Last night saw a triumph for the Democratic Party. The party held the governorship in Virginia and swabbed New Jersey from the hold of the Republicans, due no doubt in large part to the historic unpopularity of Governor and former Presidential candidate Chris Christie. This was complemented by a raft of downballot Democratic victories across state legislatures, leading to Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez to excitedly email Democrats with the boast ‘This is just the beginning’. The most powerful sign that he was right came in a strip of rural and suburban Virginia.
The biggest story of the night was the defeat of Bob Marshall, a state House representative of the commonwealth’s 13th district locally famous for his bills opposing same-sex marriage and use of public loos by transgender individuals. He was defeated in a progressive fairytale by Danica Roem, the first transgender American to take office in a state legislature. As might be expected, the reaction on social media focused little on the implications for Virginia tax rates or local park maintenance. Nay, this was a sign of a revolution supposedly gathering pace across America, with socially conservative Republicans put on notice of their eventual defeat by progressive Democrats. Trans rights are the next civil rights, and they are placing a new tint on American partisanship. The significance of this election, a year minus a day after the Trump phenomenon, was not lost on many either.
After all, Donald Trump was supposed to be the conservative backlash. It may be peculiar to observe the election of a socially moderate businessman as a socially regressive fightback. After all, Trump is the first President in history to enter office for the first time in full acceptance of equal marriage. He delightfully held an ‘LGTB* for Trump’ rainbow flag presented to him at a rally - what previous Republican Presidential nominee could be imagined doing that? To get a measure of Trump, he is better understood as a cultural phenomenon than a political one.
It is not much of an exaggeration to consider Trump the product of years of leftist identity politics. From his imprecisely worded attacks on illegal immigration to his treatment of Megyn Kelly, invariably delivered in his combative way of speaking, his campaign was a giant rebuke to the constriction of speech by political correctness. Hillary Clinton built her campaign on the back of this style, fond as she was of listing the subsets of the population that she considered him to have offended before and enticing them under her wing. CNN commentator Van Jones was undoubtedly cynical in infamously calling his election a ‘whitelash against a changing America’, but he touched upon a saddening racial divide of which Trump is a symptom.
It would be a beautiful thing if you could be told a person’s race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and marital status, and be no better informed as to the probability of their voting for one candidate or party or another. Keeping demographics and voting likelihood entirely statistically independent would be a glorious achievement for equality of all kinds. Sadly, America is nowhere near this ideal. This is true of the wider world, too, and focusing on America tells a lot about voting patterns elsewhere.
Tragically, race and gender in particular infuse American politics in a way that has superseded battles over policy and ideas. The Clinton campaign was built right from the start on a modus operandi of assembling an all-conquering base of voters that would overwhelm any opponents, both in the primary and general elections. Running up the score in votes and delegates in diverse Southern states helped put distance between Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the early primaries, for example. It was straight out of the Obama 2012 playbook, whose principle was that the Democrats are the natural party for women, voters of colour, especially African Americans and Latinos, LGBT Americans, people with disabilities, and a rainbow of other demographics. With voters of colour growing in number proportionally and openness toward LGBT lifestyles growing, the Democrats could lock the Republicans out of the White House as long as the grip on their coalition never relaxed. A comprehensive post-mortem report after Mitt Romney’s 2012 failure by the GOP identified this set of challenges and pointed toward a nominee that could uncontroversially reach out to a broader electoral coalition. Obviously that went splendidly to plan.
Hence the Clinton campaign, probably the largest, most sophisticated political campaign anywhere in the world in history, was largely indifferent toward commissioning internal polling. As Amie Parnes’s and Jonathan Allen's superb, and largely impartial, inside account of the campaign, Shattered, revealed, campaign manager Robby Mook was obsessed with analytics. By conducting surveys of huge numbers of voters across state counties, the analytics team could piece together an image of who the voters were, what they looked like, their profession, their tastes, and their political concerns, informing a tailored ad targeting and get out the vote operation that would harvest enough votes from the right kinds of voters to sum to a winning state margin. Moreover, when it came time to choose Hillary Clinton’s running mate, the campaign organised the potential candidates not according to political experience or outlook, but demographics, euphemistically called ‘food groups’ in an internal memo.
