Time to Redirect Election Post-Mortems

by Michael Dorf

Now that Donald Trump is (gulp) president, we are, I hope, at the beginning of the end of a certain kind of at-best fruitless and at-worst divisive discussion among Democrats about how he got elected.

In saying that, I am certainly not hoping for an end to the investigations into the role played in the election by the FBI, the Russian government, and possibly members of the Trump campaign team in traitorous collaboration with them. Although those investigations cannot lead to overturning the result of the election (except perhaps if evidence of, say, treason, leads to Trump's impeachment and Mike Pence's ascendancy to the presidency), they are important both to do what justice can be done and to prevent future improper interference.

Nor do I wish or expect to see an end to efforts to discover how Democrats can do better in the future by figuring out what went wrong this time. How did a candidate as flawed as Trump pull off his narrow upset victory? Was it racism? Sexism? Economic insecurity? Clinton's own weaknesses as a candidate? To the extent that it was Clinton's weaknesses, did we mostly witness one-off events due to Clinton fatigue, a decades-old campaign of demonization of her, James Comey's misguided announcements, and the excessive attention paid to her email server by media addicted to a flawed conception of "balance"? Was it bad campaign strategy by the Clinton team in neglecting the upper midwest? Or was the problem more substantive: that Clinton was too much of a neoliberal whose efforts to pivot left on banking regulation and trade appeared disingenuous to too many voters?

As I said, these are important questions and a medical metaphor fits. In order to cure the patient, one must first diagnose the disease. But that said, as in medicine too many tests end up doing the patient more harm than good, so too in politics, a certain kind of dwelling on the past may impede building towards the future.

One problem with some of the more naive discussions of the election is their assumption that there is a single answer to what went wrong. Yet history is not monocausal. The answer to the question I posed above could well be "all of the above plus more."

There is another problem. Much of the post-election debate among Democrats is really a debate about the normative agenda for Democrats disguised as an analysis of what just happened. The "establishment" or neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party would like to think that Trump won because of the concatenation of idiosyncratic factors. Someone with the same policy views as Clinton but without her personal baggage, in this view, would have won relatively handily, and so the task for 2020 is recruiting a likable moderate. Meanwhile, the (for lack of a better term) social democratic wing of the Democratic Party, by contrast, thinks that the key to winning future elections is recognizing the unpopularity of neoliberal policies and moving left.

That debate--pitting centrist neoliberals against social democrats--is important as a matter of policy. And it will almost certainly play out in the next Democratic presidential nominating contest, when we might see the likes of Tim Kaine and Cory Booker vie for Clinton's neoliberal mantle while the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown try to capture the Sanders wing of the party. (Joe Biden, who straddles both camps, will be 77 in 2020, and thus an unlikely candidate.)

Yet despite the important differences between the competing visions of a Democratic Party back in government, I regard the effort to blame or exonerate Clinton and neoliberalism for Trump's victory as misguided. For one thing, it probably won't make a difference in the actual choosing of a 2020 nominee. The choice Dems will make between neoliberalism and social democracy will be made by 2020 primary voters and caucus goers based on policy preferences plus views of the particular candidates, the strength of their campaign organizations, etc., and not based on what party leaders and pundits conclude went awry in 2016. As Trump demonstrated spectacularly on the GOP side in 2016, in the primary/caucus era, it is nearly impossible for the party leadership to decide--based on some strategic calculation of what will play best with general election voters--what kind of policies the ideal candidate should espouse and then nominate that candidate. At most, the establishment can place a thumb on the scale via super-delegates, debate scheduling, etc., as happened on the Democratic side in 2016. And even that wasn't decisive: Clinton outpolled Sanders among pledged delegates too, reflecting not necessarily the Democratic electorate's preference for neoliberalism but at least some comfort level with it.

Accordingly, although I do think there is a necessary battle for the Democratic Party agenda coming, I hope and expect that it will be fought on the merits of the competing visions, rather than on whether neoliberalism or social democracy is more likely to win general elections. The evidence on that point is quite complicated and thus likely to be read through the lens of confirmation bias. I expect (and have seen) that people who lean neoliberal will interpret 2016 to mean that going neoliberal but without Clinton's idiosyncratic baggage is the way to win, while people who lean social democrat will interpret 2016 to mean the opposite, based on their projection that in an alternative universe Sanders got the nomination and trounced Trump in the general election. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my normative views are closer to the Sanders wing of the party and I have argued that the party as a whole would benefit electorally from moving in that direction, but I recognize that I am as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone else.)

In the meantime, I would hope for a working intra-Democratic truce. There are reasons for concern about the grass roots, as illustrated by the fact that many of the most ardent Sanders supporters failed to follow his lead in the general. Sanders and other pragmatic politicians recognized that whatever their (I could say our) complaints about neoliberalism, it is much preferable to the chief alternative now on display from Trump: authoritarian crony capitalism. Does the Sanders movement understand the point as well?

I am at least somewhat heartened by the fact that since the election, virtually no one on the left has been repeating Jill Stein's idiotic pronouncement that a Clinton presidency would have been more dangerous than a Trump presidency because of the latter's presumed relative lack of competence in pursuing ostensibly equally evil ends. Even accepting Stein's preposterous assumption that Clinton and Trump would pursue similarly evil aims, incompetence does not necessarily render evil less evil. North Koreans suffer under an evil government that is made worse by the same government's incompetence at meeting their basic needs. Likewise here. We can expect to see large-scale incompetence in agencies headed by people both hostile to the agencies' missions and possessing no relevant experience. We can also expect to see systemic incompetence because the government is now headed by a mendacious egomaniacal ignoramus with less impulse control than most eight-year-olds. For people who depend on government services--which is everyone but especially the least fortunate among us--the incompetence of Trump and his minions will mostly exacerbate rather than ameliorate the evil of the evil policies his government intentionally pursues.

Thus, my plea to any remaining Bernie-or-Busters is to move on. Let's agree to disagree on what a hypothetical Clinton presidency would have been like and make common cause to speak out against and otherwise resist the horrors of the actual Trump presidency. Saturday's massive protests were a good step in the right direction.