We just made it through what may well be the biggest election of our lifetimes. And what a ride it was. With a whiplash ending. I and other progressives were shocked — many are still in shock — by the outcome. Where do progressives go now? What do we do to get over what seemed like an unthinkable outcome?
First, we reflect on why President-elect Donald Trump (yes, it’s hard to even write this phrase) won. There are a ton of reasons why he won, but we can’t lay all the blame on FBI Director James Comey’s last-minute meddling with his letters to Congress about Hillary Clinton’s emails that ultimately contained no new information. Nor can we place all the blame on an at-times-lackluster campaign by Clinton, or her and her husband’s serious baggage.
The biggest lesson here seems to be that many people who were inspired to come out and vote (twice) for President Obama stayed home this time around. It was a serious turnout problem that led to Trump’s win. His supporters were fired up to a scary degree. Her supporters were mostly thinking (and some saying), “At least she’s not as bad as him.”
Another key lesson from this election is the degree to which working-class white voters have become disaffected with the Democratic Party. This demographic has been a key sector of that party’s winning coalition for decades now, but Trump’s message to economically fearful voters — yes, including a strong racist and misogynistic tint — resonated loudly and pulled many away from their traditional Democratic loyalties.
Let’s not sugarcoat where we are now. Trump’s stated agenda is, for the most part, highly antithetical to progressive causes. He has discussed his priorities for his first 100 days throughout the past few months, and his agenda focuses on rolling back Obama’s achievements on climate change and green energy, defunding U.N. climate change programs and appointing a highly conservative justice to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court — after Senate Republicans unconscionably failed to do their constitutional duty and even hold a vote in the past nine months on Obama’s nominee for that post.
Some silver linings
I’m a silver linings kind of guy, however, and one of the best silver linings from this highly unexpected outcome is a retrenchment and a regrouping of progressive forces in our culture, a renewed focus on local issues and a reconsideration of how best to work with people who don’t consider themselves progressive.
There is also a serious effort to better understand why almost half of voters thought Trump was the better candidate, when most progressives would sooner have voted for Ronald McDonald than Trump, a massively flawed candidate and human being.
It seems that many of Trump’s supporters recognized his flaws but ignored them as less important than the benefits they hoped he’ll bring to the White House and the political culture of our capital.
Another silver lining: It’s likely that if Clinton had won that by the time 2020 arrived, after 12 years of Democrats in the White House, we’d be on the verge of civil war. There are deeply opposed worldviews at work in our country, and we’ve already seen in this last election cycle how talk of violent opposition, rigged elections and Second Amendment rights could well have led to actual violence if Clinton had won.
And if she won again in 2020, it probably would have become even worse by 2024. With a Trump step backwards on progressive causes, perhaps the country will be ready for two steps forward in the next cycle. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself.
We may, under a Trump presidency, also see some progress on campaign finance reform, though I won’t hold my breath too long on this. One of Trump’s key campaign themes was the need to “drain the swamp,” as in drain the corruption out of Washington. There does seem to be a strong bipartisan consensus, at least outside of Washington, that politics as usual is seriously corrupt and that we need to get money out of the game.
We’ll need to wait and see what proposals Trump offers on this, and I shall remain optimistic until I’m given reason not to be. His first appointments don’t, however, inspire confidence that he will seriously try to rid Washington of corruption.
More importantly, how do we move ahead despite this major setback? What can we do to avoid our country backsliding and losing a generation or more of progress on key social and environmental issues? I’m going to limit my thoughts to just three key possibilities.
First, there is a growing swell of support for what seems like a no-brainer to me: changing how the Electoral College works. Clinton looks like she’ll win the popular vote by more than a million votes but still lose the Electoral College by a sizeable margin. There has been a push to change how electors cast their votes for some time, but now there is a renewed push to correct this obvious flaw in our democracy.
