The blame game is on as the mainstream media and the political establishment analyze an election outcome that shocked all of them, practically without exception. Liberals are heaping abuse on the “working class” for betraying the Democrats, while Donald Trump’s cheerleading squad delude itself that their man has a mandate to impose his reactionary agenda.
Here, Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, answers questions about Election 2016–and dissects some of the myths that are settling in as conventional wisdom.
SO WHO won the election? The answer isn’t actually straightforward, is it?
NO, IT isn’t. Hillary Clinton won the most votes nationwide. As of the end of this weekend, she stood at just under 61 million votes, compared to 60.4 million for Donald Trump. A 600,000-plus margin is small out of more than 123 million, but it’s bigger than Al Gore’s edge in the 2000 popular vote. And the gap will grow–to as much as 2 million, by some estimates–when all absentee ballots from California and other West Coast states are tabulated.
In any other system, that would be it–Clinton would be the winner of the presidential election. But the U.S. has the Electoral College, an 18th century relic added to the Constitution to placate rulers of the slave South. For the second time in only 16 years–and the fifth time in U.S. history–the Electoral College produced a victory for the loser of the nationwide popular vote.
For all but two states, the presidential candidate who wins the statewide popular vote, even if by only a few votes out of thousands or millions cast, gets all the electoral votes from that state. The key to Trump’s Electoral College win three “Rust Belt” states–Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin–that Republican presidential candidates haven’t won since the 1980s.
A Washington Post analysis showed that the difference between Trump and Clinton in those states was about 107,000 votes–the White House hinges on that few votes. Trump took Michigan by only about 13,000 votes out of more than 5 million cast.
CAN YOU talk about the implications of this?
BY ANY definition of democracy–where the people are supposed to be able to choose their leaders–the Electoral College should be abolished.
That would mean changing the Constitution, but that’s been done before. As written, the Constitution didn’t allow Blacks citizenship, or women the right to vote, or even the direct election of U.S. senators. Constitutional amendments changed those anti-democratic provisions.
But even though opinion polls suggest that more than 70 percent of Americans want to get rid of the Electoral College, there’s little movement on this by the U.S. elite. Instead, we have the spectacle of the American political establishment–Democrats as well as Republicans, including the winners who lost anyway, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton–genuflecting before a conservative institution that robbed the people of their decision.
The Electoral College distorts the whole system of presidential elections. Because most states’ electorates overwhelmingly favor one mainstream party over the other, the candidates don’t spend their resources to campaign in them.
This year, that meant ignoring the three of the four most populous states in the country–California, Texas and New York–and the millions of ordinary Americans who live and work in them. Instead, the major parties concentrate on about 10 or 12 “swing states” that are more closely divided, knowing that winning them is the key to winning the White House.
Just think about if the president was elected on the strength of the popular vote nationwide. The campaigns would be forced to address themselves to the aspirations of the multiracial millions in the great industrial/service/transportation centers of the country: Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, New York city.
Instead, a massive amount of attention is devoted to winning in a state like New Hampshire. No offense to residents of New Hampshire, but its statewide population is much smaller than any of those four largest U.S. cities. And New Hampshire is much whiter and wealthier than the country as a whole.
Another point in light of the results this year: The fact that Clinton won the popular vote is the clearest refutation of the common media myth that the U.S. is a “center-right”–or maybe even further right–country.
The Republicans will claim a mandate to ram through a raft of reactionary policies that, in plain point of fact, the majority of the country did not vote for.
In fact, the Republicans have won the popular vote only once (in 2004) in all the presidential elections since 1988. That quarter-century string of popular vote victories for the Democrats has only happened once before–in the 1820s and 1830s.
LET’S TALK about how Clinton lost in the states where she was expected to win, and therefore lost in the Electoral College, if not the popular vote. What was turnout like, and was that a factor in Clinton’s defeat?
AT THE highest-level look at the election results, the first thing to note is the large decline in the number of people turning out to vote compared to the last three national elections. Votes are still being tallied, but it’s looking like about 5 million fewer people voted in 2016 than in 2012, and about 7 million fewer than in 2008. That’s in a country where population growth alone should have produced more votes.
