Contributors Include Ernie Barkett, Anthony Erhardt, and Dominic Grossi.
The 2016 presidential election exposed the deep and visceral divisions not just within the country as a whole, but also within the Democratic Party itself. The charisma of the progressive movement started by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and the human capital of the Clinton wing of the Democratic party are not working cohesively, which is necessary for the party to strategize and make up for the devastating defeat by Donald Trump. The challenge of the post 2016 era is for emerging leaders of the party to identify the crucial issues that are causing Americans to lose hope in the Democratic Party as an organization that will promote their values that have always made America great. This being said, the following question has arisen: How can the Democratic Party learn from such a pivotal moment in US history? The answers are that the Democratic Party must push for an inclusive and humanizing economic agenda that will make the voters less susceptible to right wing populism. We must continue to expect more from the US media in order for our institutions of information to properly function, and must push as a party for candidates that will amalgamate the positive aspects of the Sanders and Clinton wing of the Democratic Party.
A Humanizing Agenda of Economic Justice
One of the most important aspects of the Democratic Party’s historic loss was the role of economic populism that lead to heightening support for President Trump. This economic populism results from increasing economic inequality and the low intergenerational mobility in the United States. According to a July 2016 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the real incomes in the 25 advanced economies (the United States included) fell for more than two-thirds of the population. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund noted in 2015 that the trends in falling or flat incomes have been accompanied by disproportionate gains to the top ten percent of the wealthiest in the United States and around the world. This inequality translates into declining intergenerational mobility in the United States. As the Rand Corporation concludes in an extensive 2016 literature review on the issue, the overwhelming majority of cross country evidence demonstrates a consistent and robust relationship between economic inequality and declining intergenerational mobility. This is due to two reasons. First, record levels of income inequality have translated into inequality of access to high quality institutions that develop human capital, such as education and skills development. Second, income inequality causes inequality of access by those in the lowest income brackets to social capital, including social networks that hamper their ability to find financially secure professions.
The resulting declining mobility in the United States created anxiety for the future and laid a foundation for President Trump to exploit for his own politically expedient goals. While 2012 saw voter turnout below 2004 levels of 126 million votes, 2016 saw a strong mobilization effect at almost 139 million votes in response to an election that was dominated by populism. In a new working paper by the economist Jonathan Rothwell of Gallup that was revised as recently as September 2016, it was found that low intergenerational mobility in a geographic area was a very strong predictor of support for Trump in the geographic areas of the United States that were studied. This makes sense from a demographic standpoint, because the Rand Corporation found in September of 2016 that a fully-fledged Trump supporter was more likely to be an isolationist and of low socioeconomic status than Clinton supporters, who were of comparatively higher socioeconomic status and were more integrationist in terms of social and foreign policy. Not only is this true in the aggregate, we have seen numerous anecdotal cases that demonstrate the truth of this finding. President Trump’s new Chief of Staff, Steve Bannon, considers himself to be an economic nationalist who rejects the developments made with globalization and is one of the major forces of the new “Alt Right” movement that supports Trump.
Such reactionary movements were present in the rust belt states that supported Trump, because Trump was able to tap into the economic anxiety that came from the lack mobility that is present today in those rust belt states. The Clinton campaign failed to tap into that anxiety with a positive economic message. Instead, Clinton focused strongest on an anti-Trump message that did not resonate with working people and focused on the weaknesses of her opponent rather than the strengths of her candidacy. The aforementioned Rand analysis also found in their extensive random sample that the difference in percent terms among Clinton supporters between being mostly pro-Clinton and mostly anti Trump was .3%, while the difference between being mostly pro-Trump and mostly anti-Clinton was 4%. That is literally an over 1300% difference and it illustrates the need for Democrats to focus on positive messaging that stresses economic justice and speaks to average Americans in a way that resonates with folks at an emotional level. At the point where a Harvard University analysis of polling data found that 51% of young people do not support capitalism, economic justice with effective messaging needs to be highlighted in the future.
