was created in 1787 to solve a problem of undue influence among the states, but created a ticking time bomb of anti-democracy that’s exploding today. It has been well-covered in the press, but the effective electoral power of a voter, for example, in Wyoming (three electors for a population of 582,658 citizens, or one elector for every 194,219 voters) outweighs a voter in California by nearly 3.6 to 1, with California having 55 electors for a population of 36,332,571 citizens, with one elector for every 696,954 Californians. My California friends said many times their vote doesn’t count. How right they are.
14. This election, we all got to see our civic selves staring back at us from the American Mirror. Apart from the understandable anger and alienation of “flyover state” workers left out of the tech boom, the changes in energy production and the “knowledge economy”, we had to come face-to-face with the real, true, racist and nationalist fringe, who we discovered were a larger and more virulent bunch than we had thought. Many citizens were shocked, assuming we had “dealt with all that” already. Trump did not create this white power movement, but he shamelessly mined and exploited it, fanning the flames of bigotry and hate. It remains to be seen how this block will react when Trump reneges on his most hateful promises and these voters realize they were duped and they elected the consummate insider and plutocrat who has no intention of draining any swamps or rounding up anyone other than more billionaires for his cabinet or inviting them to come play golf and enjoy his twenty-four course Thanksgiving feast.
15. Last, and I suggest, possibly most influential among distinct influences on the election outcome is the number of eligible voters who elected to have no direct influence whatsoever. While this election’s turnout percentage is not the lowest, it remains a deplorable 55% or so. Pew Research has the US at number 27 among democracies in terms of voters per eligible populations, with Belgium leading at 87% of eligible voters in 2014. Perhaps if we had better beer folks would turn out? No studies I have seen yet analyze and report for whom those citizens would have voted, had they bothered. But I would feel so much better, even if my positions lost out, if most of us participated.
I welcome your comments, disagreements, debate and discussion. Please subscribe and join the discussion, if you have well-developed opinions, new research, or cogent arguments from the gut or just a well-thought-out reaction. If you flame and run, you’ll be sent to your room.
Excellent analysis, Geoff, as per your usual.
I find the most important of these factors is #5. An “uniformed electorate” is at the root of most of our frustrations. I recall my Marketing class in the early 1970’s where the professor would not back down on supporting the “Modern Marketing Concept”, which essentially argued that consumers have the final say. We students at that time were arguing that corporations create demand in order to sell products they want to sell. But, if we didn’t accept bullshit advertising or didn’t want GMO food, we simply don’t buy it (Modern Marketing Concept). If we don’t buy the products produced (or the shady advertising promoting them), the producers will quickly adapt and produce what we will buy.
It’ the same with our political life. But, in this case we can flip it around a bit by pointing out “we get who/what we voted for”. You’re absolutely right about the dirty tricks crap pulled by the politicos, the lack of integrity, the media moguls chasing dollars over journalistic responsibility. But, in the end, it worked because we have too many voters who lack basic education in how the world works today (e.g. protectionism reduces standards of living rather than enhancing them, and demonizing a specific group of people is a trick used successfully by many fascists and dictators over the ages, with typically horrific results – can you say “World War II”?).
I also recall our high school experience with our man Mick O’Bryan, the teacher who preached critical thinking skills above all else. His training included having us go outside the classroom and actively participate in the local political landscape, learning how to get the local media to tout our “message”, which we concocted (“Look at the nice high school kids cleaning up the downtown vacant lots of garbage”) in order to achieve our real goal (a paid excursion to the mountains for 2 days to ostensibly further our environmental clean-up campaign by clearing brush and building new trails in the forest-fire ravaged woods in central Washington). We were organized; we divided up the tasks, with only a minority of our team doing the actual clean-up while the majority worked on messaging, media relations, and planning. Not unlike what we see having occurred in this election.
A friend of mine attended a talk in Seattle given by Bill Clinton around the year 2000. His biggest takeaway from Clinton’s speech was his reply to the question “What can we truly do about the problems in the Middle East?” Answer – education. Clinton advocated that night a program based on the Peace Corps concept. Send everyday folks to live with local people in the Mideast. Ground-level relationships get formed, with both sides learning much about each other. Build some infrastructure together, learn a lot of language and culture and world-perspective. Overcome social/cultural blocks, or at a minimum expose more locals to a realization that much of that stuff is changeable, by them.
Education trumps political manipulation, gerrymandering ploys, surface-level messaging, plans without detail, and non-participation. I would suggest we commit ourselves to taking a play from Mick O’Bryan and Bill Clinton, realizing we “have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us”. Let’s coax, cajole, invite, and welcome our fellow citizens who either didn’t participate November 8th or made an uniformed electorate choice that day to join us in seeking a more educated/informed citizenry. Let’s look behind or underneath the initial message or pitch to better understand why such a pitch is being made, to whom and by whom, and whether the likely delivery in the end will even be feasible, legal, or even pursued by the person/entity pitching their pitch.
The other piece you’ve cited that I really see as being where we the people can and should take action is the Electoral College. A Seattle Times article the other day pointed out that it’s now feasible that a group of low-population states that account for just 17% of the country’s population could mathematically elect a majority in the US Senate. Much the same is true in the House. The Electoral College needs to go in favor of Majority Rules.
I’m coming to feel that a little silver lining may be found in this debacle. Our country’s electoral history is certainly about pushing forward for a while with progressive change, then falling back for a while. Perhaps, the severity of this potential “fallback” period will arouse a robust and growing movement to push forward even stronger with what we believe is real progress. I hope so.