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Heads in the Sand

Hillary Clinton leaves the podium after delivering her concession speech last month. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

It seems that many Democrats are determined not to change, not to learn any lessons from the 2016 election.  Instead of trying to figure out what went wrong, they are clinging to denial and self-righteousness.  During the election, “I’m With Her” was used to silence internal opposition.  Gung-ho Democrats dismissed the idea that liberals could have legitimate qualms about full throated support for Hillary because of her war-mongering, close relationship with Wall Street, and only passing concern for the economic struggles of large segments of the population.  

Progressives who were not entirely with her were told that they were sexist or were guilty of having internalized the attacks that the right had level against the Clintons over the years.  Even when Hillary stumbled, the left rushed to her defense rather than acknowledge the establishment’s dangerous self-righteousness.  And it is worth being clear, despite protests to the contrary that attempted to justify Hillary’s position, characterizing half of Trump supporters as “deplorables” who are “irredeemable” was and is the sort of holier-than-thou perspective that contributes to the sad state of the Democratic Party.

Within the echo chamber of the coastal elites, a steady stream of Facebook posts deny the reality that Republicans won and won big in 2016.  A steady diet of stories touts everything from Clinton’s numerical victory in the polls and the role of gerrymandering in this election to the rise in discrimination after the election and the possibility that the Electoral College might reject Trump on principle.  What is missing is the recognition that the Democratic Party needs to change even if all these things are true. 

As the media has not tired of reporting, at a recent event, hosted not surprisingly at Harvard, the Clinton and Trump campaign managers got in a fight over whether Trump won because of racism or because of his message.  It is easier for liberals to chalk up the stunning defeat in November to racism, sexism, zenophobia, and ignorance than it is to admit weaknesses in the Democratic Party and in the Party’s approach.  Put differently, what does it say about the Democratic Party that Republicans, marching behind a transparently ridiculous and dangerous buffoon, were able to gain control over all branches of the national government and a majority of state governments?  The head in the sand response is to attribute the election results to a victory by America’s deplorables, but a better response when one fails is to figure out what went wrong and try something new going forward.

Democrats may not be able to change all parts of the American political landscape—the Republican party will likely continue to rely in part on race-baiting to win votes—but Democrats can be a more honest and less self-righteous about what went wrong.  Establishment Democrats are trying desperately to turn attention away from the 2016 loss.  The large orange-haired, instable elephant in the room undoubtedly represents a grave threat not only to the social safety net but also to the country itself.  But unless Democrats present an alternative version of progress, it will be hard to fight against the “greatness” Trump is promising. 

Hillary’s basic campaign message—I’m better than him—was accurate but hardly inspiring. 

But even writing that risks the wrath of party hacks who pounce on anybody who does not stick to the party line.  Just as conservatives who put the country above the Republican Party should already be acting to reign in Trump’s behavior and police his conflicts of interest, progressives should have been horrified by the Democratic Party’s favoritism during the primaries and the cheating—passing along questions to candidate Clinton before a debate—by the current interim chair of the Democratic National Committee during the campaign.  The protest that these are false equivalents, that the Republicans are much worse, is only momentarily satisfying, for it cannot disguise the fact that the Democratic Party is in shambles. 

The Clinton era is over and hopefully so too is the strategy of triangulation.  It is time for the Democratic Party to unapologetically return to those values—a commitment to economic and racial equality on the domestic front and to being a voice for peace not for war in foreign affairs—that were core values of the Party but that have gotten a bit tarnished with time. Egomaniacs tend either to believe that they are infallible or to blame their failures on others, but Democrats cannot afford—more importantly, the poor, the vulnerable, and the country cannot afford—to let the party elite’s self-righteousness prevent progressives from reflecting critically on the 2016 election and making necessary course corrections as far as the Democratic Party’s orientation. 

Ezra Rosser

Ezra Rosser

Ezra Rosser teaches Poverty Law, Indian Law, and Property Law at American University Washington College of Law.

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