The political blow to the Democratic Party following its surprise loss to Donald Trump has been cataclysmic.
Rather than holding the presidency and retaking the Senate as was expected, America’s ruling party finds itself shut out of power in every branch of the federal government and at the state and local levels, too. By this yardstick the party has not been in this bad a shape since 1930.
Even more than the political reality, however, the psychological shock to Democrats’ view of the world and view of themselves is perhaps the greatest casualty of this very surprising result. For given the shifting changes in the demography of the country, Democrats were just getting used to the idea that they were likely to be the majority party for much of the next generation, as Democratic-leaning Hispanics make up increasingly more of the overall American population.
Coupled with this “demography is destiny” view, before the election, Clinton voters drew a clear divide between their modern, tolerant, coolly rational candidate and the antediluvian antics of Trump, who seemed to be an extreme caricature of what Democrats (over a drink) think of most Republicans: emotional, irrational, tribal, primitive. In losing to such a man, it is not just that Democrats have to revisit their lazily sanguine view of how American politics works, they must revisit their basic view of how America works itself.
There is no one monolithic Trump voter, and many foreign newspapers have made cruel, wrongheaded, and unfair caricatures of them, as though this thunderous event can be simply laughed away.
While it is true that there are the “deplorables” – racists, sexists and nationalists, gleeful at having a wider audience – that is not the primary aspect of what is going on here. Springsteen Democrats – particularly white, high-school educated men – have seen their world erode before their eyes for the past generation and have also not found a political vehicle until Trump to address their concerns.
Real income has not risen for the American middle class in decades. Globalisation is a concern all over the world, and free trade, with all its benefits, does hurt some people catastrophically when jobs move. This is easy to brush off unless you a) lack an education, and thus the ability to adapt b) have strong ties to where you live and c) are somewhere dependent on only one or two industries.
It’s hard to overstate how devastating that collapse is. Drugs become rampant and then blight coming generations before they even reach the labour pool. In many parts of the country, distrust of the government has roots in centuries of cultural insularity. Then add the echo chamber of social media and the commercialisation of news. You can choose whom to listen to, and there’s a perfect circle of certainty for your views – any argument to the contrary is biased. The single-issue voters want a conservative or liberal shift in the Supreme Court, for example, and don’t care much about any other policies.
Trump often claimed that the system is “rigged”, and many of his voters echoed this in the campaign with unwavering conviction. This was laughed off by Democrats. The scoffers were technically right, because voter fraud is incredibly rare, but they missed the point; “rigging” is shorthand, perhaps subconsciously, for something that is much harder to articulate.
What were once understandable higher social and economic tiers, hard but not impossible to break into, now seem incomprehensible, and impossibly far away for many average Americans. The Clintons – Washingtonians for decades – seemed to flout every rule they, the Trump voter, has to obey. As far as they were concerned, the system really was closed against Trump voters, and their candidate was the way in.
So, more than has been the case for generations, the archetypical Trump and Clinton voters live on almost entirely different psychological planets, having nothing whatever to do with one another. In terms of political risk this is extremely dangerous, as without any commonalities to cling to, it is easy for these two groups’ stereotypes of each other to harden. Increasingly, it is not that Republicans and Democrats disagree with each other. It is that they see the other as being morally lesser people for doing so.
This is a toxic witches brew in a democratic system, as both parties cease to attack each other over policy, and more and more over who they seem to be as people. In such a polarising atmosphere, little enduring can be done over the long term. The greatest single political risk in the world is the United States staring at itself in the mirror.