Donald Trump’s narrow victory in the presidential election is a self-inflicted national disaster of historic proportions, but it’s also a massive wakeup call and rallying cry to progressives. The fact that the Democrats could not manage to elect the first woman president and build on the legacy of Barack Obama, even when faced with an opponent who is a bigoted, repellent, narcissistic con man who was massively unpopular with all of the major swing vote demographics…well, it’s a crushing example of the failed hubris of the Democratic Party’s national leadership.
Democrats need to clean house at the top. Get rid of the DNC insiders who cleared the field for Hillary and tried to rig the primary process so she would be anointed as the heir apparent presidential nominee. Democrats need to move beyond the Clintons. They need a new generation of leadership with a populist message of shared economic prosperity and love of diversity.
But at the same time, let’s not overreact: this was not a landslide win or even a clear mandate for Trump and the sinister forces he represents. Hillary won MORE VOTES than Donald Trump. With just a few percentages of voter turnout going differently in a few states, we would all be celebrating today. Democrats don’t need to burn everything down—they just need to retool, refocus, and next time nominate a candidate who isn’t viewed as so untrustworthy and unlikable by so many voters.
The Democrats need to reconnect with their natural constituencies of young voters and working class voters and black and Latino and Asian voters, and re-energize the base of the Obama coalition; Trump benefited from slightly higher white male turnout, and shame on them, but Hillary actually did worse than expected among white women and among black and Latino voters. (NOTE: I’m not “blaming” minority voters for Trump’s win; I’m saying that the fault lies with the Democratic Party for not giving our most loyal voters more of a reason to show up and vote.) There was an enthusiasm gap in this election; the same groups of voters who showed up excited to elect Obama in 2008 and 2012 were less excited to vote for Hillary. Trump seems to have had more angry white people turn out who were really, really excited to vote for him, and they gave him just enough of an edge in just enough states to tip the election. Meanwhile, lots of progressives had to talk themselves into feeling good about voting for Hillary.
I personally did not get involved with Hillary’s campaign like I should have; I didn’t volunteer to make calls to undecided voters, I didn’t knock doors in my neighborhood. I guess I was just busy and complacent and feeling like the prospect of a Trump presidency was not “real” enough; surely her lead would hold in the polls, right? Surely America wouldn’t actually go through with this? All the smart people were saying that Trump was doomed (although Nate Silver warned us that the polls were tighter and more uncertain than people expected, and that a narrow Trump win was within the margin of error). Presumably there are thousands of other progressives like me around the country who followed all the election news but still mostly sat on the sidelines of the campaign, hoping that America would do the right thing without us having to take a lot of time out of our busy lives to actually go talk to people about it. Democracy doesn’t work that way, though; voting is not enough.
This may not be “our government,” but this is still our country. Progressives need to organize and rally the institutions of civil society that serve as an activist counterweight to government power. I recently re-read a great New Yorker article from 2008 that is highly relevant today; it describes a book of political theory published in 1908 called The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures which illustrates an important and often overlooked principle—that American democracy—all of our politics and all of our government—is the result of the organized activities of groups.
This is a simple but profound point: democracy is all about groups, not individuals. If you want to make a difference in politics, you can’t be an individual voice shouting in the wilderness; you need to band together with other groups of like-minded individuals and form an effective political interest group that can lobby the government and enact an agenda and create effective change within the system.
Americans tend to talk about how they hate the evil “special interest groups” and their lobbyists that are stifling the voice of the common people and ruining democracy. But according to “The Process of Government,” democracy is really ALL ABOUT special interest groups. There are no true “individuals” in representative democracy; we are all part of some larger interest groups that advocate for our common causes, whether we realize it or not. This is what representative democracy does; it constantly builds coalitions and weighs the competing interests of various factional groups.
There is no such thing as “the voice of the people” because the people, especially of America’s 21st century high-tech advanced democracy, are too fractious and diverse and complex to speak with a single voice. So instead, we form interest groups to advocate for what we need. Don’t despair just because the worst people in America are running the federal government; get more involved in civil society outside of government—get active in party politics, donate to advocacy groups like the ACLU and nonprofits like Planned Parenthood, support your favorite policy group or association or industry organization that lobbies the government to protect your rights and interests. Give money. Volunteer. Go to a citizen-lobbying day at your State Capitol or City Hall. There are many ways to make your individual voice heard that go beyond the ballot box, that exist outside of the two major political parties, but no one’s going to hear you unless you find common cause with other people to amplify your voice on the issues that you care about the most. In the era of the Trump White House, we’re going to need your voice more than ever.
If the Democrats revitalize their grassroots base, double down on the Obama coalition, and nominate a candidate without Hillary’s unique baggage and flaws, they can win in 2020. Who could it be: Elizabeth Warren? Cory Booker? Kamala Harris? Some other talented young leader waiting in the wings to burst onto the national scene? Let’s stop trying to appease the Republican base, and focus on energizing and inspiring our own base. For the next 2-4 years, we need to resist Trump and the Republicans like never before—the Democrats need to obstruct Trump just like Mitch McConnell obstructed Obama for 8 years. Filibuster everything. Concede nothing. Use every Constitutional power available to protect the rights of the minority party (that actually got MORE votes for president).
Lots of people I know are sickened, heartbroken, exhausted and very disappointed at the results of this election. Take some time to grieve, but then: resist and organize. The 2018 midterm Congressional campaign starts now. The 2020 presidential race starts now. Democrats need to be far better organized and much more enthusiastic to get out the vote in the next election, and we will be.