Elections have unintended consequences
by Tom Sullivan
In another of his strong pieces in New York magazine, Frank Rich takes the liberal media Establishment and Democratic politicians to task for wasting "time and energy chasing unreachable voters in the base of Trump’s electorate."* That is, for trying to work up empathy for Trump voters in a kind of post-9/11 redux: Why do they hate us?
"Perhaps they should hate us," Rich writes, and gives them more reason to in 4,000 words or so.
Rich believes chasing centrist think tank Third Way (I'm not a fan) down a $20 million rabbit hole in the Rust Belt, as its Clintonista president insists, to “restore Democrats as a national party that can win everywhere” is a fool's errand. As is poring over Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash or J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to discover elusive common ground with "the Trumpentariat" and perhaps the key to their opioid-numbed hearts.
After delving into some profiles in self-destructiveness and victimhood in Trump country, Rich concludes:
Perhaps it’s a smarter idea to just let the GOP own these intractable voters. Liberals looking for a way to empathize with conservatives should endorse the core conservative belief in the importance of personal responsibility. Let Trump’s white working-class base take responsibility for its own votes — or in some cases failure to vote — and live with the election’s consequences. If, as polls tell us, many voters who vilify Obamacare haven’t yet figured out that it’s another name for the Affordable Care Act that’s benefiting them — or if they do know and still want the Trump alternative — then let them reap the consequences for voting against their own interests. That they will sabotage other needy Americans along with them is unavoidable in any case now — at least until voters stage an intervention in an election to come.
Trump voters should also be reminded that the elite of the party they’ve put in power is as dismissive of them as Democratic elites can be condescending. “Forget your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap,” Kevin Williamson wrote of the white working class in National Review. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.” He was only saying in public what other Republicans like Mitt Romney say about the “47 percent” in private when they think only well-heeled donors are listening. Besides, if National Review says that their towns deserve to die, who are Democrats to stand in the way of Trump voters who used their ballots to commit assisted suicide?
The problem with Rich's analysis is the "election to come" part. Elections involve math. At the end of Election Day we count votes. Not empathy, not good intentions, not programs, not policies, and not hurt feelings. Whether Democrats can win back control of Congress and state legislatures is about numbers.
Another problem — and this is hardly Rich's alone — is that "Trump voters" always seems to imply red states, or to at least to conflate red states with Trump voters. And after reading Rich's take on Trump voters, the knee-jerk response is to say to hell with them. But there are more than Republican voters in those red states. Those states each get two U.S. senators and a number of representatives; they each have governors and legislatures, many dominated by Republicans just as crazy as Trump. Abandoning them is not a progressive option.
Democratic activists should not hold their breaths waiting for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) to come to Jesus and become more than "old boys" reelection funds. And the jury is out on whether a Democratic National Committee that snapped up Hillary for America veterans who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory will, as promised, restore Howard Dean's 50 state plan in more than name only, or adopt a time horizon that looks beyond the next election. Their focus on (what they consider) sure bets is why state organizations have withered since Obama pulled the plug on "50 state." But liberal, grassroots activists cannot ignore red states unless they have started ignoring math the way Trump voters ignore climate science. Nationally and locally the numbers don't add up for winning back Congress and writing off red states. (Ask Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina what it means leaving state legislatures in Republican hands.) Liberals cannot have both a winning 50 state plan and a policy, as Rich's piece implies, of giving 60 percent of states the middle finger.
If you don't show up to play, you forfeit. Too many Republican sinecures in red states go uncontested because dispirited Democrats there have neither the training, the funding, nor the infrastructure to contest them. When Dean sent organizers into such places in 2005, some had not heard from the national party in years. By 2006, Democrats were chalking up big wins. Conditions are ripe for them to do so again.
I wrote in December:
Swing states that went red in November aren't necessarily all that red. In North Carolina, 2.2 million voters (46%) chose Hillary Clinton for president. 2.1 million (45%) chose former ACLU attorney Deborah Ross for U.S. Senate. We should be careful where we aim the broad brush with the red paint. There are a lot of supporters in those "red" states, and they've had their share of being ignored by Democrats' shortsighted bi-coastal presidential strategy.
Les Leopold also reminded readers
(data from 2010):
Rural America, also, is not lily white. Hispanics and African Americans make up a total of 17.5% of rural and small town America.
Post inauguration, both those groups living out where rural Republicans control state house and senate seats have even more reason than white liberals to channel their anger into action.
That brings up yet another math-related reason for not tossing out red state babies with Grover Norquist's bathwater. Since November 8, the activist momentum among progressives is impressive, an unintended consequence of the Trump win:
Indivisble groups reported around the country.
Our Revolution groups reported around the country.
Republicans in Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas had best not look over their shoulders.
It would be a shame to squander all that fresh activism and youthful enthusiasm on misdirected anger. But perhaps that's what Rich meant by suggesting Democrats weaponize it. "Instead of studying how to talk to 'real people,'” he wrote, "might they start talking like real people?" Absolutely. So long as they do it not from TV studios but on the stump in districts and in races they need to win to regain majorities in state houses and in Congress. As The King suggested, "A little less conversation, a little more action."
Trump's win has produced an outpouring of progressive activism not seen since 2008. Obama fired up Democrats, but not like Orange Julius. Counties across North Carolina and elsewhere are seeing record numbers of organized Democratic precincts and Democratic meetings overflowing, and in a non-election year. In red states where Republicans are accustomed to Democrats sitting out mid-term elections, groups like Our Revolution, Indivisible, and others are organizing to retake state capitols and Congress. When Trump voters find out what their votes will cost them, they'll be the ones staying home in 2018. Those too are unintended consequences from the last election angry Democrats would be fools not to seize on. The best defense and all that.
* Notice I didn't use Judge Gorsuch's "Democrat judge" formulation.