By Thomas Kelsall | @Thomas_Kelsall
Every day we hear a new explanation as to why Donald Trump is President of the United States.
First it was Russia’s fault, then Bernie Sanders was to blame, next it was sexism, then it was the Green Party, Wikileaks, Barack Obama, uninformed voters, the FBI, the Democrats, campaign financing, Facebook and now Cambridge Analytica.
If you think I am exaggerating, read What Happened? by Hillary Clinton, where you will find these excuses detailed in full by the losing candidate herself.
But one reason stands above all else for why the Democrats failed in 2016; Hillary Clinton was the worst presidential candidate in modern US history.
Before I get charged with a litany of lazy criticisms for this statement, let me clarify three points.
This does not mean Clinton was unqualified or incapable of being President.
This does not mean other factors had absolutely no influence, to pin a presidential election result down to one factor is reductionistic.
And of course, Clinton was preferable to a Trump Presidency.
What I wish to highlight is Clinton and her campaign lacked any progressive policy substance, were completely out of touch with voters, arrogant, tone-deaf, immensely corrupt, impossible to trust and perpetuated an incredibly unpopular and dangerous status quo.
The refusal of Clinton supporters to engage in any form of critical self-reflection on this matter speaks volumes of their political incompetence and elitism.
Whether it is Clinton Advisor Peter Daou relentlessly blaming the left, MSNBC Host Rachel Maddow’s nonstop Russia conspiracies, or her colleague Joy Ann-Reid’s smear campaign against Bernie Sanders and his supporters—the refusal of the Democratic establishment to take responsibility for its enormous election failure is astonishing.
To illustrate my point, I would first like to highlight all of Clinton’s flaws as a candidate, and then explain why each of her attempts to absolve herself of blame are misguided.
Why vote for Hillary?
Let us conduct a thought experiment.
Can you remember one specific proposal or promise made by the Clinton campaign?
I bet you can remember Trump’s insistence on building a wall, deporting immigrants, banning Muslims, getting the US out of NAFTA, bringing jobs back, rebuilding the military and cutting taxes.
But if you fail to recall what Clinton stood for don’t feel too bad—when 60 per cent of Americans and 75 per cent of Democrats supported a Medicare-for-all system (used in every other industrialised country), it was hard to get excited about Clinton’s paid Medicare buy-in for people who reach the age of 55.
It is difficult to fully encapsulate how uninspiring incremental policy proposals like this are.
When over 640,000 Americans go bankrupt each year due to medical bills, and more than 26,000 die because of a lack of insurance, a bold push towards a universal solution would have been immensely popular, especially considering the Republicans have proposed to take away 13 million peoples’ health insurance.
Unfortunately, between 2013 and 2015, Clinton received $2.8 million from the private health industry in speeches alone.
This type of legal corruption makes it practically impossible to support any popular improvements to the public healthcare system.
To continue this theme of corporate money, what reason did Clinton give working-class Democrats to vote for her?
The candidate of the supposed working-class party took around $64 million from Wall Street during the campaign, partially blamed the public for causing the global financial crisis (an extraordinary lie), and believed in having “public and private” positions on policy.
In 2016, over 40 million Americans were living in poverty, nearly 50 per cent of workers earnt less than $30,000 a year, and the country had an enormous disdain for political and Wall Street elites; partly due to unprecedented levels of income inequality.
Despite these clear indicators of an imminent political revolt, the Democratic establishment made sure Clinton would be the nominee—the quintessential candidate of the elites—who happened to be part of a political dynasty which had previously crushed the working class.
This gave Trump endless campaign fodder to appeal to hurting Americans, repeatedly slamming Bill Clinton-era trade deals, Hillary’s Wall Street connections and creating the illusion he was the fighter for the working class.
The consequences of this reared their ugly head on election night when Trump won traditionally working class, safe Democratic states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
It was Clinton’s fault for utterly failing to energise a weary and demoralised blue-collar base.
Not absolving racism or xenophobia of any blame, but Trump turned a third of the 700 counties which voted for Obama in consecutive elections, a change that cannot be explained away as racism.
If you are still sceptical about the link between Clinton and the critical failure in the Rust Belt, consider the outcomes of the Democratic Primaries in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Unlike Trump however, Sanders supported progressive policies like Medicare-for-all, free public college, Wall Street reform, solving income inequality and raising the minimum wage.
