Commentary: Summer Reading

Sep 26, 2017

  Hillary Clinton has written a book about the 2016 election entitled What Happened. I was going to say that it picks at a big scab on the body politic, but scabs assume wounds have healed. The 2016 election is still an open sore for many Americans and Clinton’s book is – how shall I say this? – not medicinal.

It was three books I read last summer that have best informed me about the last two years in American politics. The first was Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by John Allen and Annie Parnes. What were the flaws in Clinton’s campaign? How much time do you have?

  • She didn’t learn the lessons from her 2008 campaign.
  • She relied too much on data analytics and not enough on polling.
  • She assumed that Americans were as interested in electing the first female president as they were in electing the first black president.
  • She was the candidate of minority voters on social justice issues while Bernie Sanders was hitting her as a corrupt, Wall Street-loving champion of a rigged financial system.
  • She thought Trump’s crudeness and misogyny would be fatal to him.
  • She had a fundamental lack of vision for the country.

The list goes on.

The second book was Strangers in Their Own Land, by University of California sociologist Arlie Hochschild. In 2015 and 2016 she lived in southern Louisiana to find out why these white middle and lower-middle class Americans were not voting their economic interests. She found out it was partly because they were voting their cultural interests – guns, abortion and traditional morality.

She went to an early Trump rally and reported: “Trump allowed them to feel like good moral Americans and to feel superior to those considered ‘other’ or beneath them. This giddy, validating release produced a kind of ‘high’ that felt good . . . The desire to hold onto this elation became a matter of emotional self-interest.” So for this large cohort of voters cultural and emotional interests were first and second and economic interests came in third.

The third and most important book was Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. The subtitle tells it all: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Beginning in the 1970s a group of wealthy businessmen set out to spend whatever it took to fund conservative and libertarian causes: think tanks, institutes, professorships at colleges and universities, and especially favored Republican candidates for office at all levels.

This movement has had a massive impact on American electoral politics. The Koch brothers alone spent $889 million in 2016. The Kochs and their confreres were important factors in Democrats losing 1000 state legislative seats since 2010.

So 2016 was a Perfect Storm: a bungled presidential campaign by a flawed candidate; an electorate marching to the beat of a different drummer; and a multi-billion-dollar campaign cookie jar for conservatives. The Trump presidency is the result.