by Daniel A. Kaufman
I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.
– Pauline Kael, Film Critic for the New Yorker, in the wake of Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory over George McGovern.
The Silent Majority has done it again. Not as decisively as when Richard Nixon first called upon them in his race against George McGovern, in 1972, but decisively enough. Undoubtedly, some on the other side will want to point out that they “got more votes,” but the point is spectacularly irrelevant. Electors choose presidents in our country, not voters, and presidential candidates run races on that basis. Were we a direct democracy, the two candidates in this most recent contest would have run very different campaigns, and we have no idea what the popular vote count would have looked like, though I suspect that the results would have been the same.
All of us are still trying to swallow Donald Trump’s remarkable victory over Hillary Clinton. Some of us are choking on it. But those of us who think of ourselves as liberals of one kind or another or progressives had better find a way to keep it down and digest it, so that we can learn something from it. The electoral map is shocking to look at, and if we haven’t figured out yet that we can’t win presidential elections from New York City, LA County, the Bay Area, and Boston Metro, we’d better do so soon.
Since I’ve invoked Nixon’s famous “Silent Majority” speech, as well as Pauline Kael’s weirdly provincial confession, let’s look at the record of presidential elections since 1972.
1972 R Nixon
1976 D Carter
1980 R Reagan
1984 R Reagan
1988 R G.H.W. Bush
1992 D Clinton
1996 D Clinton
2000 R G.W. Bush
2004 R G.W. Bush
2008 D Obama
2012 D Obama
2016 R Trump
One could easily be misled into thinking that this shows a somewhat evenly distributed balance of power -– seven R’s to five D’s –- which indicates a relatively ideologically and culturally balanced country. The truth, however, lies underneath. McGovern lost in a landslide, and Carter’s single term as President is widely perceived as one of the least effective in the history of the country. Reagan was a hugely popular president, with an enduring social, cultural, and economic legacy (regardless of whether you think this is good or bad), and G.H.W. Bush’s single term is regarded as essentially having been Reagan’s third. When one looks at the pattern this way, one sees that the Republicans and their values have dominated American presidential politics since McGovern had his ass handed to him in 1972, and what this suggests is that America is largely a conservative country. Center-Right, if you average things out, population-wise, but further Right, if you look at it electorally. Bill Clinton understood this, which is why he was the most successful Democratic president of the period I’ve outlined. Obama failed to understand this, which is why his entire presidency is about to be effectively erased by Donald Trump.
Bill Clinton knew that social and cultural progress had to be made slowly; that trying to push too much, too hard, too fast not only wouldn’t work, but might actually move things backwards. I remember how infuriated many Left-leaning liberals and progressives were with his equivocations and apparent inconsistencies. Clearly, he was sympathetic to gays and lesbians, and yet he gave us “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. He was our “first black president” and played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show, but he also very publicly threw Sister Souljah under the bus. Bill Clinton had it right, though. He knew that once you moved five inches into the country from New York and California, public acceptance of many of these things was going to be tough going and would have to be achieved gradually and cleverly. In the age of Obama, however, this basic and obvious understanding has been lost, incredible as that may seem. Could we have just forgotten that between Clinton and Obama, we had George W. Bush and the biggest surge in the fortunes of the Religious Right since the original Moral Majority? That televangelist (and strangely alien-looking) Pat Robertson ran for President and that ‘James Dobson’ was, for a while, a household name? That “values voters” — meaning Right-wing evangelicals and Pentecostals and some of the more tight-assed suburbanites — were largely credited for Bush’s victory over John Kerry, in 2004? That for a while, you couldn’t go anywhere or talk about anything, without hearing about peoples’ “faith”? Apparently an awful lot of us did. Or else, like Pauline Kael, we lived in such insulated bubbles that we never noticed any of it.
