Why America failed

It’s probably impossible to list all the elements of this tsunami, but here’s one attempt.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
CREDIT: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

The only comfort anyone can feel tonight is that the human brain lacks the capacity to process true enormity. We will not understand what this election means. Take solace in that numbness.

Donald Trump is the president-elect. If he follows through on his promises, millions of immigrants now face deportation. Millions more could lose their health insurance. Thousands will die because they can no longer afford care. The world is more likely to lose its fight against global warming. And all of us have to go to bed tonight knowing that we live in a country that chose an overt racist as its leader.

There will be a lot of finger pointing in the coming days. But the truth is that this happened because of systemic failure of every institution that should have prevented such an outcome. We are the victims of a tsunami of incompetence, bad judgment, ideology, constitutional failure, and hate, with each component building on each other until it crested into disaster.

It’s probably impossible to list all the elements of this tsunami, or even to identify them. But here is my best attempt to do so.

  • America failed because of the Electoral College. According to the New York Times, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is favored to win the national popular vote, despite the fact that Trump will win the Electoral College. This will be the second time in less than two decades since the candidate most Americans voted against will win the presidency. This is a simply insane way to pick presidents.
  • America failed because our Constitution is broken. In most modern democracies, the people elect the legislature, and the legislature selects the chief executive. This prevents the situation that existed in the United States for most of the last decade, where rival factions each control veto points within the legislative process and nothing is accomplished. In the United States, each party can blame the other for failures of government. And, when the government is divided, each can sabotage the others’ agenda. Only the most sophisticated voters can determine who is to blame. The rest just get angry because nothing gets done.
  • American failed because our media turned this race into an election about trivialities. Donald Trump is a racist authoritarian who knows little about policy and doesn’t appear inclined to learn. Hillary Clinton is a former senator and secretary of state who had sub-optimal IT practices in one of her most recent jobs. If you want the full account of why Clinton’s emails should have never been a major story — much less a candidate-defining incident — read Matt Yglesias’ piece on this subject. But the short of it is this: “In total, network newscasts have, remarkably, dedicated more airtime to coverage of Clinton’s emails than to all policy issues combined.”
  • America failed because the FBI Director manipulated the election. Maybe FBI Director James Comey did not intend to swing the election. Indeed, it is overwhelmingly likely that Comey did not intend to swing the election. But the fact of the matter is that the Justice Department’s tradition of not injecting itself into elections exists for a reason. It exists because voters are especially likely to be prejudiced by negative information indicating that a candidate is caught up in the criminal justice system, even if the charges are bogus or baseless. Yet Comey didn’t just violate this norm, he held a July press conference where he editorialized about Clinton’s carelessness. And then, just when the story seemed dead, he reinvigorated it eleven days before the election with a vague letter about new evidence that turned out to be nothing at all.
  • America failed because FBI agents intentionally manipulated the election. What is it called when elements within a nation’s internal security agency intentionally try to swing an election? Because that’s what happened here. It’s been widely reported that anti-Clinton elements within the FBI leaked selective and, at times, misleading, information to the press in an effort to discredit Clinton. It worked.
  • America failed because the Democratic Party didn’t have a real primary. Insiders within the Democratic Party acted swiftly to shore up elite support for Clinton’s candidacy. It pushed out all plausible opponents but one, an elderly, previously obscure senator who wasn’t even a Democrat before this race — and that guy came surprisingly close to winning! Would Clinton have prevailed if Joe Biden, Deval Patrick, Kirsten Gillibrand, and maybe a few other top-tier candidates had gotten into the race? Who knows. But the primary electorate should have had the chance to pick who their standard bearer should be rather than leaving it up to insiders who, ultimately, picked a losing candidate at the worst possible time.
  • America failed because of third parties. Gary Johnson was never going to be president. Jill Stein was never going to be president. That protest vote someone wrote in for Bernie Sanders was never going to elect Sanders president. There was one person who could have defeated Trump in the general election — Hillary Clinton — and she lost, at least in part, because the anti-Trump vote did not consolidate around her. Indeed, current ballot counts shows the margin separating Trump and Clinton in the crucial state of Florida is less than the number of votes won by Johnson and Stein. If they weren’t in the race would Clinton have prevailed? Maybe not, but their presence almost certainly contributed to the tsunami that elected Trump.
  • America failed because of Republican cowardice. Sure, there were plenty of Republicans who bought what Trump was selling. But there were also Republicans, like Speaker Paul Ryan, who knew what he was but cared more about protecting themselves and repealing Obamacare then they did about preserving liberal democracy. They could have raised their voices in protest. They could have warned wary Republican voters while those voters were still willing to listen. Instead, they let this happen.
  • America failed because of Republican extremism. The GOP, as Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein explain in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, is no longer a governing party. It made opposition to Democrats its highest value. It sold its faithful on fantasies about invading immigrants, rampant voter fraud, rigged elections, magical tax cuts, and the creeping threat of socialism. It became the kind of party that could nominate Donald Trump.
  • American failed because of voter suppression. Republican state lawmakers, backed up by their allies on the Supreme Court, enacted laws making it harder for groups that tend to favor Democrats from casting a ballot. We cannot know how many voters were disenfranchised by these laws, but it may have been enough to throw the election to Trump.
  • America failed because most media outlets are a business, not a public service. Trump brought ratings. Trump brought clicks. Giving Trump billions of dollars worth of free media meant more advertising revenue for for-profit companies. Additionally, these companies risked chasing off Republican viewers and readers if they told the truth about what Trump is. So they hedged. And they rolled in the new ad revenue.
  • America failed because it is racist. Chief Justice John Roberts told us in his opinion striking down much of the Voting Rights Act that America just isn’t as racist as it used to be, so we can relax and have fewer civil rights laws. But our grandparents’ generation did not elect George Wallace. We elected Donald Trump.
  • America failed because it is sexist. Trump sexually assaulted women. And then he bragged about it. On camera. And we elected him anyway.

So there’s a short, incomplete list. There are no doubt other reasons. And there are other possible factors that will no doubt be controversial. America may have failed because the Democrats nominated Clinton instead of Sanders. It may have failed because of her position on trade. Or because Democrats gave up on white working class voters. Or because the party moved too far to the right. Or because it moved too far to the left.

And then, of course, there’s that whole thing with the Russians.

But let’s not point our fingers at any one person or any one group in assigning blame. America failed because the institutions that maintain liberal democracy are fragile, and we allowed them to collectively fall into decay.