Intense media scrutiny of minute-by-minute politics leads to logical errors. We instill current events with tremendous significance out of proportion with their actual consequences. We find it hard to imagine abrupt change — even after experiencing abrupt change. In that vein, it is worth reflecting on 2016 with the hindsight of a year’s experience and the results of Tuesday’s election. We come to five conclusions.
First, pundits continue to undervalue Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity in 2016. In Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties, Virginia Governor-elect Ralph Northam got a higher percentage of voters than she did. One can imagine independent or #NeverHillary Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton and didn’t think Donald Trump would win anyway. Those voters are now scared and stunned — and decided to send a message now that they have had it with President Trump and Trumpism. Duplicate that situation in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — where Trump won by a scant 79,000 votes combined — and you see how Clinton was perhaps uniquely incapable of winning. Wouldn’t a generic Democrat have done better? In short, Democrats will solve a good deal of their problem when Clinton is not on the ballot. Northam was as close to a “generic Democrat” as one can get. A generic Democrat can trounce a Trump Republican.
Second, the 2016 election sent pundits scrambling to the Rust Belt like anthropologists looking to understand “Trump Man,” the angry, displaced blue-collar worker with no college education and an irrational animus toward foreigners. Could he be swayed with a less racist message? Haven’t we failed him? Isn’t this about elite failure? The answers, we suggest, are: Unknown, no and no, respectively. Maybe media and political gurus should have gone to suburbs populated by college-educated, white-collar voters with an irrational animus toward Clinton. Ironically, it may be the loss of college-educated voters and married women that will spell the end of Trumpism. Could they turn out in droves when they see civility, democratic institutions and even truth getting trashed? Most definitely. Even Northam could get them excited — about defending tolerance, functional government and facts.
Third, the Democratic Party, we were told, was a captive of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). All the energy is on the far left, pundits intoned. Well, Northam beat Tom Perriello handily in the primary and slaughtered his Republican opponent. His soothing demeanor and bipartisan ethos combined with a center-left agenda seemed to do the trick. Maybe in 2018 and 2020, Democrats should look for candidates that meet that description — boring, competent, decent.
Fourth, the GOP is now Trump’s party, so #NeverTrumpers have nowhere to go, we were told a year ago. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) or Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) were cranks and malcontents who didn’t represent any sizable segment of the electorate. Or something. Well, voters always have a choice. Some of them stop being self-identified Republicans (in Virginia, you don’t register by party), choosing to be independent. Alternatively, if the Democrats are going to offer perfectly reasonable, decent people for office, these voters can decide to vote “D,” sometimes for the first time in their lives. Perhaps there are more, if not #NeverTrumpers, then at least #DismayedTrumpers, Republicans who thought they’d give Trump a chance and now see the horrible consequences of their choice. Going forward, Republicans will have a choice — to continue as captives under Trump, to wrestle the party back or to leave. In short, the conquest of the GOP may mean a much smaller, Trumpier GOP; or it may mean a GOP primed for civil war. In either case, Trump’s victory with white non-college-educated voters does not look nearly as sustainable as it did a year ago.
Fifth, the mood of the country a year after Trump’s victory may not be as anti-government as some thought. Instead of unrelenting hostility toward government, verging on nihilism, we see voters going for pro-government candidates, even ones seeking to expand health care. You never know what you stand to lose until you look into the abyss and see the loss of a politically sane and functional government.
In sum, maybe the 2016 race was about a very, very bad Democratic candidate, not primarily or only a rejection of government. Maybe the road back to political normalcy goes through the suburbs and educated voters, especially women. It could be that Democrats just need a centrist candidate without baggage, not a democratic socialist, to lead them to victory. And perhaps #NeverTrumpers, cut loose from the GOP, become the new, sought-after voting contingent (like soccer moms!), who will look for rational, knowledgeable candidates whatever the party designation, so long as the candidates are committed to good government and restoration of American democratic institutions. We just don’t know — and probably won’t know for sure until 2018 or 2020. There are no final victories or final defeats in politics.