As I repeatedly checked social media last night and throughout the day today, somehow proving myself a glutton for punishment and wallowing in the depression and despair of my fellow liberals, a common theme in the posts I saw was thinking about all the people who would endure very real suffering in a Trump-Pence administration, the Mexican immigrants who would face deportation, the Muslims who would face ratcheted-up xenophobia, the young people who would lose their health insurance if Obamacare was scrapped without any meaningful replacement, the young unmarried women who could not only lose their access to contraception and other needed care but could see Roe v. Wade itself scrapped by a newly re-energized conservative Supreme Court majority, the gays and lesbians whose right to marry could also be scrapped by said majority, the transgender people that could see efforts like North Carolina’s bathroom law made the law of the land, and many others besides who could lose all the progress made during the Obama era if not before.
Obviously, if you’re an immigrant, Muslim, unemployed young person, sexually active unmarried woman, a member of the LGBT community, or a bleeding heart liberal who cares about all these groups, all these issues matter to you a great deal, but clearly they don’t matter enough to a large portion of the country to move them to vote for Hillary Clinton. What mattered to them was “draining the swamp” in Washington, “taking their country back”, and doing something about their perceived economic malaise. While the left wanted to take on Wall Street, lower the gap between the 99% and the 1%, and generally improve the economic life of the nation, until Bernie Sanders came along the closest they came to actually doing anything about it was a brief flowering of aimless protests known as Occupy Wall Street that quickly fizzled into nothingness. Instead the left spent the Obama era making life better for all those marginalized groups, especially the LGBT community, by shaming states that passed particularly anti-LGBT or anti-immigrant bills and supporting gay marriage efforts leading to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. In retrospect, it was the biggest mistake they could have made.
On the eve of the 2008 election, I said that after the abuses of the Bush years, the Democrats had a chance to give themselves a blank check for a generation. They have had only mixed success, and one of their biggest failings was the inability to improve the fortunes of middle America. To be sure, focusing on LGBT rights and the rights of other marginalized groups didn’t have monied interests like Wall Street and oil companies allayed against them, and often those groups were actually on the left’s side on those issues, so taking on those monied interests would have been much harder in the short run. But had Obama led eight years of increasing peace, prosperity, and palpable improvement in the fortunes of the middle and working class, it would have given much of the country reason to trust the Democrats on everything else, making it easier for the left to make life easier for those marginalized groups. Instead, middle America got the sense that things were getting better for all the Others but that they themselves were treading water at best, which led them to grow resentful of the “liberal elite” leading the country in a direction that they perceived would leave them behind, dashing the left’s hopes of electoral success and making it harder to implement the rest of their agenda, or of keeping the gains they did make.
Again, calling last night a victory for hatred, misogyny, and intolerance, as I’ve seen many on the left do, is probably overstating things; I’m of the opinion that last night can be explained in two words, the economy and “change”. Given the left’s victories everywhere except control of federal offices, it’s clear that most Americans broadly agree on the left’s agenda, but when it comes to federal office, the people on which the election hinges care only about those two things (and as a result, I’m now convinced Sanders would have crushed Trump in a landslide). By not properly focusing on the economy, though, the left accidentally stoked resentment towards what they were doing, allowing that hatred and intolerance to come to the fore, while the left didn’t recognize the predicament they had placed themselves in or its severity until it was too late.