Sanders’s anti-establishment economic populism gave him upset wins in the Wisconsin and Michigan Democratic Primaries, illustrating the Rust Belt’s desire for a populist economic message.
The warning signs were there, the response was not.
Clinton did not travel to Wisconsin once during the campaign and directed a tenth of the resources to Michigan in comparison to previous Democratic nominees.
A former Clinton operative speaking to the Huffington Post after the election described it best.
“It was arrogance, arrogance that they were going to win, that this was all wrapped up.”
This merely scratches the surface of Clinton’s failure to appeal to any sort of voter base.
For those seeking a non-interventionist alternative to over 15 years of multi-trillion-dollar US wars in the Middle East—Clinton’s foreign policy record resembled that of a war criminal.
As a Senator, she voted to authorise the illegal and disastrous war in Iraq.
As Secretary of State, she strongly advocated for an illegal bombing campaign in Libya to remove dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Her social progressivism was disingenuous at best.
She did not support gay marriage until 2013 and consistently advocated against it during her years as Senator.
Her purity as a feminist was undermined by the millions of dollars her foundation received from Saudi Arabia.
Clinton’s record on racial issues was also dubious as, while First Lady, she strongly advocated for her husband’s 1994 crime bill which doubled the population of federal prisons and contributed to the mass incarceration of African Americans.
In addition, Clinton infamously labelled Black youth as “super-predators”.
Despite somehow managing to disillusion almost all segments of the voting population at some stage, the last 18 months have been filled with Clinton and her supporters blaming anyone and anything except themselves for our current predicament.
“It was Russia and Facebook”
It will take years, possibly decades to fully ascertain the extent of Russia’s influence in the 2016 election, but there are several reasons to be sceptical of this increasingly bizarre story.
First of all, we are supposed to believe $100,000 worth of Russian Facebook ads swung an election when a combined total of $10.21 billion was spent on advertising by both parties.
Images Courtesy of The New York Times
Although these are only two examples, it is a decent representation of the general absurdity of some of these ads, many of which were riddled with spelling errors and broken English.
As Associate Editor of New York Magazine Brian Feldman points out, there is no reliable way to quantify the impact of these ads, but the numbers suggest it was minimal.
“To anyone who’s worked in online advertising or social-media management, the $100,000 spent by the Russian government is laughably small, no matter how precisely targeted,” Mr Feldman said.
“In contrast, the official Trump campaign spent $90 million on digital ads, and unlike the Russians, had assistance from Facebook employees to target and deploy them effectively.”
This raises the more pressing issue of the influence of third parties like Cambridge Analytica, who harvest data with the purpose of producing psychologically-targeted advertising.
While the early reports on the company’s use of Facebook highlight a much larger reach (over 87 million people) and a much more disturbing method of personalisation, we are still yet to see any concrete evidence detailing the effect it had.
As Mr Feldman says, we might never get this evidence, and if we do, it could be hard to infer causation or be riddled with biases.
“Even with the absurd amount of data collected by Facebook and its various third-party partners, it can be hard to pin down the actual effects of a given campaign,” Mr Feldman said.
“Everyone is incentivised to play up or play down results… Facebook rarely makes raw data public, and its public metrics can be misleading.”
Something we have clearer knowledge about is the abject failure of the Clinton campaign’s advertising strategy.
75 per cent of Clinton’s campaign advertisements were devoted to attacking Trump, while only 25 per cent were dedicated to policy.
The study which investigated this also noted previous psychological research suggesting this type of advertising creates a “backlash effect”, and actually diminishes the credibility of the ad sponsor.
In an even more explicit failure, Clinton’s campaign spent nearly nothing on advertising in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania until the week before the election, instead choosing to devote resources to red states like Arizona which did not “turn blue” on election day.
Graph Courtesy of Wesleyan Media Project
If only the Clinton campaign could have kept their corruption and unethical politics concealed from the public a little longer, then they would have won the election!
Pointing to Wikileaks for the election loss is like blaming someone for snitching on your extramarital affair: whose fault was this in the first place?
Although Wikileaks is an imperfect messenger, it is amazing how the blame and scrutiny falls upon the whistle-blower and not the offender.
Wikileaks exposed information of public interest in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) email leaks.
