Do you know which candidate was elected in the first presidential race I ever voted in? Me neither.
That’s because the Supreme Court decided the 2000 election, not the electorate. This was my introduction to American democracy.
Many of us on the left side of the American political spectrum viewed the person who came to power in this way, George W. Bush, as an illegitimate president who had usurped the presidency with the assistance of our high court. We argued that the Court had struck a devastating, oligarchical blow to democracy, and that the man now in charge of our country was clearly too inept to do anything other than destroy what so many previous generations had labored to build.
Many on the left hated this man. He represented the worst in us, we said. He opposed abortion rights so he hated women. He opposed gay marriage so he hated gays. We were in a culture war, fighting over the fate of social issues that would determine whether our country moved forward, into its glorious, inevitable future, or backwards, into its pitiable, racist past.
We complained bitterly about everything he did or proposed, we screamed that he was destroying the reputation of America abroad, and we pointed out, to little avail, that this guy could barely even speak English. Then, eight years later, America elected Barack Obama. Seven years after that, Obama’s wife, Michelle, and George W. Bush would be BFFs:
To those of us fearing the worst from a Trump presidency, all that to say: Take a deep breath.
I know the election of Trump has come as a shock to many of us, much as the 2008 election of Obama came as a shock to many on the right. And while we may feel that our shock is justified, whereas theirs was simply an outgrowth of values we hold wretched, we are not entitled to having our perspective solely, or always validated. That is not how democracy works. We are only entitled to the right to express our values, and then vote over them.
And so now is not a time for despair (though, if you really need it, you’ve got something of a window between now and the inauguration). Especially if you think Trump represents a danger to our democracy (which, let’s face it, means he represents a danger to the values you think should predominantly inform our democracy), it is simply time to put your hand to the plow; continue to express, and argue in favor of, your values; and start laying the groundwork in anticipation of the next vote.
In the meantime, there are some lessons about our politics we must absorb.
Political baggage, for better or for worse, matters. And twenty-plus years of political baggage really matters. Hillary Clinton may not have been undone by the right’s reflexive hatred of her, but it was a significant electoral disadvantage at the starting gate.
And while this was likely a contributing factor in Clinton’s loss to Trump, I think the biggest limitation of her candidacy was grounded in the decision to argue she represented an extension of the Obama years. Whatever you think of Obama’s early (for a reason) legislative achievements in the arenas of health care, financial reform, and student finance, the last eight years have not been a great period for many Americans.
A stimulus that proved not quite equal to the task allowed the country to weather the worst of the Great Recession, but the economy never really got moving again. It certainly never got moving the way it did during Bill Clinton’s time in office, and that’s important, because that is still the relevant economic measuring stick for many. People who lost their homes, jobs, or both, never really recovered, and, to the extent they managed to claw back some of what they lost, they have had to work harder to end up with less.
Now, an obstructionist, and pro-austerity right ensured, perhaps, that the Obama stimulus could not have been greater, and that the public sector would not contribute to the nation’s job-growth numbers. But this was not Hillary Clinton’s argument during the campaign.
I recall watching the 2016 Democratic National Convention and growing concerned that the Democrats on the screen seemed utterly incapable of articulating the economic challenge the last eight years have been for so many. To give some context, the George W. Bush years began with the dot-com bust, followed by the economic shock of 9-11, followed by what came to be known as the “jobless recovery,” followed by the burst of the housing bubble and the Great Recession. Combine that with the tepid growth of the Obama years, a period that began with the losses caused by that Great Recession, and I have never in my adult life known what economic prosperity looks like.
But all I heard from the politicians on the convention stage were statistics about drops in the unemployment rate, and private sector job-growth (note: when you have to qualify “job-growth” in a political argument, it’s a losing argument). At a time when the challenges of the Great Recession had given way to the challenges of an opioid crisis in many parts of the country, and many families were still nowhere near where they were before the burst of the housing bubble, all I kept hearing was how things were actually quite well in the economy, even if they could be better.
Sure, there was mention of the way the technological transformations in the economy had left some, especially those without a college degree, in need of some assistance. But this always felt like a narrative about a small sector of the population whose needs could be addressed by providing a few training programs.
Well, I have a college degree. And another one. And another one. And another one. And yet, despite having three graduate degrees, since moving to Baltimore I have yet to receive better than a part-time job offer in my field. When I did have something resembling a full-time job, I was not paid a salary. Forced to work as an independent contractor, the freelance rates I received were so paltry that I struggled to make even $20,000 a year, despite generally working more than 40 hours per week.
Having moved to Baltimore not so long ago, my experience of the city’s economic landscape is, admittedly, not particularly sentimental. I moved here, a city that has not been known for possessing a vibrant economy in some time, and I could move somewhere else. My field, journalism, was declining (okay, dying) well before I entered it, and my educational privilege insulates me, in many ways, from the long-term impacts of having to earn a meager wage at this stage in my career (that is, being a broke journalist is something of a choice).
But we know that Americans do not generally move for the sake of better economic opportunities, nor do the ‘education’ portions of their resumes generally look like an incarnation of the skits on Kanye West’s “College Dropout.” And so consider someone born and raised in Baltimore, whom we might not expect to simply move elsewhere, trying to navigate the same economic landscape I have, only with a high school degree from the Baltimore public school system.
Do the national unemployment rate numbers say anything to that Baltimorean? How about the private-sector job-growth numbers?
The election of Trump has shown, in part, that many Americans were ready for a second “change” since 2000, and the economic anxiety of the past 16 years, to say nothing of the past eight, I think has something to do with this. Combine that with the inability of Democrats to talk about the economy as something other than healthy (if needing some additional support here and there), and you are left with a real mess for your presidential candidate.
Democrats had warning of this during their own primary, but ignored the obvious fact of so much everyday discontent even among America’s left, made plain by the success of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) in his primary against Clinton. That is not to say Sanders would have defeated Trump, nor that Sanders would have made a better candidate (or president) than Clinton. But Sanders could articulate the challenge of the last 16 years, felt by so many in their bones, while Clinton could not (and this, in part, because Sanders so effectively tied Clinton to Obama policies during the primary, but also because Clinton used those very ties to Obama to defeat Sanders in key primary races, leaving her with little choice but to embrace Obama’s economic legacy during the general).
I think this cost Clinton dearly, and while the economic data might not point to a particular level of doom and gloom, the election sure did, and that’s the only data that determines who gets to be president.
Those of us who oppose Trump better learn that lesson.
This column was originally published by OnBckgrnd.com, on Nov. 12, 2016.