As they say in the corridors of officialdom, mistakes were made. Enough of them to go around––and I guess it’s always like that. You see your mistakes when you fail, and overlook them when you succeed. Well, we failed. Not just some sect, race, or gender, but everyone who didn’t vote. Their silence gave us Trump.
Does that sound ungenerous? Let me elaborate by citing data. In Pennsylvania Trump won by about 68,000 votes, in Wisconsin by about 27,000, in Michigan by about 13,000––and still counting. In all those states except Michigan, the electorate shrunk by numbers much greater than needed to reverse the outcome. In Florida, nearly a million fewer people voted in 2016 than had in 2012. Even more revealing are the areas of those swing states where the deficit came from. These were places where minority voters turn out for Democrats. In 2012, they ventured forth in droves; this time, too many stayed home. The racism in Trump’s campaign was quite apparent, yet in the three northern states that gave him his victory, the vote in largely minority districts was noticeably down. Considering that 88 percent of black people who did vote chose Clinton, you can deduce what would have happened if these absentees had showed up. But they weren’t motivated, they told any reporter who asked. They didn’t like Clinton and they couldn’t bear Trump, so they sat it out. In doing so, they made a choice.
I should say that all data about group voting is approximate, since it’s based on exit polls. We will never know how various segments of the population actually voted, because no one keeps those records by gender or race. But exit polls do, and three facts jut out from their tabulations. More Latinos voted for Trump than had voted for Romney in 2012. Not many more––but, still. The Latino vote was sufficient to carry Nevada, but it fell short in the more diverse Hispanic communities of Florida. Can it be that Cuban immigrants had a less than visceral response to the branding of Mexicans as criminals and rapists––or that some even agreed? As Bob Dylan once wrote, “I pity the poor immigrant when his gladness comes to pass.”
There’s been a lot of snarking about the failure of identity politics, but, of course, white voters have an identity, too. And it’s pretty clear that white males, who are a minority in the population, have emerged as a racially and sexually charged interest group. In effect, they have learned to regard themselves as an aggrieved community. No wonder white nationalism, which is an identity politics of the right, has gained a foothold among these guys. White men went big-time for Trump, and so did white women, albeit by a smaller margin. When you include minorities, Clinton won the women’s vote, but not by enough to override the preferences of men. Even more striking, the proportion of women in the electorate shrank by 1 per-cent. That’s not much, but it’s a lot of votes.
What caused the dispiriting size of the women’s vote? One possibility is that more men cast ballots than usually do. But it’s more likely that some women who voted in 2012 sat this race out. You can’t argue, as you might in regard to the black electorate, that Obama wasn’t on the ballot. Her weaknesses notwithstanding, Clinton’s associations with the struggles of feminism were a prominent part of her political history. So, why did so many women reject her? This is a question that the media aren’t asking very loudly. Most of the coverage has focused on men who stayed home. Perhaps it’s too painful to contemplate the evidence that sisterhood doesn’t operate the way racial solidarity does. After all, women and men often form intimate bonds, while racial differences often create separation. An identity politics that doesn’t take that difference into account is in-complete, to say the least.
The most persuasive theory I’ve read in baffled post-election commentaries is that some women stayed home because they didn’t want to trouble the waters. Trump projected a real sense of threat when he said that he might contest the election results, suggesting, in that evil purr of his, that his followers might take to the streets. I think it’s possible that these women were dissuaded from voting by the thought of what might ensue if he lost. Ambivalence is sometimes the mother of abstinence. Among women who did turn out, the majority were willing to embrace Trump’a agenda despite his sexual attitudes. When you add in men, some 84 percent of Trump supporters weren’t very bothered by his comments about women. It’s possible that many saw his belligerence as a strong leadership trait, even one that elided with their fantasies. It seems clear that many men did.
We often hear about the gap between voters with a college education and those without. But even among white college-educated men, Trump had a slight advantage. If you look at the gender gap among blacks, which was nearly as great as it was among whites, you have to conclude that race was not the only operating factor. Twenty percent of black men voted for someone other than Clinton, while only seven percent of black women did. Apparently, you don’t have to be white to regard Hillary as a bitch.
But the most consequential drop was also the most predictable. Only about half of young people voted, eight percent less than in the entire population. Compared with the margin for Obama among the young, Clinton ran 5 points less in Michigan, 16 points less in Florida, 19 points less in Pennsylvania, and a whopping 22 percent less in Iowa. Votes for third parties grew dramatically in this group, from three to eight percent. It’s tempting to conclude that a more progressive Democrat would have won them over, but it’s also possible that anxieties of a sexual nature influenced their choice. We’ll never know––it’s not something you talk about in male-sensitivity classes. One thing is clear, how-ever: The fact that a woman was running for the first time as a major candidate for president did not persuade the young to vote for her.
This brings us to the target of choice for liberals who are licking their wounds. Identity politics stands accused, by a posse of pundits, of being remote from the people—the real people. I suppose I’m not allowed to notice that all of these righteous outcries have come from white males. I suspect that they have always felt resentful about the shift from a class-based politics to one that took sex seriously. This is not so different from what many white liberal males said during the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1970s; women’s lib was a distraction from the real basis of oppression, and bound to alienate the working class.
Now the descendants of these men express their yearning for a world where they could claim to stand for the whole. It’s understandable—defeat is seldom generous—but it’s not accurate. After all, Clinton got at least two million more votes than Trump did. This is evidence that the movement for equality is truly popular. I’ll venture to say that the problem isn’t identity politics per se, but its veering into areas that are largely symbolic rather than material: micro-aggressions, vocabulary policing, and the proliferation of genders so arcane that many people can’t make sense of it––not even I.
There’s no doubt that the cultural left, as it’s now being called, was hermetic in its grasp of political reality. There should have been more sociologists among them, and fewer philosophers. Let’s not forget that sexual bias, like racism, is real, and pervasive. Class is not the only way that power and wealth are doled out. But maybe it’s time to define the term equality as most people do. It doesn’t have much to do with the fashionista crusade to get men to wear skirts. Or the campaign to ban pornification of women on the internet. Maybe we should stop thinking about the way we want men and women to be, and start thinking about the way they actually are.
Keeping it real may be the best lesson of this horrible event. So here’s what I have to say to those who, one way or another, abetted the crisis we now face.
To the guy at the organic food store whom I overheard wishing that Clinton would melt in a volcano, I say: Rot in kale-infested hell.
To the university that tried to expunge sombreros from Halloween parties, I say: Are we in a safe space now?
To the black comic who did a routine on SNL mocking the distress of middle-class white liberals, I say: Laughing at your allies’ pain is sinful.
And to my students, whom I wish I could protect from history, I say: If you voted for Clinton, you did what you could to prevent what is about to occur. If you didn’t, you only succeeded in kicking out the jams. Perhaps that’s what you wanted all along. But it’s not the same as power.