Twice in the past 16 years we’ve seen a clear vote from the nation as a whole for the candidate who lost in the Electoral College (Al Gore lost to George W. Bush even though he won the popular vote). We are left with today’s strange system where “one person one vote” is the basic principle of our democracy, upheld in numerous Supreme Court cases, except when it comes to the archaic Electoral College (and the U.S. Senate, but that’s an argument for a different day).
Nationalpopularvote.com summarizes where efforts stand now on a nationwide movement to pass laws in each state that would require electors to cast their individual votes based on the national popular vote rather than their state vote. Ten states plus the District of Columbia, totaling 165 electoral votes, already have passed such laws. Once jurisdictions totaling 270 electors has been reached, the system would change to a national vote system.
This could in theory be achieved in time for the 2020 election, though it’s likely that lengthy legal battles would delay enactment. The Constitution (Article II, Section 1, Clause 2) allows states to determine how electors cast their votes, so these legal objections will likely fail.
Trump himself stated in 2012 that “the Electoral College is a disaster for democracy.” How about we return to a simple national majority-wins rule for electors in the Electoral College? This shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
A major benefit of requiring electors to cast their votes based on national vote totals would be a renewed importance of each vote in each state. Rather than our perverse system today where a small number of swing states are the major focus of funding and campaign attention, a national popular vote rule would require that candidates spend time in all states and focus — as we would expect in a democracy — on the most populous states because that’s where the voters are. In 2016, 95 percent of candidate visits and spending went to just 12 mostly swing states. That’s a bit crazy.
Much more controversially, we’re again seeing increased interest in secession efforts in progressive states. These states see a growing values divide between different parts of the country. When West Coast states, including Hawaii, vote 2-to-1 against Trump, and we see similar lopsided votes against Clinton in many conservative states in the South and Midwest, there’s an obvious and real values divide.
When West Coast states vote in favor of new social legislation through various ballot initiatives that wouldn’t stand much chance in the South or Midwest, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that perhaps our differences are now irreconcilable. Is it time for a divorce?
I would have voted for secession of California even before the Trump win. As a progressive libertarian, I’ve long been a supporter of state’s rights and what better way to ensure state’s rights than to leave a federation of states that is no longer mutually beneficial? Maybe it is indeed time for that amicable divorce. The kids will get over it.
Last, we should, and almost certainly will eventually, move toward a system of comprehensive electronic direct democracy, starting at the local and state levels. I’ve written about this a number of times, and I remain firmly convinced that the cure for democracy’s problems is more democracy not less.
Even though we’ve seen a number of high-profile votes shoot down progressive causes — the Brexit vote in England, the Colombian FARC peace deal and the Trump win — I take it as axiomatic that the more people are able to vote on their own future, the better our societies will become. Eventually, the better angels of our nature prevail.
Of course, we’re going to see occasional “bad” votes at every level, whether it’s a county initiative, a nationwide referendum (other countries have these but the U.S. doesn’t) or national elections for the highest office in the land. But we can have some faith when looking at the arc of history that when people are empowered we do indeed move toward greater equality, greater respect for all people, genders, sexualities, animal rights, environmental rights, indigenous rights, etc.
This is the core of progressivism: working toward a society where each of us can pursue our own dreams without infringing on the rights of others to do the same, and without undermining the environment that makes our lives and our economies possible.
For the 51 percent of voters dismayed by Trump’s win, we can reasonably expect that many will focus on what they can do in the next four years at the local level to mitigate the damage from the Trump presidency and the rise of the Alt-Right movement.
A key part of that mitigation should be a focus on empowering individuals and community groups by allowing steadily more direct votes, on smartphones and computers as well as on traditional ballots, on matters that are normally handled by elected officials and permanent staff.
I have no illusions — this is going to be a very tough four years for progressives. But we made it through eights years of George W. Bush, and even though I think Trump will be far more dangerous than even Bush was, we’ll make it through the Trump years, too.
— Tam Hunt is a writer and a lawyer based in Santa Barbara and Hilo, Hawaii.