So as you may have heard, on Tuesday the United States had a Presidential election. I’m trying not to think about the existential implications of this for a republic that, despite the fact that I am not a citizen, nevertheless matters profoundly to me as the place where I grew up and where my parents, brother, in-laws and so on still live. When I think about the issues I care most about — protecting the rights of minorities, taking action to prevent climate change and building a stable international order — I have to say the outlook is not promising. But that’s not what I want to talk about!
If you’re like me, then your post-election-day social media feeds have been full of people with links to articles explaining exactly why the election turned out the way it did. These are often presented as the real reason for Trump’s victory, which contradict the previous reason you believed in. This showcases a remarkable ability to understand the election 24 hours after it by people who, 24 hours before it, were apparently way off base, but let that pass. Here are a few of the explanations I’ve seen so far:
- Clinton was a weak candidate who failed to motivate 2008’s powerful “Obama coalition.” Optional extra: Sanders would have won.
- The Electoral College has once again betrayed us.
- Liberal elites have overlooked the valid anxieties of working-class whites.
- Liberal elites have overlooked the ignorant racism of working-class whites.
- Clinton is friends with too many celebrities.
- American voters do not want a female president.
- Voter suppression in states like North Carolina depressed African-American turnout.
- Young people voted in insufficient numbers.
- Trump voters are throwing a bomb at what they perceive as an unaccountable elite.
Now on the face of it, most of these seem reasonable, except of course for the one about the celebrities (by this view, “ordinary Americans” don’t like celebrities, something I have not seen a lot of evidence of). I might also quibble with the Sanders thing — for most Americans, the word “socialist” is a filthy one, and the guy who didn’t run always looks appealing, as we can see from the New Hampshire voters who wrote Mitt Romney’s name in.
But what seems obvious to me is that, maybe apart from those, they’re all true. Like, voter suppression definitely happened and definitely had an effect. Voter ID laws are all about suppressing the Democratic vote based on essentially groundless concerns about fraud (if you were going to rig an election with phony ballots, hiring extras to impersonate voters would be the absolute worst way you could do it in 2016), and voting rights advocates have been saying so forever. The pattern is pretty clear.
But does that mean that American voters aren’t actually opposed to a female president? I mean, I think you only have to look at the gendered rhetoric of the campaign, especially the unofficial Trump merchandising, to see that a lot of people don’t like the idea that Hillary Clinton is a woman. So that’s true. But the fact that that’s true doesn’t mean that Trump voters aren’t angry at a system that they feel — erroneously or not — isn’t working for them and just want to blow it up. Many of them said as much, and I don’t see any reason to doubt them. And it is true that elites sneer at working-class whites, especially southerners, that conservative elites have done a somewhat better job of hiding the fact, and that those working-class whites have noticed.
So it seems like all or many of these possible explanations hold some water and that we could see them as contributing factors. And I’m sure that if you asked many of the authors who write these stories, they’d agree with you. But they way they’re shared and promoted is as though each of them is the key, the explanation that makes it all make sense (since a Trump victory is understood not to make sense).
My natural inclination is to view these as mainly being the product of how long an online article is meant to be — or of the way that headlines, which everyone knows journalists don’t write themselves, are phrased — and assume that the ultimate goal of a lively debate, well-informed polity, etc. is to be served by people reading a bunch of these and eventually assimilating them all into some general sense of a post-2016 Democratic party or whatever, in the same way that the aftermath of 2004 led to the rise of the Obama coalition. Perhaps. My main point is that the process of understanding how people take their complex and contradictory mess of motives and beliefs and turn that into a multiple-choice answer which then turns into a binary choice is a difficult one.
Of course, this is not to downplay the importance of some of these conclusions. African-Americans, for example, are obviously alarmed by what this seems to say about their countrymen, and it’s not hard to see why. If people want to highlight that reaction, that’s more than fair.
I just mean overall that this is the kind of analytical challenge that historians struggle to overcome. To understand even one of these factors, you have to devote a certain amount of your time to learning about it. As a result, you get a kind of flashlight problem, where we all shine our light very intensely on one thing but more dimly on the areas around it.
I’m also a little surprised that I haven’t seen these two explanations put forward more:
- Americans are reluctant to vote the same party a third term in power.
- James Comey, who had better watch his back.
I’m not sure about the first one, if only because the sample size for presidential elections is so small, but given the thin margins involved, the second one seems like a pretty plausible factor. I dunno.