The biggest mistake we made in the Obama era, then (and by ‘we’ I mean liberals and progressives), was thinking that we had won the socio-cultural war, when in truth, we were still in the middle of it. A country, especially one as large and complex as the United States, does not change its socio-cultural orientation just like that, and pushing and shoving doesn’t help. Indeed, doing so is counter-productive, insofar as it provokes resistance; digging in; even a backlash (and we’ve just seen the mother of all backlashes). Yet that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the past several years –- pushing and shoving. The fact is that I called this Trump victory months ago, when the overwhelming conventional wisdom was that he had no chance. Why? Because I could see how people in much of the country’s interior were reacting to the cultural pushing and shoving: the endless, over-the-top praise for Caitlyn Jenner (at least until it was discovered that she was a Republican); the transgendered-in-the bathrooms; the absurd spectacle of students at Ivy League schools loudly claiming they were oppressed and demanding heads for it; the social-justice-warrior hashtag campaigns and Twitter mobs; the incessant charges of Racism! Sexism! Homophobia!; the demand for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” often backed with threats; Supreme Court imposed gay marriage and the public humiliation and arrest of some wretched, rural county clerk, with a bad haircut, who tried to resist it … the list goes on and on.
The point is not the relative merits of any of these issues –- I published a piece in this very magazine about why opposition to trans-gendered people using gender-relevant bathrooms makes no sense whatsoever, and I have often and vigorously expressed my concern about police brutality –- but the speed with which they appeared on the scene, one after another; the aggressiveness with which they were pushed; the immediate resort to sneering and insult and accusation when resisted; and most importantly, the image being projected that the government, media, and professional classes were all for it, while the lowlifes and rubes on the farms and in the factories (what’s left of them) and in the shitty little churches were against it. How could this not provoke resentment, resistance, and backlash? How could this not lead to something like Trumpism and ultimately, President Trump?
With Bill Clinton, the Democrats had seemed to free themselves from the McGovernite legacy that led both Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis to humiliating defeats. Indeed, they began to compete with –- and overtake — the Republicans for the status of being the party of big business and even of international security. But this was only part of the story, as a strange thing started to happen in the years that followed. Corporate and other elite sectors of the society began more and more to embrace many of the values of the old counterculture, sometimes in word only, but increasingly in deed: Feminism; gay, lesbian, and trans equality; even, incredibly, environmentalism. Undoubtedly, this had a lot to do with the rise of the tech sector and the youthful, hip culture that characterizes it and which eventually became a model for much of the rest of the corporate world. Regardless, Democrats found themselves in what one would think would be a very enviable position –- they could claim superiority in many of the areas in which the Republicans traditionally had dominated, while at the same time re-embracing many of the progressive, countercultural causes that were always dear to their hearts. Microsoft, Goldman-Sachs, GLAAD, and the Sierra Club? How much better could it get?
But perceptions differ. Wildly. What looked like a new, holy consensus to coastal elites -– to Hollywood, the media, urban professionals, and the like — looked much less appealing to people in much of the nation’s interior. The de-industrialization of the country that had been going on since the 1970’s and the Democratic party’s initial embrace of the countercultural politics and values of the 1960’s had already pushed what was left of Labor into the Republican camp (a pre-1970’s Archie Bunker would have been a Democrat), so these folks were hardly going to think well of the tech-, finance-, globally-, and progressively-oriented corporate culture of the 1990’s, 2000’s, and today. The economic crash of 2008, in good part the fault of this same corporate culture, only made them hate it even more. Environmentalism and the fetishizing of concern over global warming or climate change or whatever the hell it’s called now may be very compelling to people living in massive metropolitan areas and to professionals and corporate elites, none of whom have much to do with industry or with the land anymore, but for people whose very livelihoods depend on agriculture, logging, mining, and the like – in short, everyone between New York and California – not only are they not compelling, they are anathema. The current identification of the Democratic party with corporate culture and environmentalism and the counterculture, then, is not only not a political benefit, in today’s climate, it is an unmitigated disaster. And we’ve just seen how much of one.
What now, then? This is hardly the place for a comprehensive account of what the Democrats need to do to be nationally competitive again. But some things would seem rather obvious. Re-embrace Labor, by showing that you understand that in a country of three hundred million plus people, not everyone can be an investment banker, lawyer, surgeon, or waitress. Go a little slower and a lot smarter on the environmentalism and cultural progressivism, and stop with the sneering and shaming. Remember that thinking you’re right, no matter how certain you may be, doesn’t mean that those who don’t are just going to roll over or disappear; that politics is, in good part, a matter of figuring out how to either (a) work with those with whom you disagree, (b) manipulate those with whom you disagree, or, if you have the political strength (c) overwhelm those with whom you disagree. And above all, understand — really understand — that if you can’t do (c), as clearly, we can’t, you’d better figure out a way to do (a) or (b) or else you can forget about winning any presidential elections in the near future.