Politics & Policy

2016: The Year Liberal Ideas Failed

President Obama campaigns with Hillary Clinton in Charlotte, N.C., in July. (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
Democrats got the election they wanted in every respect. But America refused to buy what they were selling.

Hillary Clinton lost because she took her eyes off the Rust Belt and foolishly tried to “expand the map” into Arizona and Georgia. Clinton lost because she was unlikable and dishonest. Clinton lost because she ran against Donald Trump rather than for something. Clinton lost because 2016 was a “change” election, and she was the candidate of the status quo.

Trump won because he saw an opening in the Midwest that no one else saw. Trump won because his relentless messaging (“Crooked Hillary” and “Make America Great Again”) reaffirmed Clinton’s weaknesses and emphasized his own strengths. Trump won because he was an enormous celebrity who commanded unprecedented media attention. Trump won because his opponents were divided and weak.

All of those arguments (and others) have been marshalled to explain the greatest political upset in modern times, and I fear that they all miss the ideological forest for the trees of political tactics and political process: The fundamental question isn’t why Donald Trump won a close election but rather why he was even in a position to win in the first place.

After all, he was the most intensely disliked candidate in the history of favorability polling, running against the tide of seemingly invincible demographic shifts. The Democrats had the opponent they wanted, the candidate they wanted, and the coalition they’d labored generations to build. There was just one problem — their ideas were failing, sometimes in dramatic, bloody fashion. The examples were legion:

Democrats advocated increased Muslim immigration just as Muslim immigrants and refugees were killing innocent men, women, and children at home and abroad. In fact, leftists didn’t merely “advocate” admitting more refugees, they positively scorned counterarguments as bigoted and Islamophobic — even as the evidence suggesting otherwise mounted. America ended 2015 with a holiday-party massacre in San Bernardino. Germany started the New Year with mass sexual assaults in Cologne and Hamburg and ended it with a truck attack in Berlin. In between, there was carnage in Nice, Brussels, and Orlando. There were attacks in St. Cloud, Columbus, and Manhattan. Those who believed that more Muslim immigration from jihadist conflict zones meant more terror attacks were right. Liberal scorn was wrong.

Democrats fell in lockstep behind Black Lives Matter even as the “Ferguson Effect” spiked crime in America’s largest cities and cops were gunned down in the streets. In Democrat World, it was out of bounds to say “all lives matter.” In the real world, violent protests, increased street crime, and horrific ambush killings of cops taught Americans that radical ideas can have radical consequences.

The Obama Doctrine failed, and the administration redeployed combat troops to Iraq. A presidency that began with a Nobel Peace Prize ends with American troops in ground combat in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and with American pilots launching air attacks in Southwest Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. In between, the president’s weakness gave jihadists exactly the breathing room they needed, al-Qaeda in Iraq resurrected itself as ISIS, and terrorist armies became stronger than at any other time in modern history. The only thing that helped stop the bleeding was a significant Obama administration reversal. The president who left Iraq came back, and the war grinds on.

The fundamental question isn’t why Donald Trump won a close election but rather why he was even in a position to win in the first place.

A president who promised hope and change left most Americans behind. As Obama leaves office, rich Americans are doing just fine. The rest of the country is stagnant. Indeed, the white-working-class death rate is actually rising in the richest nation in the history of the world. Despair is so palpable that people are increasingly taking their own lives through suicide, alcohol, and drugs. A flood of public assistance couldn’t soothe private pain, and increased immigration was the worst medicine for economically struggling communities.

As jihad spread, crime increased, and families stagnated, the Democrats waged culture war. The Obama administration tried to force nuns to facilitate access to abortifacients. It tried to inject the federal government even into the pastor-hiring process. It lawlessly imposed federal transgender mandates on public schools, and it manufactured a fake rape crisis on campus. All of these things pleased its radical academic base. None of these things helped the communities that were hurting the most.

Why did Democrats stay home? Why did Trump win a greater share of black and Latino votes than Mitt Romney? Demography isn’t necessarily destiny, and a party can demoralize even its most loyal supporters.

#related#None of this means that Republicans are set up for success. Each of the challenges outlined above — from jihad to racial justice to crime to economic mobility — defies easy answers. Indeed, America’s working-class families often suffer from wounds that public policy simply can’t heal. Republican policies have certainly come to grief before, and they may come to grief again.

It’s likely true, if sad, that most Americans don’t care about policy. But most Americans do care about outcomes, and ideas have consequences. For Democrats, those consequences include losing control of every branch of government and the vast majority of the states. This year was the year of their failure. Will they change any of their ideas?

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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