One of the paradoxes of the digital age is that we have so much more information and seemingly less knowledge. It’s a paradox seen in the struggles of public schools, the rise of conspiracy theories and the polarization of politics in which two sides see not only different solutions, but different worlds. And it was on prominent display in the presidential election as pollsters using the most complex and sensitive computer-modeling ever missed how the electorate was going to vote.
Post-election, the confusion continues as TV analysts, newspaper columnists and campaign consultants try to explain what they didn’t understand. I was as clueless as anyone. My expectation was that it would be Hillary Clinton in an Electoral College landslide. I even thought North Carolina might go for her.
So, having thoroughly disqualified myself as a pre-election prognosticator, let me try my hand at post-election analyst.
The prevailing theory is that Republican nominee Donald Trump – as House Speaker Paul Ryan put it – “Donald Trump heard a voice in this country that no one else heard.” Trump’s version is slightly different. He won because he remembered the proverbial “forgotten man,” white working-class men in the flyover states who were struggling in a global economy and crying out to be heard.
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That scenario is close, but not exact. To me it was more like this: The forgotten man was working late in an office building and stepped into a storeroom only to have the door shut and locked behind him. His phone was back on his desk and there was no way to get out. He screamed for a while, pounded the door and no one came. In desperation, he lit a cigarette and held it to the smoke detector. A fire alarm went off, the sprinkler system came on and firefighters broke down the door with an axe. The forgotten man got found, but now he has to pay for the door and the water damage and he may be out of a job.
The real problem isn’t that working-class white men set off a fire alarm. It’s that they felt so trapped and ignored they felt they had to take extreme measures. That is first the fault of the Democratic Party and more broadly the political system. This was an election in which not only whites without a college degree felt unheard. The great majority of voters on both sides wondered how a system that is supposed to reflect the popular will produced two nominees who lacked appeal.
Outside of the demographic of white, professional women, it was hard to find real enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton. She didn’t represent change and she had accumulated too much baggage and ill will over her long time in politics. Trump was a pariah in his party and the focus of outrage and ridicule outside of it.
How did Clinton v. Trump happen? Two things, unchecked political money and gerrymandering.
The changes in campaign finance laws have made it possible for marginal presidential candidates to stay in the race with nothing more than the support of a few benefactors. If candidates had to raise limited amounts from more people, there would be fewer candidates. Instead, the GOP started with 17. That splintered the early race and allowed Trump to gain traction with only a small share of his party’s support. On the Democratic side, Clinton’s massive war chest and fundraising capacity likely scared off challengers – though Bernie Sanders’ quixotic campaign tapped enough enthusiasm to compete with her in raising money.
Gerrymandering has grown so precise that House districts are homogenous and House members are unresponsive to groups outside of their districts and apart from their politics. The result has been a Republican-controlled House that made obstruction its guiding principle under a Democratic president, an impasse that slowed the economic recovery and left the needs of the forgotten man ignored. Now, under Trump, the House will join with the Senate in promoting the interests of the wealthy and corporations that own Congress, likely leaving the forgotten man even worse off.
One potential solution to gerrymandering is a federal lawsuit filed in North Carolina by Common Cause. The plaintiffs argue that gerrymandering so stifles political expression, it should be as illegal as gerrymandering that suppresses minority voters. It’s a compelling idea, but now its prospects are dimmed. Even if the case makes it to the Supreme Court, the court with a conservative majority created by a justice appointed by President Trump is unlikely to rule against gerrymandering that helps the Republican Party. Likewise, the prospects are dim for hopes of reversing Citizens United and other rulings that have allowed special interest money to warp campaigns and their outcomes.
The forgotten man has been heard, but in making such an extreme commotion he may have assured that he’s about to be more forgotten than ever.
Barnett: firstname.lastname@example.org, 919-829-4512