We are nine years into an economic crisis which has critically challenged how publics, across the world, think about free markets, capitalism and globalisation. What began in 2007 as a crisis of the US mortgage market – and with it the solvency of many of the world’s largest banks – has since become one of public deficits, permanently lower growth and declining living standards. 2016 will be remembered as the year that crisis finally crystallised, becoming an outright revolt against globalisation and – from personal rights to changing demographics – often modernity itself.
For much of the last decade, such a revolt was foreseen as benefiting the politics of the radical left. After all, if anyone was going to undermine the Eurozone it was a Syriza government in Greece or a Podemos one in Spain. What was more, in a range of contexts – from Britain and France to north Africa and Wisconsin – there were moments where such a politics seemed on the up, both in its parliamentary and extra-parliamentary expressions.
But while the radical left has grown, and its arguments become increasingly credible in recent years, the first decisive blows against the existing order came not from it, but from the right. That started with the Brexit vote in June, and continued with the election of Donald Trump as US president early this morning. In both instances the political status quo was rejected. Its next major test is the French presidential election in May where Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, will fancy her chances after the mayhem of the previous 12 months.
It’s important to remember the crisis we are amid is not only one of economics and political representation, but also one of comprehension – literally making sense of one’s status in the world. For many voters in Britain, the United States and beyond, the old certainties of whiteness, homogeneity and nationally-closed economies are gone, with new ones replacing them. That means assumptions about the future being worse than the present – in my view absolutely correct – now sit alongside a flattened, incorrect view of the past significantly constituted by race and gender. The uncertainty of today – and a crisis of capitalism – gives licence to a politics of authoritarianism buttressed by a past that never was.
But even with all that, this was never meant to happen. The story? That the United States had decisively changed, that white male voters and over-45s no longer decided the presidency (the last time either did so, before Trump, was in 2004). For many, myself included, that was a consequence of strong shifts in US public attitudes as well as demographic trends which made minorities an ever larger percentage of the electorate. Those realities – mental and material – were the basis of a progressive arc which, as recently as this year, meant you could hear smart Republicans openly admitting not being able to compete for a decade or more. After all, women and minorities were the new majority, holding progressive views and thus overwhelmingly more likely to vote Democrat.
While that still may be the case, and those trends may hold in the long-term, we also need to accept Barack Obama’s candidacy – for a number of reasons – was historically unique. His coalition of the young, minorities and women was meant to guarantee a Democratic White House for a long time to come. Its basis was energy, possibility and, for want of a better word, a sense of insurgency. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, whatever her past accomplishments, didn’t match that. It turns out the Obama coalition wasn’t the inevitability of history, rather a rapidly changing world meeting the contingency of an exceptional politician.
In the coming days and weeks analyses will say Trump won because of a deluge of racism and misogyny. To some extent that’s true, but it’s also been an ever-present feature of American politics. If white male voters – or racists for that matter – decided elections, Obama never would have left Illinois, let alone reached the White House. For the success of Trump, more than the yearning for a different politics, more than hatred – was fed by the death of moderate, centrist politics. It was made possible by the erosion of what the Democrats had constructed in both 2008 and 2012.
It now looks highly possible that Trump will win fewer votes than John McCain achieved in 2008 and Mitt Romney four years later. Obama beat the former by almost 10m votes, the latter by 5m. The Republicans did not win this election – the Democratic party lost it. Here is how.
How Clinton lost: a failure to win minorities like Obama did.
Ahead of the vote the progressive media was keen to emphasise how, while Clinton wouldn’t win African-Americans like Obama did, she would more than make up for it among Hispanic voters. Her winning coalition would rhyme with, if not repeat, that of her predecessor.
And yet that didn’t transpire. Progressives couldn’t wish it into existence just because it sounded kind of possible or a nice, neat story.
Amazingly, exit polls indicate that Trump won a larger share of the Hispanic vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Four years ago Obama won that demographic 71-26, while Clinton took 65% last night. That might look impressive but given what was needed (and predicted) it was underwhelming. Perhaps less surprisingly, Trump also did better among African-Americans than Romney four years ago, winning 8% compared to 6% for the former Massachusetts governor (the result was 88-8, compared to 93-6 in 2012). It was the same story with Asian-Americans: Clinton only managed a 65-29 split compared to 73-26 for Obama the last time around.
While this sectioning of the US electorate by race may strike some as crude, it confers an important point: if you are going to win power on the basis of minorities, as Obama did, you have to win by massive majorities among them. Among Latinos in particular, Clinton failed to do that. For all the talk of racism and white supremacy powering the Trump vote – a variable for sure – if Clinton had won minorities like Obama was able to she could well have made the White House. She didn’t for a simple reason: she wasn’t a compelling candidate.
