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Left behind

"There's a vacuum in American politics, and Trump filled it with garbage. That's not the voters' fault. It's the Democratic Party's fault for not filling it with something else."

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Three weeks before the election, a Lee Newspapers poll found Gov. Steve Bullock in a dead heat with challenger Greg Gianforte. It was the only reputable statewide poll conducted this year and, of course, it was wrong.

Bullock beat Gianforte by four points. That's not so different from what the Lee poll predicted, but it seemed stranger in the context of the night's other headline result. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Montana by 21 points en route to a national victory that shocked pundits and contradicted every poll available.

This was a bad year for polling. Like most people who publicly anticipated the results of the election, I was surprised last Tuesday. So was the rest of the commentary-industrial complex, from the impartial nerds at Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog to the party hacks who thought Democrats might retake the Senate.

They did not. Republicans will now control not just the White House and Congress, but also both the governorships and legislatures of 24 states. Last week's election was a historic landslide for the GOP, at a moment when it seemed likely the party would lose disastrously and potentially split apart.

That no one saw this coming is strange. But in defense of the prognosticators, the electorate behaved strangely this year. Montana offers a particularly baffling example, because its governor's race so resembled the race for president.

Like Clinton versus Trump, Bullock versus Gianforte pitted the successor to a more-popular Democratic executive against a wealthy Republican with no experience. Why did Montanans overwhelmingly prefer one rich outsider while rejecting the other?

This line of questioning does not lead us anywhere pleasant. One obvious difference between the two contests was gender. Maybe Montanans, who expressed a slight preference for Democratic leadership in the statehouse, went massively Republican for president because the alternative was to put a woman in the White House. I don't want to believe that, but as an explanation it seems robust.

Equally uncomfortable but also compelling is the explanation that Gianforte did not play to bigotry. Although he spent the last two months making a bogeyman of Syrian refugees, the entrepreneur from Bozeman did not embrace white nationalism as Trump did. In Montana, a state that is 89 percent white, that kind of race-baiting might have made a difference.

PHOTO COURTESY OF GAGE SKIDMORE
  • photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Both of these possibilities are too depressing to contemplate, unless they're true. In that case we should contemplate until we figure out what to do about them. The narrative that voters broke for Trump because they're xenophobic misogynists might be dangerous, though, if it oversimplifies the story. Race and gender almost certainly played a more prominent and corrosive role this year than in any election of the last 30 years. But we should not embrace this explanation as an excuse to avoid holding the Democratic Party to account.

One big difference between Trump/ Clinton and Gianforte/Bullock is that Trump had a message. I find that message reprehensible and dumb, but it's easy to say what it was. Build a wall. Deport immigrants. Keep tabs on Muslims. Replace the political class. It's harder to say what Clinton, Gianforte and Bullock stood for, because they ran predominantly negative campaigns.

Clinton spent the summer and fall alternately warning us against Trump and promising to continue the policies of the Obama administration. Looking back on a year that saw 16 Republican presidential candidates destroyed by an anti-establishment firebrand, this approach was doomed.

The United States has spent the last eight years in a dubious economic recovery that has brought financial markets to record highs as wages stagnate. A decade and a half of war in the Middle East cost us blood and treasure without improving our position in the region or our security at home. Trump told voters frustrated by these real problems and frightened by changing demographics that the country is on the verge of collapse. In response, the Democratic Party told them a Trump presidency would be the real catastrophe and urged them to vote instead for more of the same. In retrospect, that strategy was foolish to the point of negligence.

Democrats should dwell on this failure. They lost to the most vulnerable Republican ticket in generations. They did it by ignoring an electorate that believes America is in crisis, dismissing voters' alienation from the political establishment out of contempt for the rhetoric Trump used to exploit it.

Trump channeled voters' frustration and anxiety into racism, but it wasn't racism that convinced them the economy only really works for the rich. Misogyny didn't give us 15 years of unproductive foreign wars and zero-sum partisan government. There is a vacuum in American politics, and president-elect Trump filled it with garbage. That's not the voters' fault. It's the Democratic Party's fault for not filling it with something else.

Dan Brooks writes about culture, lived experience and the crazy thing that just happened at combatblog.net.

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