I have been rather quiet about the election for many weeks, partly because Bernie Sanders turned me once again into a partisan rather than an observer. Sanders is right: his campaign accomplished an extraordinary amount. Its greatest achievement was to show via polls that a candidate like him, committed to social democracy for all Americans and a fundamental reshaping of the US along western European lines, could command broader support in the nation than a representative of the status quo like Hillary Clinton. The Democratic establishment, however, includes the mainstream media, which generally ignored him, and has very real ties to critical constituencies, especially among minorities. In addition, the younger voters who are Sanders's base do not seem to have shown up in sufficient numbers. Some of my younger friends expect them to transform the Democratic party in the next four or eight years anyway, but without any leadership from the older generations I do not know how they can do so.
Clinton seems likely to face Donald Trump in November, and this week, the contours of the race re taking shape. Trump, as many noted during the key Republican primaries, has a knack for finding his opponent's jugular. He is beginning to do so once again, by accusing Clinton of playing "the woman card." Many of her supporters, the New York Times informs us this morning, are welcoming Trump's stratagem, and indeed, Clinton herself picked up the challenge in her Tuesday night victory speech. That reflects the reality in which she and her supporters have been living for about thirty years. But how it will play with crucial voters is a very open question.
Let us be clear. For several decades, it has been dogma among the Democratic elite and its allies in journalism and academia that unfairness to women, minorities and gays is the biggest problem facing the United States. This view has its roots in the late 1960s, when a generation of young liberals, rebelling against their parents, seized upon these flaws in American society as proof of their own superior virtue. Within these circles, any suggestion of sexism, racism or homophobia is as detestable as advocacy of racial equality was in the white South 100 years ago. I have believed in fairness all my life, and I certainly favor equal rights for all those groups. But the exclusive emphasis on the problems of those particular groups has inevitably alienated many white men--and more importantly, it has taken away from broader, very serious economic and social problems that affect us all. We now have far too much income inequality, and a financial and tax system which makes it worse every year. We imprison far too many people, regardless of their race and gender. Our infrastructure is crumbling for all of us. While the Democratic Party worries about who has seats at the head table, the foundations of the dining hall are crumbling, and too many Americans lack basic resources.
I doubt very much that anyone in the Clinton campaign will see this post, but if they do, I would like them to think about this. They are not running a support group for nonwhitemales; they are trying to elect their candidate to the White House. One can run an academic department based on the principal that no one will dare disagree with you, but one cannot run an election campaign that way. Every position the candidate takes has to be evaluated based upon the reactions of voters--particularly critical voters. And I doubt very much that the politically correct vote is large enough to elect any President.
Donald Trump's misogyny and xenophobia will induce many normally Republican voters to stay home or vote for Hillary Clinton. But given our electoral system, the question is, where are those voters? In my opinion, most of them are in reliably blue states in New England, the mid-Atlantic region, and the west coast. Those states are going for Clinton and with Trump (or Ted Cruz) leading the Republicans they will go for her by larger majorities. But the election will be decided in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Any sensible campaign will have to target the swing voters--male and female--in those states. I am not in the least convinced that emphasizing equal pay for women, family leave, and more attention to minorities is the way to get those votes.
Donald Trump has wrecked the establishment of his own party and gotten most of the way towards its nomination by appealing to the disaffected voters for whom the establishment has done less than nothing for the last 35 years. There are a great many of those voters in the key states. A Trump Presidency, I feel sure, will do nothing for them. But Trump is appealing to them by stressing truly national issues: immigration and trade agreements. He is arguing, as Clinton is not, that the country is fundamentally going in the wrong direction. Like Sanders, he can argue that she has welcomed trade agreements and financial deregulation, and thus helped get us where we are. And I am confident that some of Clinton's Goldman Sachs speeches, which she carefully kept under raps during the primary season, will leak during the general election campaign, and that they will show her thanking Goldman for the fine things that it has done for the American economy. Trump will accuse her of being part of a corporate establishment that doesn't care about average Americans, and that accusation will contain more than a grain of truth.
And what of the Democratic base? Yes, black voters in particular turned out for Clinton in overwhelming numbers in the primary, even though younger black people, like their white counterparts, favored Sanders. But will they turn out in November in numbers comparable to their support for Barack Obama? Will less well off women be energized by the prospect of a female President? I don't know. What I do know is that a Democrat like Sanders who appealed impartially to all Americans based on economic issues would have been in a much stronger position facing Trump--and it is probably too late for Clinton to adopt that stance, even if she wanted to.
Clinton leads Trump narrowly in national polls at this point, but narrowly. (I would note, however, that given the polarization in the country, the danger that we might face a repeat of 2000,. in which a candidate lost the popular vote but took the electoral college, is quite real.) But if she wins by emphasizing the problems of women and minorities, the polarization in the country will get even worse, and might even lead to serious attempts at secession. From time to time, commentators have compared Clinton to Richard Nixon. The comparison in my opinion is apt. Like Nixon, she has never been deterred by setbacks from pursuing her dream. She, not her husband, is the real "comeback kid." And like Nixon, she has grasped that however unpopular she may be within the opposition party, she could remain a key figure by cultivating her own party's base. What she needs now, however, is Nixon's political horse sense. "Let's get a woman on the ticket," Nixon remarked to William Safire in 1994 shortly before his death. "It hurts the Democrats, but it wold help us." That is the kind of realism the Clinton campaign needs--especially when it comes time to pick the Vice President. The swing voters of the eight states I listed above need to know there will be a place for them in Clinton's America, and a white male on the podium beside her would help.