Before even the presidential primaries, my grandfather referred to 2016 as “the year a Republican will get elected”. Back in 2015, I was in a state of uncommitted agreement with his prediction. Yes, a republican might be elected. But wouldn’t it depend more on the candidates themselves than their party?
Then 2016 arrived. Bizarrely, Trump had triumphed over Cruz for the republican nomination. I thought, with some satisfaction, that my grandfather was wrong. Cruz was what I was afraid of; Trump was so unsuitable for a candidate that Hillary Clinton would demolish him in the general election. Instead, his words haunted me on election night as I stared into the darkness, desperately trying to sleep. How could this have happened? I’m coming to realize that I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
The United States presidential election wasn’t the only thing that happened in 2016. Among other things, Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, and Muhammed Ali died; Brexit happened; the summer olympics were held in Rio; fascism made a mainstream reappearance around the globe; I took the SAT. Clearly, a mixed bag.
To sum it up, 2016 was crap.
I don’t want to write a variation on the same opinion piece that everybody’s writing: we should’ve been expecting this, it was all liberal hubris that blinded us to the truth, if we just opened our eyes and just made ourselves more appealing, we could have won this thing! I find that explanation suspect. It was not my own arrogance and inflated sense of superiority that made me think that Hillary Clinton was going to win, it was the numbers being presented to me in polling. But really, my grandpa was right. 2016 was always the year a republican was going to win.
You might’ve seen some graphics recently, maybe in the New York Times or Time Magazine, showing maps of how polarized America has become recently. If you haven’t, let me sum it up for you: there are now a couple hundred counties in the United States that consistently and overwhelmingly vote either Republican or Democrat. These counties are what define states like New York and California as blue states, and states like Texas and Arizona as red states. This polarization process has occurred gradually over the last three or four decades. The last time New York voted for a republican candidate was 1984, the last time Texas voted democrat was in 1976.
Our current political system, where a party is shorthand for an identity group, is a far cry from the 30s and 40s, where a presidential candidate could win 42 out of 48 states. Even at Hillary Clinton’s best, predictions wouldn’t have come anywhere near that. In 2015, without even looking at a candidate’s policies, a sizable chunk of America’s electorate would have been able to tell you which party they were voting for. Party loyalty has replaced decision making.
A victory for Hillary Clinton would have meant that some group of Republicans would have needed to defect in this election, to make up for the loss of voters who typically vote democrat, or don’t vote at all, in poor, white, northern areas. Leading up to the election, there was a lot of talk that that group might be moderate republicans, or evangelicals, or women, turned off by Trump’s vulgarity. That never happened, and it was never going to. Opinion poles (I know, poles) show that the vast majority of Americans, presumably including some people who must have voted for him, dislike Donald Trump. And yet, identity triumphed over it all. To the republicans who voted for Trump despite their disdain for him, they weren’t voting for Trump. They were voting for their team, the Republican party.
Obviously, there were more factors than that at play in this election. There’s the oft discussed Appalachian voter. A lot of people my age don’t realize it, but once upon a time, most poor people, even poor white people, voted democrat. This isn’t actually very surprising, because republican economic policy doesn't benefit the working class, and for most of its history never has. No matter how you spin it, tax cuts for the rich will never benefit anyone but the rich. Trickle down economics doesn’t work. Democrats have traditionally been the party of the working class, backing policies which would create a safety net for the poor. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Republicans began to realize that if they didn’t change their image a little bit, they would go extinct. Republicans still didn’t alter their economic platform, but they did try to take advantage of racial tensions to score white voters. They found it expedient to target poor white voters in the South, where racial tensions were high, by implicitly targeting people of color. So, the southern states turned from a solidly blue block to a solidly red one. This was called the “Southern Strategy”.
Many northern, white, working class counties stayed blue- until this election, that is. The racial tensions employed in the Southern Strategy moved north. It was not guaranteed that a republican would win the vast majority of these voters like Trump did, but the trend was there. Trump differed from other republicans in that he supported some of the populist economic reforms that Democrats have been championing for decades, or at least he said he did. Let’s be honest. In reality, Trump is probably going to be just as economically conservative as other republicans. But when he championed getting lobbyists and special interests out of Washington, he struck a chord that had been driving many voters to democrats. The only problem with Hillary Clinton was that she didn’t combine that message with racism.
In short, people who were normally republicans stayed republican, and a chunk of the electorate which had been slowly been moving towards republicans finally turned up at the polls.
Even those two factors don’t fully explain why it might have been reasonable to suspect that Trump was going to win, however. I’m not sure if anyone was expecting Hillary to win the popular vote but not the electoral college, but a scenario like this was going to happen at some point, if not in this election. The way electors are determined disproportionately benefits states that are more sparsely populated. For example, a vote in Wyoming counts 3.6 times more than a vote in California. States with sparser populations also tend to vote Republican, because they have fewer urban, liberal areas. Hillary Clinton won almost three million votes more than Trump, but because those votes tended to be from New York or California, they made no difference. If our elections are increasingly polarized, and they are, then results like this should become more common if smaller states continue to have an advantage over larger ones.
There’s one more reason why Hillary Clinton lost, which I’m surprised hasn’t been discussed more: voter suppression. Let us remember that the civil rights movement was fought against segregation, yes, but it was also primarily against voter suppression. In the South in particular, the interests of the white majority was to suppress the rights of the black minority, and this was achieved by ensuring that they could not vote. To be blunt, in the time since, republican leaders have done their best to convince us that racism does not exist, and behind the scenes have done everything in their power to strip the regulations and restrictions that were preventing them from disenfranchising people of color.
Voter ID laws, which have been touted primarily by republicans as a mechanism for restricting voter fraud, are really intended to make sure that black people don’t vote. How can I make such a bold claim? Well, because for one, voter fraud doesn’t exist. There have been a handful of instances of voter fraud in a period in the past several years, when millions of votes have been counted. Voter ID laws are particularly insidious because on the surface they seem so logical. It appears prudent to make voters prove who they are by showing ID, when in reality, some voters don’t have an ID. If you don’t have a driver’s license or a passport, which many people don’t, you probably don’t have an ID. People who wouldn’t have either are disproportionately people of color. It is no coincidence that states where the republican legislature is threatened by black and latino voters, who are usually democrats, have been almost the only ones pushing for voter ID laws. Another form of disenfranchisement which disproportionately impacts people of color are laws which prevent formerly incarcerated people from voting. In Florida, there are one and a half million people who could have voted had they not been imprisoned. As a virtue of our criminal justice system, a startlingly large portion of these people are black or latino. Hillary Clinton lost Florida by a little over a hundred thousand votes.
What I took away from 2016, particularly the election, was not just how populism can overtake systems which were previously thought to be impregnable. I learned to be vigilant, because in apathy and naivety, there are those who will seize power, if you let them.