Turnout is probably going to end up somewhere around 57 percent of the voting-eligible population of U.S. citizens 18 years and older. That’s down from 59 percent in 2012, 62 percent in 2008 and even 61 percent in 2004, according to figures compiled by Dr. Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida.
This drop in turnout helps to explain why Trump could “win” even though he probably will end up with about as many votes as Mitt Romney got in losing in 2012.
Our undemocratic, class-biased and narrow-choice elections already lead the advanced capitalist world in voter abstention on Election Day. The turnout estimates mean that about 100 million people who could vote didn’t–which underscore just how alienated from the political system millions of Americans are.
So those are the aggregate figures, but the more important point in relation to the outcome is that the bigger drop came on the Democratic side.
If you compare the Republican vote from 2008 to 2016, the GOP candidate got about 60 million votes, give or take, each time. But the Democratic vote has fallen from from 69 million for Obama in 2008 to around 61 or 62 million for Clinton when all the votes are counted.
And most important of all for understanding Trump’s narrow Electoral College victory: the Democratic turnout fared worst in what were thought to be party strongholds, particularly in the upper Midwest.
SO WHAT happened in those states? Where did Trump’s margin of victory, however narrow, come from?
AS I mentioned before, the three key states–Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania– were decided by a little more than 100,000 votes. As the Washington Post pointed out, that’s about the number of people who pack into the University of Michigan’s “Big House” stadium for Saturday football games.
The story in each of these states is slightly different, but some patterns emerge. In the main urban areas with large numbers of African American voters–Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee–Clinton won significantly fewer votes than Obama did.
Some of the decline in Wisconsin might have been the result of voter suppression efforts in a state where right-wing Republicans are in charge. But that doesn’t explain Michigan and Pennsylvania. It’s not as if large numbers of Black voters were going for Trump. They were just staying home.
Clinton’s less-than-stellar showing in the central cities made it difficult for her to counteract the turnout for Trump in more conservative suburban and rural areas. In Wisconsin, for example, Trump won 13 rural and suburban counties that Obama won in two straight elections.
At this stage, it’s difficult to say how much the shift toward the Republicans was caused by former Obama voters switching over and voting for Trump, a “surge” of new voters going for Trump or a drop in Democratic turnout while GOP turnout held steady.
But if you simply compare vote totals in those states with Obama’s first election, you see much bigger drops in the Democratic vote then any increase in the Republican vote. In Michigan, for example, about 605,000 fewer Democrats voted in 2016 compared to 2008, while about 231,000 more Republicans voted.
In Pennsylvania, it does appear that Trump mobilized voters in rural areas who didn’t turn out for Romney. But Trump also won the suburban vote by a 52 percent to 44 percent margin.
Liberal filmmaker and Michigan native Michael Moore reported on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that 90,000 Michiganders left the presidential ballot line blank–voting for neither Clinton nor Trump–when they voted for every other office and question on the ballot. Clinton lost Michigan, at last count, by about 13,000 votes.
LIBERALS ARE blaming the “working class” for Clinton’s defeat? How would you assess that conclusion?
THE FIRST thing to say is that liberals and Democratic apparatchiks should look in the mirror before they open their mouths. They’re the ones who decided to rig the party’s nomination process to select Clinton, who embodies the neoliberal, Wall Street-friendly policies that underpinned the decline in working-class living standards over the past generation.
Now, to the substance of the argument: Clinton lost non-college educated white voters, the media’s definition of the “white working class,” by almost 40 percentage points.
As I’ve tried to argue in the past, this broad definition of the “working class” doesn’t acknowledge that “non-college educated whites” could include some self-employed people, small business owners and low-level supervisors. Be that as it may, Clinton still got creamed by them.
I want to make two further points: one about race and one about education level.
First, Clinton won non-college educated non-white voters, so obviously, these claims about education levels are less important than race and how it interacts with class in the U.S.
Obviously, Trump’s appeal was crafted to redirect anger at the political establishment onto non-white and immigrant scapegoats. It’s a 21st-century version of what Frederick Douglass meant when he talked about how the Southern rulers sowed race hatred between whites and Blacks. They “divided both to conquer each,” as Douglass said.
