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Why the US Elected a Despot, and Why It's Poised To Do It Again

Chasing the center and ignoring the real electoral prize

 Nancy Pelosi’s staff assures the health care and pharmaceutical lobbyists that Medicare for All is going nowhere, and Ms. Pelosi herself ridicules the Green New Deal. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Nancy Pelosi’s staff assures the health care and pharmaceutical lobbyists that Medicare for All is going nowhere, and Ms. Pelosi herself ridicules the Green New Deal. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

There’s an emerging conventional wisdom that says the way for Democrats to win in 2020 is to move to the center and pick up some of those centrist votes. This is the perspective being pushed by the neoliberal establishment, the mainstream media, and the bulk of the paid political pundits.

There are two things wrong with this.

First, there is no center, or to be more precise, it's miniscule. Too many pundits confuse independents with centrists, when fact, the vast majority of them lean one way or another.

If you add up left leaning Independents and Democrats they equal about 48 percent of the electorate, while right leaning Independents and Republicans add up to 39 percent of the electorate.  Real centrists comprise only about 7 percent.

Second, the real prize in electoral politics is the no shows. To see why this is so, we can examine the last two elections.  In 2016, about 58 percent of eligible voters turned out, and Trump won—thanks to the electoral college—with only a little above 27 percent of the voters, while Hillary Clinton got about 28 percent.  Let’s look at the numbers from 2016:

  • 65.8 million voted for Clinton;
  • 62.9 million voted for Trump;
  • 6.9 million voted for a third-party candidate; and
  • 96 million didn’t bother to vote.

There are nearly 231 million eligible voters in the US, but only 135 million voted in the 2016 election. The math makes the best strategy for winning pretty clear. On the one hand, you could abandon your values and drift to the center in order to win over some portion of the 16 million true centrists, on the other, you could stick to your values and go after some of the 96 million no-shows.

The 2018 elections had one of the biggest turnouts for a midterm in over a century—50.1 percent—largely because Democrats ran on progressive values, and because Trump elicited such a sense of fear and loathing that it produced the largest turnout for midterm elections since 1914. But here again, the prize in terms of sheer numbers has to be the 49.9 percent who sat it out.

If you examine voter turnout stats for the last centruy, two things become clear.  Democrats win when turnout is high; Republicans win when turnout is low. Actually, the records show one other thing – Republican victories presage record deficits and economic downturns.

So you would think that the Democratic leadership would pursue a strategy that focused on targeting the now-shows.  But you’d be wrong.

Why No-Shows Don’t Show

To get some of the no-shows on board, you’d have to run a campaign centered on the people’s interest, not the monied interests.

The reality is, people are legitimately cynical about the Democratic party—in fact about both parties. The Smith Project revealed the depth of the people’s cynicism.  For example:

  • Eighty-six percent of all voters believe political leaders are more interested in protecting their power than in doing what’s right for the American people.
  • Eighty-three percent believe the country is run by an alliance of incumbent politicians, media pundits, lobbyists, and other interests for their own gain.
  • Further, 79% believe that powerful interests from Wall Street banks to corporations, unions, and PACs use campaign and lobbying money to rig the system to serve themselves and that they loot the national treasury at the expense of every American.

And if you want to understand where Trump gets his support from, here’s a stat from the Smith Project that ought to make it obvious.  Some 77 percent of Americans prefer candidates who “take on the political elites and special interests” to those who conform to a set ideology.  Trump voters aren’t voting for anything, they're voting against the status quo.

And all those cynics are right. The system is rigged. For example, between 1980 and 2015, the top .01 percent saw their income rise by 322 percent, while income for the bottom 90 percent rose by just .03 percent.

And it’s not just the economy.  As Gilens and Paige showed, the will of the people is all but irrelevant, when it comes to public policy. Indeed, they concluded that the US was no longer a democracy, but rather resembled an oligarchy in which the will of the rich and special interests consistently trumped the people’s interest.

No wonder people are cynical. No wonder “no-show” has won every vote since World War II. 

How to Get the No-Shows to Show, and Why Neoliberals Don’t

The antidote to this legitimate cynicism is a campaign run on values, not tactics. Yes, Trump is abhorrent. But revealing how bad he is won’t put a dent in the number of his supporters, and it won’t get no-shows to show.  And it definitely won’t win enough of the centrist 7 percent to get a victory.

The majority of Americans overwhelmingly back progressive policies, including the Green new Deal, (which gets extremely high support when its broken down into its elements and is supported by a plurality of those polled), and Medicare for All.

Instead of adopting the obvious winning strategy, neoliberals are waging a war on progressives.

But instead of adopting the obvious winning strategy, neoliberals are waging a war on progressives. Nancy Pelosi’s staff assures the health care and pharmaceutical lobbyists that Medicare for All is going nowhere, and Ms. Pelosi herself ridicules the Green New Deal. The Center for American Progress—a bastion of neoliberalism—publishes a series of shallow hit pieces on Medicare for All and on Bernie Sanders.

And it looks like Pelosi, Schumer et. al. are betting the ranch on revealing how bad Trump is. Trying to get his tax returns released, hoping against hope that the Mueller report will reveal a few more hidden skeletons—this, together with an all-out effort to get the mythical centrists—seems to be their strategy for 2020.

Here’s the thing. Trump’s supporters don’t care how bad he is. They just care that he’s assaulting the powers that be.  And the disaffected no-shows won’t show up at the polls simply because Trump is worse than the average politician.  To too many, that’s the difference between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

There may be a few math-challenged neoliberals who actually believe that going to the center is the way to win, but for most, the reason that the neoliberal establishment doesn’t adopt the obvious strategy for winning back the White House and the Senate while retaining the House is simple. They got where they are by serving the interests of the rich, the elite, and corporations.  Adopting the kind of policies that would serve the people and get no-shows off the sidelines threatens their true constituency.

If they succeed in derailing the progressive insurgency that gave Democrats a victory in the 2018 midterms, they may hold onto their seats; even if they don’t they’ll likely get a cushy job in a think tank, lobbying firm, or media outlet.  But we the people will have to risk four more years of Trump.

That is, quite literally, an existential threat. 

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

screen_shot_2017-07-26_at_9.09.47_pm.pngJohn Atcheson is author of the novel, 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, both available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson

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