Why did the Democrats Lose?

While asserting “Trump won” or “Hillary lost” might seem to say the same thing, they actual differ in meaningful ways. The view that Trump won is the stance that he achieved victory by overcoming Hillary, presumably by doing the right things. To use a running analogy, this would be like a runner beating another by being able to outkick her at the end.

The view that Hillary lost is the perception that she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by doing the wrong thing and thus she lost. Using a running analogy, this would be like a runner showing off and tripping because he was not paying attention, thus losing the race that he would have otherwise won.

A pragmatic person might say that there is no real difference between winning by winning and winning by the other person losing—the winner still wins. While this pragmatic approach does have appeal, the difference does matter when it comes to sorting out what went wrong, what went right and what needs to be done next time. It could also be contended that both approaches are right and wrong: Trump did win by winning but also won by Hillary losing.

Regardless of which view is taken, there is the assumption that there are broad reasons for the results that can be determined and used in planning the next race. While this assumption is probably correct, it is worth considering that elections might be analogous to fads, such as the hottest toy for Christmas or the latest fashion. Trying to find the cause and reproduce it is likely to be a fool’s errand; if this could be done then producing the next fad would be a science rather than a matter of luck. It is also well worth considering that there are a vast number of contributing factors that influenced various voters and that efforts to provide a broad causal explanation must fail because there is no broad causal explanation—just an abundance of individual explanations. Having made these points, I will sweep them aside and speculate about some likely broad causes.

Pundits and experts have already put forth various hypotheses as to why Hillary lost and Trump won. One consistent narrative is that many voters were looking for someone from outside Washington to bring about change. This narrative is supported by the claim that some who had voted for Obama last time switched to Trump this time—these could be regarded as change voters. Another consistent narrative is that Hillary could never stake the email server vampire in the heart; it kept rising from the grave to drain the blood from her campaign.

There are also explanations that rest on the assumption that voters are bad fact-checkers, poor at reasoning and do not operate based on consistent application of principles for decision making. For example, Hillary was condemned as crooked and dishonest by people who praised Trump for telling it like it is, despite the objective fact that Trump was relentless in his untruths and is scheduled to go on trial for Trump University. As another example, Hillary was also attacked for being an elite insider by people who praised Trump for being a man who cares about the working class, despite Trump being part of the elite economic class who has routinely been sued for not sticking to contracts. On this view, Trump won because he is a better deceiver than Hillary. So, the lesson for the next time would be to run the best deceiver that can be found.

There are also explanations that Trump won because of racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Even members of his own party condemned many of his remarks as racist and sexist. He has also won the hearts of the Klan, white nationalists and American Nazis. After the 2012 Republican defeat, some of the analysis indicated that the Republicans would need to either expand their appeal to minorities or double down on getting the white vote. Some speculated it would not be possible to win without a broader appeal. Trump, by accident or design, embraced doubling down on the white vote and won. To be fair, he also did surprisingly well beyond the white vote. The question is, of course, how long that strategy will work—the United States is on course to becoming a majority minority nation. I suspect that active voter suppression of minorities and inspired gerrymandering can extend white dominance, but eventually these methods will be overcome by demographic change. That said, white voters will be a critical demographic for a long time and failing to capture the white vote would not bode well for a candidate. There are, of course, alternative explanations to why Trump did so well with white voters (or why Hillary did so poorly).

While some find the racism and xenophobia hypothesis appealing, it can be argued that many white voters were not motivated by race. Pundits like to point out that Obama won many of the same voters that went over to Trump. While it might be naïve of me, I certainly believe most of my fellow Americans are not racist xenophobes, additional explanations are needed.

One reasonable explanation is that the Democrats have made matters of race and gender, such as police treatment of minorities and same-sex marriage, flagship issues. This is not to say that the Democrats have completely ignored issues that are especially important to white voters, just that there is a public perception that the party elites are more interested in bathroom access for transgender people than with the economic woes of white workers or the drug epidemic impacting whites.

It could be objected that people who take the above view are misguided: whatever problems whites have (especially straight white males) pale in comparison to the woes of non-whites (especially non-straight non-whites). Hence, paying special attention to these groups is justified. In accord with this view, whites, males and straight people are often told to “check their privilege” and called to task for daring to complain about their lot.

This reply does have some appeal. In general, white people are better off than non-white people, men are generally better off than women, and straight folks typically face less woes than non-straight folks. However, there two main concerns here. The first is that while it is true that those in the advantage groups (white, straight, male) do generally have things better, they still face very real problems. As citizens, they have every right to expect these real problems to be taken seriously and addressed. There is also the purely practical matter—it would be irrational for voters to vote for candidates who they think will not act to address their problems.

To use an analogy in medicine, a person with a broken arm could stand in for the problems of white people while a person with multiple serious injuries could stand in for the disadvantaged groups. While it is true that the person with the serious injuries would take precedence under triage and merit more attention, it would be wrong to dismiss the person with the broken arm and fail to give the injury due attention.

It could be objected that the analogy is not accurate and that a better one would be to replace the person with the broken arm with a hypochondriac who thinks he is suffering terribly, but is not really suffering at all. Moving away from the analogy, the idea would be that the advantaged groups are complaining about a loss of unjust advantages and wailing over imagined harms; they are complaining about nothing.