Second, for all the talk about how non-college-educated whites are to blame for Trump’s election, it should be noted that one-half of the electorate last Tuesday held a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree. That’s compared to about one-third with at least a bachelor’s degree in the voting-eligible population, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
And let’s remember that Trump carried the majority of white college-educated voters 49 percent to 45 percent, even while Clinton carried college graduates overall by a margin of 52 percent to 43 percent.
Finally, if you look at income levels, you see that Clinton won a majority of voters among those with household incomes of $50,000 or less, which is a little lower than the median household income in the U.S. On the other hand, Trump narrowly won voters with household incomes greater than $50,000.
But here again, it helps to provide context about the shape of the electorate overall. In the voting-eligible population, about 25 percent of households have incomes of $100,000 or more. In the electorate on November 8, 34 percent of voters came from households with incomes of $100,000 or more.
So if you’re going to use education and income to define class, as the media often do, then you have to say that the electorate was more middle class than working class.
For years, analysts like Walter Dean Burnham have talked about how the U.S. election system–with no labor or genuinely “left” party–offers no real electoral option for working-class voters.
Census Bureau and other analyses of voters and non-voters confirm that working-class and poorer people–often those who are more supportive of liberal income-support policies–are those most likely to be part of that 100 million of eligible voters who didn’t show up on Election Day.
TRUMP GOT an unexpectedly high percentage of the union members’ vote–43 percent, according to exit polls. How does that fit in?
BACK IN March, a friend from Wisconsin sent me a news article about how the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was shaping up. The report included a quote from a local union activist in Madison who said that, based on the labor movement’s lack of success in defeating the right-wing, anti-union Gov. Scott Walker, he thought that a right-wing populist could certainly defeat a corporate Democrat in the general election in Wisconsin.
I don’t know whether Bernie Sanders would have defeated Trump, but at least he had a handle on the discontent in working-class communities, and he proposed liberal solutions for them.
If various post-election reports emerging from the Clinton campaign are true, a number of local politicians in the upper Midwest were sounding alarm bells for months ahead of the election. But the Clinton campaign assumed it had these states in the bag.
The national exit polls say that Clinton got only 51 percent of voters living in union households. That’s compared to most elections, where Democrats get north of 60 percent of union household votes.
According to the state-level data, the vote split among union households in Wisconsin and Michigan was about the same as the national one–but in Ohio, Trump won decisively in union households, by a margin of 54 percent to 42 percent.
CLINTON ALSO did worse among Black and Latino voters than Barack Obama, isn’t that right?
IT’S CLEAR that while Clinton still won overwhelmingly among Black and Latino voters, she didn’t get enough Black and Latino voters in the crucial states she needed to offset Trump’s totals among white voters.
Moreover, in 2012, Obama won more than 70 percent of the votes of Latinos and Asians, compared to only 65 percent in each category for Clinton. Meanwhile, compared to Mitt Romney in 2012, the Trump campaign improved its vote among Latinos by 8 percent and among African Americans by 7 percent.
The conservative pollster Bill McInturff noted this, and also pointed out that in crucial Democratic “base” areas–like Milwaukee, Detroit and Cleveland, and Charlotte and Raleigh in North Carolina–Democratic turnout was down from 2012.
A surge of Latino early voting most likely carried Nevada for Clinton, but Latino voting in other states wasn’t sufficient to help her. In Florida, Latino turnout was slightly lower statewide, but stronger in strongholds around Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Yet the real story was that 35 percent of Florida Latinos voted for Trump–with the majority of Cuban-Americans (54 percent) voting Republican.
ON ELECTION Day, everyone was talking about a historically large gender gap. Did it play out that way? What conclusions do you draw from the discussion about how women and men voted?
THE GENDER gap–the difference in candidate preferences of men and women, according to exit polls–grew from 18 percentage points in 2012 to 24 percentage points in 2016.
Clinton won the votes of women by a 12 percentage point margin over Trump, compared to Obama’s 11-point advantage in 2012. But whereas Obama lost men voters by 7 points in 2012, Clinton lost them by 12 points in 2016.
