Is Obama’s Hope Still Possible?


A Progressive Reckoning 

“That’s the nature of democracy,” President Obama announced in a Rose Garden speech November 9th, “The point though is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.” But after Tuesday night’s election, that presumption of good faith is exactly what we have lost.

It is one thing for the people to lose faith in our government because of elite or institutional failure; instead, many are losing faith in the people themselves. More specifically, this election has destroyed any presumptions that the people can be reliable stewards of our own democracy. Ezra Klein and David Frum call this “democracy without guardrails.” As Vox explains, for all of this election’s poll-driven forecasting failures, political science models, relying on fundamental factors like GDP growth and the status of the incumbent among others, performed excellently. The best models were simultaneously right and wrong: predicting this should have been a Republican year, but would not be since the models assumed voters would be able to recognize and reject an “abnormal” candidate who was manifestly unfit for office.

Apparently, we didn’t deserve the caveat, and not even Donald Trump’s candidacy was enough to for voters to override our partisan propensities. There is no institutional mechanism, not even the Electoral College, to save us from ourselves.

Donald Trump, voters confirmed in exit polls, was not the first choice of most. In fact, we may take heart in the fact that less than 5 percent of the population voted for him in the primaries. That does not make it any less sickening, however, that 62 million Americans would later endorse him. It is disorienting, baffling, and profoundly disturbing to imagine this other country that, whether with enthusiasm or a sigh, affirmatively chose this man as our President. Perhaps worse, another 100 million eligible voters didn’t even act to stop him.

To retain any semblance of Obama’s politics of hope, we have to believe that some fraction of Trump voters or those who sat out the election didn’t understand what was at stake. We have to believe that if Hillary Clinton’s emails had not received more coverage than every policy issue combined, if Donald Trump’s divisive comments had received more than a few days of coverage, the election might have turned out differently. Obama’s implied critique of Clinton, harping on the necessity “going to every small town and fair and fish fry and VFW hall,” suggests that voters would do the right thing if Clinton had only asked.

It is certainly comforting to chalk up the loss to tactical stupidity and hubris. Perhaps Hillary should not have gone for the “big win” in Arizona without reinforcing her own blue wall of states that have voted for Democrats from the 1990s? Implicit in much armchair-campaign analysis is the idea that Trump voters were reachable, that a fraction of Trump voters would have been lured by the progressive siren song, and that Trump won in-spite of, not because of his racism. It is a narrative that maintains a faith in our fellow Americans that has been preciously hard to keep.

Yet, just as progressives seem ready to embrace the Trump voter, we disown them. Progressives have seized narratives that alienate and push this moral failure to far, unreachable corners of our democracy. If Trumpland is an America we don’t have contact with, then we do not need to try to engage them. “Big sort” macro narratives relieve us of both guilt and responsibility; as long as we believe that we are two self-sufficient and autonomous halves, we can disown the Other’s decision.

But the Trump voter is not the other half of America’s problem; as an urban liberal “elite,” the Trump voter is still known to me. Trump’s support was as much suburban as it was rural. Trump’s win, unlike Brexit, is not a clear-cut case of older voters holding the young hostage, either. While those under 30 voted to stay in the EU by a margin of nearly three to one, barely 55 percent of young people voted for Hillary Clinton. Worse, a plurality of young whites voted for Trump (perhaps our multicultural future hinges more on demographic change than any progressive white enlightenment). Trump voters are people that we know– people we read as more ordinary than deplorable. As Evan Osnos wrote, Trump voters were “hiding in plain sight.” In Tuesday’s wake, people we thought better of are sheepishly rearing their heads, armed with thin justifications used to salve their own consciences.

After the election, liberals are being asked to leap into the imagination of the Trump voter and recognize his pain. True, it is the progressive raison d’etre to fight for the disempowered. But as CNN’s Van Jones expresses so well, it is one thing to recognize pain, but another to make that empathy contingent on “throwing away some of us to appeal more to others.” Trump voters do not deserve a special empathy; it would be most condescending of all to excuse these voters of moral culpability. It is also inexcusable to see the racist message as only incidental to the populist one. The United States had an opportunity to reject a racist, sexist, and xenophobic sexual predator. Instead, we put him on a pedestal.

President Obama offered a politics of hope instead of a politics of cynicism. We really believed we could be better. We believed in ourselves and in our essential goodness. It is hard to believe in that anymore. As proud owners of a democracy, we have to try.

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  1. Matt Sibley

    On that last bit, it was very frustrating to see Obama’s ambitions of promoting progressive ideals so effectively stymied by an obstructionist congress, leading many to become disenchanted with his message, which could have the effect of decreasing (young) voter engagement in the future.

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