The Failure of the US Media and the Need for A Response
An additional factor that we as a party need to address is the lackluster performance of the US media in serving as a reliable institution of information. Institutionally, the US media has played a very important role in shaping the political discourse that has occurred in the United States. However, due to the media’s interest in a business model that brings in the most views, Trump was granted the ability to use the media in order to give him the name recognition that contributed to his victory. Rather than combatting Trump’s messages, which lacked factual support, the media gave Trump a platform with excessive free airtime to disseminate his message to millions of Americans that were misled, but influenced by his message. That is demonstrative of the American media’s underlying weakness as Julia R. Azari describes in the academic journal Political Communication “the media’s main institutional role comes from repeating, rather than challenging, promises, frameworks, and narratives.” NBC News failed in particular to force substantive dialogue between the two candidates on multiple occasions: from the botched commander in chief forum to the vacuous first debate between Clinton and Trump that missed an opportunity to cover the issues that our government has failed to address in the 21st century.
This is not new, of course. The US media has been notorious for failing to cover important stories on climate change in the quantity that they have deserved to be covered. The Cancun Climate Change Conference for example saw fewer coverage in the entire US Media than the Guardian Newspaper alone, and when coverage was promoted many indigenous and environmental activists were excluded from coverage. In tandem with an education system that has failed to prepare America for the 21st century, the American media has failed to educate America on basic political knowledge. In aggregate terms, as former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it that this ignorance “creates an American political environment more hospitable to extremist simplifications—abetted by interested lobbies—than to nuanced views of the inherently more complex global realities of the post–Cold War era.” We as a party must demand more from our media if we want to create an American system that is ready to commit to efficacious leadership on the world stage.
Collaboration Between the Sanders and Clinton Wing of the Democratic Party
When moving away from the role of the US media, the most important issue moving forward is to address the lack of unity between the Sanders and the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. The coordination between them was not there in the rust belt states and many Sanders surrogates felt like the campaign was not listening to them during crucial moments of the campaign. Regardless of how one feels about the merits of those concerns, it is important to point out that they have not been directly refuted by Hillary Clinton and if those concerns did exist, then why was there not a persistent effort to ensure that the two campaigns could come to an understanding? The reality is that people wanted this year to be a change election, and the campaign was so convinced that they were going to win to the point where they did not feel like it needed to run a campaign that focused on the grassroots. Michigan was lost due to a lack of coordination with not just the Sanders team, but also with the internal party officials who were pushing for more campaign stops and had been signaling to the Brooklyn headquarters that something was indeed wrong with the data analysis that Brooklyn was using. The result of this fundamental divide between these elements of the party and this historic loss is that 46% of young Democrats are now pessimistic about the future of the party
This lack of synergy between the Clinton campaign and local Democratic Party organizations was also present to a certain in many Ohio communities. While the Clinton campaign did a good job coordinating with the Cuyahoga and Summit County Democratic Party, it did not do enough to reach out to local campaigns that experienced a resurgence in energy with the rise of Trump in the Youngstown and Canton area, where the local parties struggled to coordinate with the campaign in devising campaign messaging that took into account the local knowledge and expertise of the community in which Clinton was campaigning. This included a focus on economic issues instead of social issues that seemed to take a large portion of the messaging. Plus, the perception of the leadership of the Kent State college democrat’s chapter was that Clinton was unable to appeal to many of the progressive Bernie Sanders supporters who wanted a change election that would combat special interests in the political process. These perceptions in these critical areas of Ohio matter as they can make the difference between winning one of America’s most important swing state and losing it. As a result, the party needs to invest in new unifying leadership to lead the Democratic Party in the future.
These new unifying leaders need to satisfy two criteria in order to be viable candidates for the American populace. First, they need to have an evidence-based policy platform that will provide realistic policy solutions. From the perspective of young Democrats within Youngstown, Akron, Kent, and Canton the biggest strength of the presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was his appeal to many at the grassroots with an empathetic kind of populism that energized voters to support a broad based agenda that was intended to be inclusive of all Americans. However, the biggest weakness of Bernie Sanders’s campaign was his policy platform that was outside the realm of campaign finance reform. Sanders’s economic policy would have resulted in inflated budget deficits and were based off of flawed economic models which were critiqued extensively in academic circles and this credible criticism should be listened to. The economists that have critiqued his fiscal policy as well as his flawed single payer health care proposal were either non-partisan or even left leaning, which means that if the Democratic Party wants to be a party that promotes realistic reforms that will benefit the majority of Americans, then evidence-based policymaking must be at the heart of our political decision-making.