Interestingly, though–and making allowance for the fact that these numbers are imprecise–men opted for the Republican candidate by only 1 percentage point more in 2016 over 2012–53 percent vs. 52 percent.
From the exit poll data, it’s hard to tell if the lower percentage of men voting for Clinton was because more voted for third-party candidates or because they just didn’t tell the pollsters who they voted for. In any event, the gender gap in 2016 grew mainly because a lower percentage of men voted for Clinton than for Obama.
Given all of the issues related to gender raised in this election–from Clinton’s pledges to break the “glass ceiling” as the first woman president to, of course, the multiple demonstrations of misogyny from Trump–the split for sure signals an undercurrent of sexism in the electorate.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that Clinton lost among white women voters by 10 percentage points, and among white women without a college degree by 28 points. Why did working-class white women apparently not identify themselves with Clinton–or maybe more to the point, oppose Trump? To your heads around this, I’d urge you to read the interview with social theorist Stephanie Coontz.
Women composed about 52 percent of the electorate–about equal to their percentage of the voting-eligible population. In 2012, however, women made up 54 percent of the electorate–higher than their share of the voting-eligible electorate. So women turned out to be one more group that Clinton couldn’t motivate to the polls in the numbers they did for Obama.
One final note: U.S. Census Bureau data show that women vote at higher rates than men, and the gap of voting percentages is consistently widest among Black women and men.
So we need also to have an “intersectional” understanding of this. If African-Americans turned out at lower rates than in the past–either because of voter suppression or because of lack of enthusiasm for Clinton–it stands to reason that the turnout of Black women would be affected the most.
BEFORE THE election, when it looked like Clinton would win, maybe even by a large margin, there was talk about how the Democrats might have a demographic lock on the White House, and the Republicans might be headed for oblivion. Obviously, that’s not the case anymore. What do you make of that discussion in light of the election?
I’M OLD enough to remember the Reagan era when all the pundits and political scientists talked about how California, which went Republican through most of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, was going to provide a “lock” on the Electoral College for the Republicans.
But in 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson won re-election on the back of the anti-immigrant referendum Proposition 187. While the courts invalidated most of Prop 187, its political impact was a huge shift of Latinos into the Democratic column. This “political earthquake” has made California–which launched the careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan–virtually unwinnable for the Republican Party since the late 1990s.
Now, California is the cornerstone of the so-called “blue wall” of Democratic-leaning states that the Democrats have counted on to stake them to big leads in the Electoral College. Of course, the “blue wall” broke apart in this election as its main components in the upper Midwest went to Trump.
It’s undeniable that Clinton won the majority of what’s been called the “rising American electorate”–young people, people of color, single women, non-religious voters, etc. On the strength of African American and Latino votes, Clinton came closer to winning so-called red states like Arizona, Georgia and Texas than Obama did. In fact, if Clinton ends up winning the popular vote by 1 or 2 million votes, that may foreshadow an even bigger Democratic majority.
But the crumbling of the blue wall should remind us that while demographics can be predictive, it isn’t destiny. Apparently, enough trade union and working class voters (and others) were tired of investing their energy and hopes in the Democratic Party, while getting nothing in return. Many of them stayed home, and some, out of desperation, voted for Trump.
There’s another perhaps darker future, though. In the upper Midwest, former union strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin have been turned into right-to-work states. So unions, a crucial factor in promoting a basic level of inter-racial class solidarity, are being dismantled.
That opens the door for an even greater appeal to racism and white ethno-nationalism like what Republican politicians used to turn the “solid South” from Democrat to Republican between the 1970s and 1990s.
Even though they won’t admit it in public, you can bet that Republican operatives are trying to figure out ways to get white voters in Wisconsin and Michigan to vote consistently like white voters in places like Mississippi and South Carolina–states with large Black populations–do today. That’s their answer to the “rising American electorate.”
That’s why we have to stand up against the poison that the Trump campaign injected into the nation’s political bloodstream. And we need to build interracial movements for working-class demands that offer hope in place of despair.