Hillary Clinton has a new book coming out. It discusses what went wrong in the 2016 election. Already it’s stirring the ashes, raising ires, resparking blame-laden conversations.
One thing I recall. It was a vague disquiet during one of the debates. I had a sudden sense of foreboding, watching the match. For a couple of minutes I kept thinking “She’s going to lose.”
Why? Because she was talking policy.
As I watched, listening, I saw one candidate fully prepared to step into the office ready to do the job and explaining that fact in clear, lucid, surprisingly informative terms. I have rarely seen a candidate hold forth in one of these at this level. The other candidate had no plan, didn’t care, and wasn’t about to engage in a policy discussion on any level.
I had a creeping sense of doom, watching that. Because I knew then that the only way Hillary was going to win would be if voter turnout was high. Very high. Otherwise he was going to win. (Later, I erased that impression, because it was unbearable, and I found myself reassuring people who apparently had experienced the same sense of dread, but what is it they say about initial impressions?)
In retrospect this seems absurd. She was dealing with the realities of the office, laying out her programs, displaying an astute grasp of the issues, the problems, and showing that she understood how all this works and could do the job. All he did was hammer on “We’re gonna do things” and “She’s a nasty woman.”
He appealed directly do people who (a) were never going to vote for Hillary to begin with, (b) had no fucking idea what she was talking about because, frankly, they neither care nor have taken any time to educate themselves about such things, and therefore (c) saw her as an elitist snob talking down to them. All this plays well in a traditional political theater. It’s not the first time. In modern history, pretty much the same thing happened to Adlai Stevenson.
Who? He ran against Eisenhower in 1952. He was a technocrat, a highly educated man, a career public servant, and he had more brains than the next five people in any room.
But he lost because he refused to play the game according to the demands of the audience. Truman kept telling him to stop sounding so high and mighty and educated, but Stevenson maintained a persistent faith in the savvy and comprehension of the average American. He refused to “dumb down” his message because he thought it would be insulting to voters.
He didn’t stand a chance against “I Like Ike.”
So while most people probably agreed with Stevenson, they voted for Eisenhower.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, this is not the fault of the candidates. This is symptomatic of people who have been taught to want a cheerleader instead of an administrator. This is the fault of people who don’t really give much of a damn about the details of policy or the intransigence of global politics or the intricacies of an ever-shifting landscape. This is the fault of people who have been raised, by various means, to mistrust intellectuals.
They are not in the majority, but there are enough of them that, in the hurly-burly and tumble of national elections, they have an impact all out of proportion to what is really true of the general population.
We have gerrymandering, we have niche news sourcing, and we have an economic environment that keeps people off-balance. Added to that we now seem to have had a huge influx of foreign “fake” news that lit a fire under a near-boiling pot.
When Bill Clinton ran, the motto of his campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid!” And he spoke to that. His people spoke to that. Perversely, given everything that’s happened since then, George H.W. Bush looked like the elitist intellectual by comparison.
A telling lesson.
I do not believe the majority of American voters are in the camp that responds to the kind of simplistic breast-beating Trump voters did. But many of those Americans did not vote.
But there in the debates we saw one of the chief problems: Hillary mopped the stage with him, won all three debates hands down…and lost the election.
Yes, she garnered more popular votes, but in the electoral races it was the other camp that dictated where those votes would go. And they don’t like smart people. It was too close a race for nuance and intellect to overcome carnival showmanship.
I’d like to be wrong. I put this out there purely as one idea. But during those debates I saw it—the power of dumb trumping brains.