4 Lessons the Media Should Learn From the 2016 Election
Donald Trump is set to become the 45th president of the United States. To say his defeat of Hillary Clinton is a historical political upset is a major understatement. Very few people saw this coming and a lot of individuals and institutions, including the media, are left trying to figure out what went wrong. Here a few of my takeaways.
1. Assumptions rarely lead to understanding.
The most powerful and influential voices in media are centered in big cities and their perspectives take on the type of progressive worldview that is common in urban centers. That’s not a bad thing per se, it just means members of the mainstream media–and many of its consumers–don’t understand much about people who live in other parts of the country. And what do people do when they lack experience or understanding in a particular area? They rely on assumptions, project their own worldview onto others, and listen to the opinions of others who have as little information as they do.
For example, I heard one analyst on Roland Martin’s show say that white women in the suburbs of Philly were okay with Trump’s misogyny because that’s how their husbands talk to them. So in this election, many journalists assumed people living in rural Kentucky would process Trump’s message the same way as someone living in New York City. And the Trump voters that did get media attention were often the types who reflected the worst of his message.
There was a lot of talk about Trump and the white working class but in reality many of us have very little insight into the worlds of white people who aren’t middle class or wealthy. Think of it this way, black urban poverty has been dissected from every possible angle, from underperforming education systems and limited job opportunities to crime and changing family dynamics. It’s so easy to associate black and brown folks with poverty because most black people live in and around cities or the south, regions that overlap with many of the most influential media outlets, whether traditional papers like New York Times and Chicago Tribune, magazines like The Atlantic, or websites like Salon or the Daily Beast. White poverty–whether urban or rural–has gotten no such treatment. Many people have no idea about the beliefs, values, lifestyles, or vices of the white poor or working class outside of fictional–and often unflattering–characterizations on television. That’s not good for opinion writers whose job calls for them to make sense of what drives people to the polls or makes them vote for a particular candidate.
I don’t understand how someone could vote for a candidate that is whiny, petty, easily manipulated and who has said racist and sexist things. I don’t understand how some people who say character and qualifications matter could look past Trump’s obvious lack of civility and lack of experience to still vote for him. I don’t understand those things but if I was the head of the Democratic party or a writer looking to explain this reality I’d try my best to understand it because a misdiagnosis is inevitably going to lead to the wrong prescription. Which brings us to point number 2.
2. Racism can’t be the only answer.
One example of the disconnect between the media and many Americans is the inability to understand Trump voters outside of the prisms of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. This happened well before election night with headlines declaring all Trump voters bigots and continues with writers who claim there are no good Trump voters. To be clear, I certainly believe there are Trump voters who subscribe to racist and sexist views. There were polls conducted in August 2016 that showed more than 70% of Trump voters still doubt Barack Obama was born in the US as well as surveys that showed his voters viewed African Americans more negatively than whites (attitudes shared by smaller %s of Clinton voters).
My issue is not that racism and sexism were discussed, it’s that many writers were unable to see anything outside of those two issues. Some of the articles I’ve read have such a singular focus on race that they don’t even mention or attempt to explain how Trump won 31% (209 out of 676) of the counties Barack Obama won twice and 94% (194 out of 207) of the counties he won once. Exit poll data that showed most voters (52% of respondents) felt the economy was the most important issue and that the ability to bring change (39% of respondents) was the most important quality in a candidate got quickly dismissed in favor of more simplistic narratives about whites (and the 21% of non-whites) voting to uphold white supremacy.
Many believe that supporting a candidate that says racist and sexist things means you share the same beliefs, but how many of us do the same in our lives? Should black folk who support or follow the teachings of Minister Louis Farrakhan be accused of antisemitism because he’s been accused of it. I highly doubt it. Why? Because people are complex and sometimes they will support people who say (and do) controversial things if they think the person’s strengths outweigh their shortcomings. The recent passing of Fidel Castro makes that crystal clear. Castro is an icon of many black folk on the Left because he supported anti-colonial movements throughout Africa and South America and spoke forcefully against racism in the US. He also ruled Cuba for more than 40 years and was accused of major human rights violations. And while many Cubans in the US celebrated his passing, Rev. Jesse Jackson penned an op-ed calling for a nuanced analysis of his legacy. Colin Kaepernick, NFL quarterback and activist, wore a shirt with Castro (and Malcolm X) and when pressed on how he–someone so vocal about the oppression of black people in the US–could do such a thing, gave an answer about Cuba’s high literacy rate. Contrast this call for a complex assessment of Castro’s record with the simplicity with which some writers characterize Trump voters.
3. Party matters. A lot.
One of the things that hasn’t been discussed in the post-election analysis of Trump’s victory has been the importance of party. Lost in the articles that blame white women for electing Trump is a proper starting point for their voting behavior. We don’t have a country of 200+ million independent voters who can be swayed in either direction based on the specific candidates in the race. If that was the case, the election results would say much more about the American public than it already did. Without this context it becomes much easier to assume white women betrayed their gender, especially considering how often Trump made sexist remarks or had public confrontations with women during the campaign. CNN exit polls show that more than 50% of white women (across the education and economic spectrum) have voted for the Republican candidate in every presidential race since 2004. That’s significant because it takes more political energy to get a reliable base to vote in significant numbers for the other party than it does for that base to vote for a less than ideal candidate. I think the notion that white women would go for Clinton in larger than usual numbers was driven by assumptions about how moderate and conservative women see themselves and the types of issues they care about (see point number 1). The difference between Clinton in 2016 and Obama in 2008 is that black folk were already a unified voting block for the Democrats so him getting 95% of the black vote wasn’t the surprise–the total black turnout was. So expecting Hillary Clinton to capture 60% of the white woman vote in 2016 would be analogous to a black Republican candidate getting 25% of the black vote in a presidential election. Now ask yourself how bad a Democratic candidate would have to be and/or how good a black Republican candidate would have to be for African Americans to break from their normal voting patterns to support the GOP.
4. All politicians aren’t created equal.
Hillary Clinton proved she is no Barack Obama–evidenced by the fact that she got about 2 million fewer votes than he did in 2008 and 1 million fewer than 2012. She was a very unpopular candidate with a ton of political baggage who couldn’t motivate key parts of her base, which is something that was clear from the Democratic primaries. The GOP should heed this lesson in case it thinks Trump’s game plan will work for any other future presidential candidate. That’s unlikely. Trump had 100% name ID, a bombastic communication style in a profession where most people are wonkish and boring, enough money to claim he wasn’t beholden to corporate or donor interests, a long track record in business, and an opponent who epitomized establishment politics. All of these things formed a perfect storm that he used to win this election. Like Obama–but for totally different reasons–Trump is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime type of presidential candidate.
This election showed that we need thinkers and influencers who can analyze complex issues that include, but aren’t limited to, critiques on race, class, and gender. Our political and cultural discourse has gotten lazy with language and the use of terms like “racist” to describe everything from George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina to the term “white working class” to math (seriously) has caused them to lose some of their power. Writers lose effectiveness whenever they only see the world through a single lens. It’s like a baker whose only ingredient is flour and only measure is one cup. You can’t make a cake that way and this election demonstrated that you can’t make sense of an election that way either.