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An elephant, the traditional symbol for the Republican party, and a donkey, the traditional symbol for the Democratic party

Maybe the answer is "to serve up candidates who represent the people's interest, not those of the plutocrats," the author writes. (Image: DonkeyHotey/flickr/cc)

Pundits and Pols Still Don't Get It: Trump Didn't Win in 2016, Democrats Lost

The real lessons from 2016, have nothing to do with understanding the Trump voters

John Atcheson

A recent study by PRRI and the Atlantic that seeks to explain the Trump voter is drawing a lot of attention from the press, political analysts, and the Democratic Party. PRRI’s thesis is that the white working-class American (WWCA) Trump voter was motivated by fear of losing their preferred position in society – that is, whites were motivated less by economic hardship than by social upheavals.

Trying to figure out how and why white working-class Americans voted two to one for “… a selfish, thin-skinned, petulant, lying, narcissistic, boastful, megalomaniac for president…” as Robert Reich put it, has become a cottage industry in the US in general and the Democratic Party in particular, and PRRI’s analysis is only the latest in a long line of explanations, albeit one that is backed up by more data than most.

The real lessons from 2016, have nothing to do with understanding the Trump voters

Here’s the thing.  Understanding the Trump voter is all but irrelevant to winning in 2018 and 2020, because Trump didn’t win the 2016 election, so much as Democrats lost it.  So it’s far more important to understand why and how Democrats lost, than it is to understand why Trump won.

Doubt that? Let’s look at some numbers.

First, as the PRRI study notes, white working-class Americans make up about a third of potential voters.  And since a third of the WWAVs backed Hillary, that means they only make up a little less than 22 percent of the voting population.  Let’s face it, something like a quarter of Americans have been bat shit crazy for ages, and we haven’t elected anything like Trump before.

Second, Democrats have been losing for decades now. For example, back in the 1960's, half of all potential voters in the United States identified as Democrats. Currently, only 29 percent do. 

And this has translated into massive losses in elections. Back in 1978, Democrats controlled both legislative branches in thirty-one states, while Republicans had majorities in only eleven.

Today, Republicans control both legislative bodies in thirty-two states, while Democrats do so in just thirteen.

Republicans control both legislatures and the governorship in twenty-five states, while Democrats control all three institutions in just six states. Nebraska, which has a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature, isn’t counted in this total.

Currently thirty-four states have a Republican governor, while only fifteen are headed by a Democrat, and one—Alaska—is headed by an independent.

Again, the fact that Democrats were losing ground long before Trump showed up, suggests that the key question isn’t why Trump won, it’s why the Democrats lost, and why they’ve been losing for a long time.

Third, it’s important to remember that Trump won with only a little over 27 percent of the eligible voters backing him.  Focusing on trying to understand this cohort and trying to figure out a strategy based on this understanding means you’re in danger of ignoring the 73 percent who didn’t vote for him.  Remember, Hillary Clinton got only 28 percent of the vote, and many of them held their noses while casting the ballot.

This means that the most important number from the 2016 election is the nearly 45 percent of eligible voters who didn’t vote. The Party that figures out how to tap into even a small portion of this cohort will win in 2018, and in 2020.

Who are the 45 percent no-shows?

An increasing number of them are liberals who have rejected the centrist, corporate-friendly positions of the Democratic Party.  The fact is, on an issue-by-issue basis, Americans are overwhelmingly liberal, and that includes independents and even many Republicans.  It’s only when you ask folks to categorize themselves politically using the liberal/conservative framework that the myth of the centrist American appears, and that’s because the oligarchy has spent nearly four decades branding the word “liberal” to mean a bunch of tax-and-spend government-loving, private sector-hating folks who have knee jerk reactions to every challenge. Oh, and they are downright unAmerican, too. Nothing but a pack of elitists who don’t care about taking your money and giving it to “them.” And you know who “they” are.

Meanwhile, the oligarchy branded conservatives as god-loving, fiscally prudent, tax-cutting, patriotic ‘Mericans’ who are protecting you, your money and your status from threats by “them.”

The reason these brands gained credibility and retain it to this day are complex, and involve a defacto coup four decades in the making, run by oligarchs and corporations. But two of the big reasons are: 1) Democrats – nominally the Party of liberals – abandoned their liberal, New Deal beliefs, rather than defending them; and 2) the press has been letting conservatives get away with a bunch of counter-factual clap-trap like “trickle-down,” “supply-side,” “tax-cuts-for-the rich-create-prosperity-and-pay-for-themselves,” and “deregulated markets are good for you.” All transparent nonsense, given the fact that these policies have never – not once – produced the promised benefits.

And of course, Democrats, having become beholden to the oligarchy, haven’t taken on these myths either.

So yeah, folks don’t sign on to the liberal label, even though their preferences are liberal.

But the bottom line is, no-shows have been increasing; many of them are liberals; many more would be if there was a Party embracing and defending the progressive policies of the New Deal; and even more would be if the press actually reported facts – as opposed to being balanced.  But there isn’t such a party, and the press has been bought by the oligarchy, so the liberal voters stay home, giving the passionately ignorant 25% or so who have been with us always, a disproportionate voice in elections.

Many Democrats express outrage that these folks don’t vote.  But maybe the answer isn’t to get pissed off when people won’t back your lukewarm leftovers; maybe it’s to serve up candidates who represent the people’s interest, not those of the plutocrats.

As I write this, in a lemming-like death spiral, the neoliberals who control the Democratic Party are desperately trying to ward off the progressive rank and file and get rid of progressive candidates  – the only ones who can win.

Next week, the Democratic Rules Committee will meet to decide whether to adopt the recommendations of the Party’s Unity Commission, which call for fewer super-delegates, more open primaries, and more transparent handling of money.  If the Party wants to survive, it should be a no-brainer, but as Bernie Sanders said, some “ …would rather go down with the Titanic, so long as they have first-class seats.”  

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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