April 18, 2017

What Should Democrats Learn From the 2016 Election?

Hillary Clinton
Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC by-SA 2.0]
What has the Democratic party learned in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election that might help them in the future? What should the Democratic party have learned from the 2016 election that might help next time? I don't have an answer to either question, but I suppose it would be fair to say that I find the first one a bit more troubling than the second. Although I'm still a bit fuzzy on the sort of lessons the party should have learned, I have the sense that they haven't learned them just yet. I'm still seeing too much finger-pointing, suggesting a reluctance to take responsibility for what seemed to be their election to lose.

So what should the Democrats learn from the 2016 election that might help them do better next time? One potential lesson that occurs to me is that decades of overlooking and even mocking entire demographic and geographic segments of the U.S. can turn off voters. It seems to me that some changes are going to be required to repair this damage. The day may come when changing demographics permit the Democratic party to write off White working-class voters entirely, but we aren't there yet. And as long as we stick with the electoral college, I think it is important for Democrats to realize that there are quite a few Americans who have zero interest in living in California or New York.

Another potential lesson, one that can be drawn from contrasting Obama's 2008 campaign with Clinton's 2016 campaign, involves the importance of having a positive message. Obama's hope and change message appealed to voters in a way that Clinton's anti-Trump message did not. I knew many people who voted for Clinton in 2016 but surprisingly few who were enthusiastic about supporting her. I think that Democratic voters want a candidate who offers something more than being better than the Republican option. I see little reason to think that voters won't still want this in 2020.

A third potential lesson, and one about which I am far more tentative, concerns the growing polarization of our electorate. Perhaps I am taking what I see on social media too seriously, but it is starting to seem like we are no longer interested in even trying to engage in civil communication with those who hold different views. We'd prefer to demonize them. What's worse, we seem to want to elect members of Congress who do the same. The far left wants representatives who will not compromise on their progressive values; the far right wants representatives who will not compromise on their conservative values. Neither side is willing to put external reality ahead of their ideological narratives. It is not clear that there is a place for those we might describe as centrists or moderates. I think that the lesson here might be that the sort of elected officials we desperately need for the health of our democracy are going to be an increasingly difficult sell to the electorate and that we had better devote some thought into how best to sell them.

Our democratic system does not work well when nobody is willing to compromise. Most of us seem to be at least vaguely aware of this, but we still become outraged over virtually every possible compromise. We want to get what we want, and we don't want to see our representatives "work across the aisle." "Bipartisanship" has become a liability. I don't think any presidential candidate can turn this around on his or her own. It is going to take sustained effort that may need to start with educating voters.

The real challenge, of course, is that things are not going to be the same in 2020 as they were in 2016. If the Democratic party were to go into 2020 doing exactly what they should have done in 2016, there is no guarantee it would be effective. As obvious as it may now seem, it bears repeating that 2020 is not going to be 2016. For the Democrats to be effective, they'll need to learn from 2016 and translate the lessons into a strategy that will be viable in 2020.