One of the great fringe benefits of working around American politics during the past 10 American presidencies has been the colorful characters I’ve gotten to meet. Characters do not come more colorful than Dick Tuck. Having just learned that he had lost a California state Senate primary, he was asked by a Los Angeles radio reporter for a statement, and without missing a beat, Tuck offered an original concession: “The people have spoken, the bastards.”
A half-century later, that witty one-liner has been misconstrued by some contemporary Democrats into their rationalization for their party’s 2016 presidential defeat. While conceding that their nominee and her campaign were imperfect, these post-mortems — woefully lacking Tuck’s humor and insight — attribute Donald Trump’s victory and Hillary Clinton’s defeat to the mental and moral deficiencies of the nation’s voters.
This is the “blame the customer” position often taken after an election by the losing side. It goes like this: When our side wins, the voters are mature, patriotic, thoughtful and wise, but when these same voters mysteriously fall from grace, desert our side and switch to the dreaded opposition, they are now suddenly stupid, selfish, mean-spirited or worse. Nearly a year after Trump’s win, too many Democrats wrongly insist that the American electorate that made Barack Obama the only man since Dwight Eisenhower to win more than 51 percent of the popular vote in successive presidential elections has turned out to be terminally racist.
The percentage of Iowans who are white is about 20 points higher than the percentage of Americans as a whole, and the percentage who are black is about one-fourth of the national percentage, yet the state twice gave Obama a bigger majority than he won nationally. But in 2016 in Iowa, which has 99 counties, 31 of those counties that had twice strongly supported Obama voted for Trump. Thanks to Ballotpedia, we learn that nearly one-third of Wisconsin’s 72 counties and half of Maine’s 16 counties, along with 12 Michigan counties, switched from twice backing Obama to backing Trump.
What those switching counties had in common was that they were disproportionately composed of white working-class voters without a college degree who mostly lived in small towns and cities or rural areas. In their neighborhoods, the recovery from the Great Recession had still not arrived. Here families often earned just about the nation’s median household income, which, they painfully knew, was less than it had been in 1999. Wall Street and the big banks had all been bailed out (by a Democratic administration) and were more than thriving. But many of these counties had continued to hemorrhage good jobs, and many of their residents lived with an understandable sense of abandonment.
While the 2016 Democrats and their nominee spoke repeatedly about gender equality and racial justice, missing was the Democratic embrace and advocacy of white working-class voters who did not live in fashionable neighborhoods and never used “summer” as a verb. Donald Trump told these forgotten voters living in these untrendy counties that they mattered and that they had been treated shabbily by the economic and political elites. Yes, Trump has deliberately and immorally provided comfort to dark, racist forces in our land. But do not dare to tar these voters — who twice voted for an African-American to be their president — with that same brush. It would not merely be unjust to do so; for Democrats, it would be political suicide.