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The Long View: Democrats Lost on Patriotism, Religion and Abandonment of The Little Guy

November 14, 2016

By Joe Rothstein

In the days since Donald Trump won a majority of the electoral votes, we’ve been besieged by theories trying to explain how this happened. A sampler:

Unemployed factory workers revolted against global trade policies. Unemployed coal miners revolted against global warming policies. Nativists revolted against immigration policies. It was the Comey letter to Congress, latent racism, widespread distrust of Hillary Clinton, an overconfident Clinton campaign that spent too much time in Arizona and too little in Michigan, non-voting young people lamenting Bernie Sanders, public opinion polls that affected the outcome rather than forecasting it.

Take your pick. There’s an element of truth in all of them.

As varied as they are, what all these explanations have in common is that they are temporal, one-off, applicable to this election only.

And they don’t address such questions as these: If this was a “change” election why did voters return Republican majorities to a Congress that has a 15-75 unsatisfactory job approval rating? Why did so many U.S. counties that were outside the Rust Belt or coal country shift to the GOP? Why are there now 24 states where Republicans control both the governorship and both houses of the state legislature, as opposed to only six for the Democrats? Thirty-three states now have Republican governors.

The Comey letter didn’t produce this result. Neither did stay-at-home young voters, Clinton’s campaign schedule, or global warming issues. Trade policies had little to do with GOP wins in Missouri.

To fully understand the outcome of the 2016 campaign we have to place it in the context of the past few decades of American politics. In other words, the long view.

When we look in rear view mirror we see that in the 1960s and 1970s the Democrats were placed on the defensive in terms of national security. The Republicans captured the flag during the Vietnam war when millions of Americans filled the streets in opposition, punctuated by isolated incidents of flag-burning. In the decades since, those impressions have been reinforced by battles over the size of the defense budget, nuclear disarmament efforts, Republican initiatives to pass anti-flag-burning legislation, the aftermath of 9/11, even the simple matter of wearing flag lapel pins.

Are Republican leaders more patriotic or better able to manage the nation’s defense? Not according to the factual record. But recent polling by Gallup and the Pew Research Center indicates a clear Republican win on this perception, and on the question of which party is better able to manage national defense.

Then there’s the matter of religion. Catholics once were a reliable Democratic voting bloc. According to exit polls, three-times married Donald Trump won the anti-divorce Catholic vote 52-45. Trump carried 81 per cent of the evangelical vote, a higher percentage than voted for John McCain or Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton is the most openly religious candidate the Democrats have fielded for president since Jimmy Carter. She’s never been divorced. She carries a bible with her wherever she goes. Yet she was spurned by most of organized Christian voters. Why?

Again, think beyond 2016. The abortion battles. Gay rights. Religious issues entwined with the Affordable Care Act. John Kerry, a practicing Catholic, was denied communion by his archbishop. Democrats lost the religious vote years ago. Clinton was just its latest victim.

Finally, consider the role of government in the economy. Back in the 1970s, when I began providing strategic consulting, management and media for political campaigns I quickly discovered that my Democratic Party clients were “guilty til proven innocent” when it came to taxes and government spending. It wasn’t just that Republican campaigns tagged Democrats as tax-and-spenders. Big bucks from big corporations fed the media and lobbying machines year-round, providing the framework for that campaign picture. Finally, Democrats largely caved in and began accepting that corporate money in big bags, just as the Republicans were doing.

For decades now, trade policy has been guided by what’s best for multi-national profit. Finance has been unleashed to turn itself into a global casino. Union money poured into Democratic campaigns but legal and regulatory protections against union-busting efforts only trickled out when Democrats had control. Yes, Democrats have been far more willing to go to bat for working people, and, yes, in past decades Democrats have racked up some major accomplishments. But through their coziness with big money and failure to make big differences Democrats lost the perception that they are better advocates for working people than the Republicans.

Republicans, amazingly, have managed to sanitize the argument that lower taxes and fewer referees to control the greed of big capital help working stiffs---even though those policies always, always, fail and create more hardship for everyone, except those at the top.

Over the past few decades, Democrats have lost the arguments on patriotism, religion and as protectors of the little guy. Add to that the virulence of the second amendment establishment, the latent racism that continues to flow through the political bloodstream, and the fear of so many Americans that too many changes are happening too fast and you have a fertile petri dish for GOP campaign messaging.

Most of the political reporting in 2016 focused on coalitions that favor Democrats---the young, women, ethnic populations and urban migration. The election results, however, say the focus should have been, and should remain, on deeper perceptions. It’s taken decades for American voters to produce a result like 2016’s. It may take quite a few future elections and an entirely different view of “what’s a Democrat” to reverse it.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at joe@einnews.com)

Joe Rothstein’s new political thriller, “The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her” is available on Amazon.com)

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.