Twice in 16 years, a Republican has captured the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. In both cases, the Democratic candidate was relentlessly savaged over inane trivia by mainstream media outlets. This isn’t an accident, either; Republicans have tried very consciously to work the refs, and it works. In 2016, the media amplified the successful attempts of a grossly unethical and partisan FBI to throw the election to Donald Trump. This is an immensely important issue that needs far more discussion, not least to insure that the next Democratic president doesn’t consider appointing someone like James Comey again.
And, yet, too many people want to give the media and the FBI a de facto pass, so we can focus on the irrelevant-going-forward issue that a candidate who will never be the Democratic nominee for president again sucks. So I’m grateful for Paul Krugman using his high-visibility real estate to put the issue so clearly:
Let me explain what I mean by saying that bad guys hacked the election. I’m not talking about some kind of wild conspiracy theory. I’m talking about the obvious effect of two factors on voting: the steady drumbeat of Russia-contrived leaks about Democrats, and only Democrats, and the dramatic, totally unjustified last-minute intervention by the F.B.I., which appears to have become a highly partisan institution, with distinct alt-right sympathies.
Does anyone really doubt that these factors moved swing-state ballots by at least 1 percent? If they did, they made the difference in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — and therefore handed Mr. Trump the election, even though he received almost three million fewer total votes. Yes, the election was hacked.
By the way, people who respond to this observation by talking about mistakes in Clinton campaign strategy are missing the point, and continuing their useful idiocy. All campaigns make mistakes. Since when do these mistakes excuse subversion of an election by a foreign power and a rogue domestic law enforcement agency?
The bigger surprise was the behavior of the news media, and I don’t mean fake news; I mean big, prestigious organizations. Leaked emails, which everyone knew were probably the product of Russian hacking, were breathlessly reported as shocking revelations, even when they mostly revealed nothing more than the fact that Democrats are people.
Meanwhile, the news media dutifully played up the Clinton server story, which never involved any evidence of wrongdoing, but merged in the public mind into the perception of a vast “email” scandal when there was nothing there.
And then there was the Comey letter. The F.B.I. literally found nothing at all. But the letter dominated front pages and TV coverage, and that coverage — by news organizations that surely knew that they were being used as political weapons — was almost certainly decisive on Election Day.
So as I said, there were a lot of useful idiots this year, and they made the election hack a success.
Now what? If we’re going to have any hope of redemption, people will have to stop letting themselves be used the way they were in 2016. And the first step is to admit the awful reality of what just happened.
That means not trying to change the subject to campaign strategy, which is a legitimate topic but has no bearing on the question of electoral subversion. It means not making excuses for news coverage that empowered that subversion.
And it means not acting as if this was a normal election whose result gives the winner any kind of a mandate, or indeed any legitimacy beyond the bare legal requirements. It might be more comfortable to pretend that things are O.K., that American democracy isn’t on the edge. But that would be taking useful idiocy to the next level.
The effect of yadda-yaddaying the media’s malpractice, Wikileaks, and a rogue FBI is both to normalize Trump and to make Trumps more likely in the future. That Clinton’s campaign, like all campaigns, made mistakes is worthy of discussion but is also entirely immaterial to this question.
Incidentally, my favorite move for changing the subject is the literally Trumpian one of labeling the effects of the Comey intervention a “conspiracy theory.” This would be dumb enough if the bottom line of the analysis was “there’s no point trying to explain events as complex as election outcomes.” But of course in 99% of cases the point is to handwave away the effect the of FBI’s intervention and the media’s coverage so that the pundit’s longstanding hobbyhorse can be identified with no evidence whatsoever as the One True Cause of Trump winning. The two step works like this:
A: “Every time Comey inserted himself into the election, this created a demonstrable wave of negative media coverage against Clinton, and Clinton’s poll numbers significantly declined. Given that late-breaking voters broke strongly for Trump and the extremely close margins in the pivotal states, it is overwhelmingly likely that absent Comey’s interventions, Clinton wins.” B:”This nutty CONSPIRACY THEORY is the liberal equivalent of birtherism. And why would anybody on the left give a shit about the national security state acting to throw the election to a cross between George Wallace and Calvin Coolidge anyway? That’s as crazy as thinking anyone on the left should find constitutional provisions that were anti-democratic concessions to white supremacists and continue to function as such objectionable.”
B: “Clinton lost the election solely because of CELEBRITY GLITZ and her NEOLIBERAL campaign [which was significantly to the left of Barack Obama’s two winning campaigns and miles to the left of Bill Clinton’s two winning campaigns.*] This is such an unassailably ironclad empirical fact it can hardly be necessary to cite any evidence.”
Well, we all need dark comedy in these trying times.
*Lest I be willfully misconstrued, I of course do not think that the Democratic Party’s shift to the left was the reason she lost, although I also don’t see any evidence for the claim that marginal voters preferred Trump because Clinton wasn’t left-wing enough. The party’s move to the left is a good thing and should continue. We should remain vigilant against the eternal argument that losing (or, in this case, “losing”) an election means the party should move to the right. The fact that the fight to head the DNC will be between Keith Ellison and Tom Perez — imagine that in 1996! — is a good sign here, and I think Sanders’s success will provide very useful pushback going forward, but it’s important not to let up. And I think it’s better not to pretend you’re arguing campaign tactics when you’re really arguing ideology.