How Clinton lost (ii): a failure to win big with women voters.
Exit polls tell us the gender gap overall was the widest since 1976, with Clinton winning women by 12 points and Trump winning men by the same margin.
But probe a little deeper and the data tells a much more complicated story. Clinton only wins college educated white women by a margin of 51-45, not nearly as much as one would presume given a deluge of sexist scandals surrounding Trump throughout the campaign, especially in the final few weeks, and the fact Clinton would have been the first woman president. Even more astonishing, however, is how Trump won a massive 62% of non-college educated white women. While you might have expected a decent performance for a Republican contender among this group, this is a slap in the face to anyone who presumed Clinton would carry women voters by virtue of being, well, a woman.
As with Hispanics, Clinton’s underwhelming performance with college educated white women – who should have been among her biggest supporters – was almost certainly decisive in her losing. The majority was nowhere near what was expected or necessary.
How Clinton lost (iii): low-income voters moved Republican.
While the previous two points show how a Clinton rearguard mobilising her core support more powerfully could, in theory, have won her the presidency, it’s also important to recognise that the biggest swing to the Republicans was among low income earners.
While Clinton won 53% of votes for those earning less than $30k compared to 41% for Trump, that was still a 16-point swing to the Republican party. This wasn’t a ‘working class revolt’ – in the main poorer voters went Democrat – but it was a significant shift, and one that unfolded alongside higher-income earners going Democrat (a 9-point swing for those earning $100-199k, although a slight minority favoured Trump at 48% to 47%).
The shift to Trump among lower-income voters may have been even higher among the rust-belt states that ultimately decided this – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. We’d need to seen turnout and the relevant data, but if so, low-income earners did effectively swing the election for the winner; it may well have been a (white) working class revolt in the seats that really mattered.
Whichever way you look at it, Clinton lost this election more than Trump won it. The former secretary of state lost ground among vital parts of the 2012 vote – minorities, the young and low-income earners – while failing to perform among women as expected, particularly college graduates.
Did Trump make this weather? It doesn’t feel that way; rather he was well-placed to take advantage of a race that was always going to favour an insurgent with an anti-establishment message. Clinton was never going to be that candidate. Bernie Sanders or Liz Warren could have been. As commentator Richard Seymour wrote on Facebook: “Republican vote more or less static in this election. Democratic vote went down by SEVEN MILLION from 2012. Far from generating a record turnout, the likelihood is that Clinton did precisely demoralise a huge chunk of the Democratic base.” The Democratic party went backwards.
Two things. Firstly, from a British perspective, I’ve said before how Labour needs to imitate Obama’s electoral success by winning women, the young and minorities – and that a major increase in turnout is needed, particularly among the last two. Democratic victory in 2008 was based in no small part on increasing turnout 7% on eight years earlier. While that, uniquely, seems a plausible path to power for Labour, it must be recognised that it requires a powerful machine and a candidate, like Obama, who is able to connect with millions both rationally and emotionally. While I remain convinced that a socialist party could form a government in Britain – indeed it is more plausible now than ever in my lifetime – the right parts have to be there. In this respect, Jeremy Corbyn has yet to prove his mettle (this is a Herculean task). Trump’s victory should be a reminder to those of us on the British left about potential opportunities ahead, but also precisely what we have to do.
Second, Trump is conclusive proof that insurgents with a radical message wishing to break with globalisation can win. The Brexit vote was not an anomaly. For the left that could be hugely positive; yet the equivalent of Trump’s win in the UK is further success for Ukip – not impossible if issues with Article 50 emerge and Nigel Farage returns to lead the party. Last May’s 4m votes may not prove Ukip’s high point after all. Given what Trump has just achieved in the rust belt, nothing would be impossible in England’s north and midlands.
The new rules of winning are simple: offer a break with the status quo and connect both rationally and emotionally with voters. This does not reflect a shift to a ‘post-truth’ politics, rather it betokens how at times of crisis people need reassurance and a sense of collective agency – statistics and marketing speak can’t do that. This need for emotional connection means elections are no longer won from the centre – quite the opposite. What is more, current polling techniques can be limited.
Finally, it is clear the mainstream media no longer controls the narrative. This isn’t to say they can be dispensed with – Trump played them very intelligently – but rather what is needed is a constant ground campaign which integrates new media, events and an approach to the mainstream media that is agile and aims at generating news rather than responding to it. For Corbyn to have any chance of forming a government after the next election that would be my advice – and here in particular, Labour is nowhere near good enough.
It really is socialism or barbarism at this point. We need hope, sure, but a plan too – and energy in abundance. Unless you are on the front foot in the new politics, you lose. That’s the lesson of Clinton’s demise and Brexit.