Additionally, leaders cannot maintain direct links with lobbyists advocating for special interests. The reality is that the perception of the average voter was that Clinton did not have the credibility to be president, which could be an explanation for why voter turnout was lower than it should have been among the democratic base in important battleground states. A poll conducted just six days before the election found that a plurality (46%) of likely voters trusted Trump more than Clinton most likely due to the controversy surrounding Clinton’s email server. The release of the paid speeches to Goldman Sachs by WikiLeaks were most likely a major reason for this distrust, because it contradicted promises for campaign finance reform in the general election and campaign finance reform was one of the most important issues that brought many people– young and old –to support Senator Sanders in the primary. However, the release of those speeches was not the only red flag. Clinton’s second largest industry contributor to her campaign was the finance, insurance, and real estate industry and her plan for Wall Street was silent on the regulation of the asset management industry that contains thirty trillion dollars in global wealth. These kinds of links are not good for a presidential candidate. While Clinton advocated an evidenced- based policy platform, a presidential candidate cannot win a general election if the candidate raises many doubts concerning her credibility, which undermines trust.
Simultaneously, this is an indication that money in politics is an important issue for future elections. A recent literature review published in the Annual Review of Political Science deduced from the literature that strong evidence points to the conclusion that the influx of money in politics is strongly related to the policy outputs that emerge from the legislative process, which explains why the United States is 54th in the world in terms of the perceptions of electoral integrity index, which is a measure of the transparency of election processes around the world. This is why a study from Benjamin Page of Northwestern University and Martin Giles from Princeton University showed that the United States has an elite driven system of policy influence, which fits the very definition of plutocracy. So, how does this relate to the fact that Clinton lost rural voters three to one and that the margin of preference for Clinton among African Americans and Hispanics went down from 2012? It is because these demographics of voters that have historically low levels of intergenerational mobility perceived that the system is rigged against them and they could not trust Clinton to faithfully and consistently represent their interests, as opposed to doing what is politically expedient and appealing to a so called elite constituency.
So, in order for the Democratic Party to learn from 2016, new democratic leaders must emerge that can champion campaign finance reform and utilize populist grassroots efforts to promote a platform constructed from evidence- based policies. According to a literature review on populism and democracy by Noam Gidron and Bart Bonikowski of Harvard University, after a populist party assumes power, the effect on the quality of democracy is either moderately positive or moderately negative. The former is possible for the Democratic Party if it utilizes the energy of the majority will to support innovative policy solutions that incorporate the large amount of human capital present in the US today. Integration of the Sanders coalition into the Democratic Party is crucial for ensuring a healthy populist element within the Democratic Party, while using the expertise of academics, think tanks, and technocrats that came from the Clinton team to achieve the goals of that positive populism. The start of this new strategy must be at the DNC, which must reach out to young people in order to integrate them into the party. The new chair of the DNC must be Keith Ellison or someone of similar stature and mind set, or else the supporters of Sanders will continue to hold a grudge against the Democratic Party and we cannot let that happen, especially since Ellison is a proven, tolerant, and transparent Democratic leader.
The future of the Democratic Party will be fraught with struggle, and it will not be easy to overcome the barriers we now face. However, what we as Americans must understand is that our party must be reformed at an internal level for it to serve the broad stretch of Americans that are struggling to make ends meet. From the college student to the retired senior citizen, it is time for these groups to come together for a time of healing and rejuvenation. It is time for the Bernie Bros to unite with the most passionate of Clinton supporters in order for us to become aware of the deep weaknesses that we have incurred as a party. However, there is no need to fear because the vision of democratic ideals remains strong, and these ideals will put us on the right side of history amidst the challenges we as a party of future leaders face.
The author and contributors to this article have served on the executive boards of College Democrats chapters representing The University of Akron, Kent State University, and Youngstown State University. They collectively have experience in the Akron/Canton, Kent, and Youngstown areas.