It is not just the voters that parties try to manipulate to their benefit. They also try to parametrise the electorate itself. Why is Trump so concerned with the issue of voter fraud, actually a tiny issue, as to appoint a special commission on it? Why, meanwhile, are the Democrats so overwhelmingly opposed to a wall which, amid the political hyperbole, is a very common physical measure to safeguard border security? These proxy battles over demographic participation are no way to conduct democracy. As political operations solidify these divides and the media comment on them, all manner of demographic varieties are brought to the fore in the political arena, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of division and rule.
This ease with which racial demographics are discussed in a political context is largely foreign to the UK. It is not usually comfortable for politicians to broach race, and when they do, even with faultless intentions, they usually invite ridicule. When Jeremy Corbyn claimed that ‘only Labour can be trusted to unlock the talent of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic people, who have been held back by the Conservatives’, Conservatives of colour unleashed a torrent of well deserved mockery. Meanwhile, when then Labour leadership contender Liz Kendall very gently spoke of the need to encourage ‘girls and boys, particularly from white working class communities’ into work in 2015, her colleague Diane Abbott, herself not shy of dabbling in race, condemned her ‘blatant’ remarks, calling them ‘not even dog whistle politics’. Imagine for a moment if Nigel Farage spoke on LBC of how the white working class was a core leave constituency.
In fact it is right for politicians to feel able to speak honestly about race when done in an effort to equalise rights and opportunities and remedy the cracks between communities. It is just as wrong for politicians to use race to their advantage in exploiting divisions for political gain or focusing more intently on harvesting favour and votes from one category of voters while neglecting others that may prove harder nuts to crack. The distinction here is a vital one. Identifying challenges affecting some communities more uniquely than others and proposing solutions is a world away from demanding that certain classes of people check their privilege and withdraw from debate any time they may be tempted to earnestly contribute, say.
President Trump has a duty to loosen the tightly bound ties between personal and political identities. It is an incredibly difficult task, one that even an impeccably uncontroversial and historically popular President could not hope to accomplish. It may seem absurd for Trump to attempt it. Fewer stupid decisions such as the needless ban on transgender participation in the military would help, unless he wants more symbolic victories like yesterday. At some stage, policy must once again replace race, gender, sexuality, and religion as the meaningful determinant of political affiliation.
Trump's gains masked worrying signs for Republicans in the state results. While he strolled home in Northern counties filled with white working class voters, Clinton came within nine points of him in Texas in the best Democratic performance since her husband in 1996. She set the same record in Arizona, coming within four points of Trump, who also achieved the worst result in a de facto two-party election (dismissing 1992) in New Mexico since one Alf Landon in 1936. A changing America demands a changing political approach. The Republicans must take on this challenge not by seeking to stall the population or political activity of Hispanic communities and other immigrants, but by winning them over. Give or take a couple of days, the next election is in three years. The task is urgent. Similarly, on the part of the Democrats, any frustration at the haemorrhage of white working class voters voters - to which the West Virginia contingent of which Hillary Clinton devoted an entire chapter in her recent book What Happened - must not bleed into a racist backlash. Democrats would do well in many cases to ensure that they listen to the concerns of all voters. If identity politics must prevail, it must apply to and for everyone.
The motivation should not just be a selfish one of political gain, however. Political homogeneity anywhere in America is unhealthy. It chokes political diversity and entrenches bitterness. One of the most important complaints about the electoral college focuses on the tens of millions of voters in states virtually ignored by candidates. What life might be injected back into numerous states if candidates engaged with the true diversity of America, and the electorate listened back? In each election from 1960 to 1980, at least 17 states changed hands from the previous, averaging 23. Over the last 20 years, the average is six. Fourteen states have changed hands between elections sometime this century. Demographics don’t just mean ethnicity, sexuality, race, physical ability, and sex. American democracy cannot triumph without regional diversity, of which racial diversity is a component, accounted for in elections.
Clinton urged the country to ‘make America whole again’. She is absolutely right, and it can make a start by rejecting the identity politics that kills the unity and spirit of the nation. At the moment, this is a pretty myopic idea. If President Trump is to make good on his fancy rhetoric in his inauguration speech that ‘whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag’, he must loosen the stranglehold that demographic identity holds on political calculus. A healthy, engaging civic democracy demands nothing less.