This included revelations that the DNC leaked debate questions in advance to Clinton, President Obama lied about his knowledge of Clinton’s illegal private email server, incidents of collusion between the DNC and the Clinton campaign, pay-to-play politics in the Clinton Foundation, and former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s bullying of the media behind closed doors.
Clinton has repeatedly slammed Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for his role in the election, most notably labelling him a “nihilistic opportunist” and his organisation a “fully owned subsidiary of Russian intelligence” on the ABC last October.
Three points worth noting here.
One, outside of their failure to remove personal contact details, Wikileaks could only weaponise the information to the extent that Clinton’s corruption allowed them to.
Secondly, Wikileaks is non-partisan, and has repeatedly exposed scandals on all sides of politics.
In fact, it was determined throughout much of the campaign to acquire Donald Trump’s tax returns.
Finally, as John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker at the time, most people already knew Clinton engaged in shady dealings, the leaks could hardly constitute as a major shift in voter perception.
“There’s no denying that some of the materials, particularly the extracts of paid speeches that Clinton delivered… are of genuine public interest,” said Mr Cassidy.
“But did any of this surprise anybody? The stage-managed nature of Clinton’s campaign has been obvious all along… going through these materials over the past couple of days, I found them illuminating but underwhelming.”
A country willing to elect a President who openly brags about sexually assaulting women clearly has an issue with sexism.
Sexism was also a strong predictor of voting intention for Donald Trump.
While these two statements are basic truisms, there is still not a clear connection between sexism and the results of the 2016 election.
For one, the voting comparisons between the 2012 and 2016 elections illustrate no meaningful shift.
Strikingly, Clinton performed worse among female voters, polling one percentage point lower than Obama did in 2012.
While this data is useful for context, the popular vote does not determine the outcome.
Of more importance, the Electoral College was decided by 112,000 votes in three states.
As Tom Bevan writes for RealClearPolitics, it would be a leap to attribute sexism to what happened in the Rust Belt.
“Trump increased the Republican vote share among males from the 2012 election (+3 in Wisconsin, +5 in Michigan, +6 in Pennsylvania), while Clinton lost male vote share in all three states (-7 in Wisconsin, -9 in Michigan, -8 in Pennsylvania),” Mr Bevan writes.
“Even if you attribute that shift mostly or entirely to sexism, which is implausible, Clinton also lost female vote share in all three states (-4 in Wisconsin, -4 in Michigan, -1 in Pennsylvania).
“Had she merely been able to win the same percentage of the female vote that Obama won in 2012, she would have won Wisconsin and Michigan.”
Rather, these statistics show that across both genders Clinton was viewed negatively, and there are empirical problems with highlighting sexism’s role in the states that mattered.
Problems that could have been avoided
Clinton to some extent is correct in lamenting having to follow in the footsteps of President Obama who was voted into office twice.
The Democrats have not won three consecutive presidential terms since the 1940s.
But no party has retained the White House when real disposable income grows at a rate below 3.1 per cent, in 2016, it was at 1.3 per cent.
What exactly did Clinton do to separate herself from the unpopular status quo of the Obama years?
Practically nothing in terms of policy, in fact, Obama was one of Clinton’s leading surrogates, a phenomenon without precedent in modern US history.
It was a complacent mistake for Clinton to brand her candidacy as a continuation of Obama’s work, a concept which failed to resonate with a population in an anti-establishment mood.
Simplest of these would have been to run a fair primary campaign.
Progressives were rightfully outraged by the collusion between the DNC and the Clinton campaign to ostracise Sanders.
Overwhelming evidence of the undemocratic tactics used include the “invisible primary” which took place years before 2016, the role of unelected superdelegates in choosing the nominee, and purging voter rolls of potential Sanders voters.
Even after the primary when Sanders was continually telling his base to vote the party, Clinton missed opportunities to win over their support.
Most notable was the tone-deaf nomination of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine for Vice President, an uninspiring moderate who supported unpopular policies like bank deregulation.
A legitimate excuse
Incredibly, the Electoral College is not on Clinton’s hit list.
America’s method of electing Presidents is an insult to democracy, with 2016 marking the fifth time a candidate won the popular vote but lost the election.
While it is correct to excoriate the Clinton campaign for losing an unlosable election, it would be unfair to not acknowledge the absurdity of the anachronistic system of democracy in America.
Image Courtesy of Fortune