The reasonable reply is that this is true is some cases—many of the most vehement complaints are about the “cruel injustices” of not being able to discriminate or retain unfair advantages. However, even those in the advantaged groups face real problems such as unemployment, drug abuse, depression and so on. As such, perhaps a new analogy is in order involving the person with the broken arm standing in for those with real problems and the hypochondriac standing in for those whining about losing their unfair advantages and license to discriminate.

The second overall concern here is that telling people to “check their privilege” and attacking them in other ways can do more harm than good. For example, such attacks can turn off potential allies. While it is certainly legitimate to call out people who fail to recognize their privilege and to criticize people for discriminating, it is wise to consider the context and consequences of such approaches.  I will use an anecdote to illustrate the problem.

When I was in graduate school, I was living on my meager TA stipend and surviving on a diet of ramen noodles and rice puff cereal. I also got good at sewing my clothes to make them last longer. I was on my own financially, which is something I accepted as part of being an adult. I recall a friend and I being lectured about male privilege by two female students from upper-class families. I vaguely recall that one had been vacationing on the family yacht recently.

As a philosopher, I know that rejecting arguments about male privilege because very privileged women were making them to very unprivileged men would be to fall into an ad hominem fallacy (to reject a claim or argument because of irrelevant qualities of the person making the claim or argument). However, I certainly resented being lectured in this way. I did, of course, recognize that women in general face more obstacles and injustices than men generally face. However, this did nothing to address my worries about scraping together enough money to pay rent and buy food—there were many times I went hungry so I could pay my other bills. While I did go on to become a professor with a steady income, I remember those times and I am aware that there are many white males who are currently financially insecure. Lecturing them in male privilege or white privilege will not win them over. I suspect that some feel they are being lectured by the elite of the Democratic party and they resent this. Not because they are racist or sexist, but because such lectures are insulting and insensitive. While the Democrats should stay involved with the causes of their preferred disadvantaged groups, they also need to sincerely address the concerns of those in the advantaged groups—especially since many in these groups are extremely disadvantaged relative to the liberal elites.

 

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  1. Why did the Democrats Lose? | D!SRUPT - pingback on November 23, 2016 at 8:12 am
  2. Thank you, Mike.

    You do the entire profession of philosophy proud.

  3. Mike LaBossiere,

    “just that there is a public perception that the party elites are more interested in bathroom access for transgender people than with the economic woes of white workers or the drug epidemic impacting whites.”

    The public perception is correct, but there is a lack of understanding of what the game was all about.

    Becoming a party elite carries with it material rewards. These rewards tend to effect the thinking of the elite; they feel deserving, entitled, and they become greedier. The consensus among political elites both left and right, was that they were very deserving people, who deserved even more. So, same sex marriage and who gets to use toilets, seemed like epic battles where society was either winning or losing something. Republicans could appear to be fighting their peoples’ corner, but they were being economically regressive masking their supporters poorer. The Democratic party, could appear socially progressive, while just like the Republicans being economically regressive.

    The public do not understand how all the magic is done. Under Obama, the Federal reserve gifted more than five trillion dollars to the richest 1%. The 99% got nada.

  4. Well summarized. Viva filosofia.

  5. Mike, I thought this essay was a bit less focused than your usual, as if you are working things out as you write, but like JMRC I was also struck by the sentence “there is a public perception that the party elites are more interested in bathroom access for transgender people than with the economic woes of white workers or the drug epidemic impacting whites”.

    These are clearly two separate things, linked only by the economics of communication: a limited number of messages can be sent, and the choice of which messages to send is itself a message.

    Looking at the states that flipped from Democrats to Republicans, the economic woes of the blue-collar workers, regardless of colour, seem a sufficient explanation for the change in voting pattern. The Republicans made the retention and return of manufacturing jobs a priority in their message, but the Democrats didn’t. (I read during the campaign that Bill Clinton advised that the Democrats should, but obviously was not sufficiently heeded.)

    I am also struck by “the Democrats should stay involved with the causes of their preferred disadvantaged groups”. There are many ways to be disadvantaged. The Democrats, in their messages in this election, selected two – race and gender issues – as their preferred two. While reasonable people may feel that these issues deserve attention, they may also feel that other areas of disadvantage deserve a share of attention as well. Changes in voting patterns showed that even females and non-whites were less impressed with their “preferred disadvantaged” status than they might have been.

    Looking at it from across the pond, I don’t have the same sense of zeitgeist that Americans have. However, I have at least somewhat followed every US presidential race since Reagan. I’m no expert, but I will make two observations. I have never before seen two candidates I so deeply disliked and distrusted in the same race, and I have been wrong more often than not in my expectation of how a presidency will turn out. That second observation gives me hope.

  6. True; the elite are playing a different game than then the many.

  7. Most Americans are with you in regard to your observations. Like you, I hope that Trump will be far less bad than predicted. He seems to have no ideology beyond self-interest; which could be good. Or very bad. I also hope that this adventure in disliked candidates encourages better people to run. However, there are some serious obstacles. One is that a person must already be well known. Another is that they must be able to ignore their usual job and responsibilities for a long time and have the means to be able to afford to do so. This really depletes the pool.

  8. “Well known”, “be able to ignore their usual job and responsibilities for a long time and have the means to be able to afford to do so”

    … could we look forward to a Trump vs. Oprah match-up next time? 🙂

  9. That would be a step down for Oprah. 🙂

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