I Don’t Want to Debate. I Want to Talk about My Pain. How the Democrats Got It Wrong


It is quite interesting how just a few short months ago we were burying the Republican Party. They were in a state of disarray with a crowd of presidential contenders each of which seem to be more flawed than the next. And Trump was the worst of the bunch. As his momentum grew there were more and more articles and analyses decrying the state of the Republican Party explaining how Trump was going to destroy it. The reliable sensible old guard (Romney, McCain, Bush) were not only abandoning candidates but actively working against them. Romney’s pointed and vitriolic attacks on Trump were shocking coming from the cool businessmen Republican. So what happened? How did one of the worst candidates who is the least prepared and lacks the basic manners for the job get elected?

It turns out that the Republicans can’t take credit for getting Trump elected, but the Democrats can take some blame. And it wasn’t Hillary’s fault either. Her campaign made mistakes but it was not the technical and strategic components of the campaign that made the difference; it was the smug identity politics of the left; it was that sense that if you disagree with me (a good liberal) you must be some simplistic uneducated fool who is racist and sexist. And I am equally guilty.

Liberalism is a political ideology fundamentally concerned with inclusion, rights, and individual freedom. In recent years it has become associated with sharp group identities demanding recognition and a tension between “celebrating differences” and seeking the commonalities that bind us together as a nation. Our history of privatizing ethnicity and religion, and using the overarching American national ideals (democracy, individual rights, etc.) as common factors has served us well. It has meant over the years that our personal identities are not wrapped up in religion and ethnicity but in political philosophy designed to treat each other equally. But as those “rights” became increasingly group identification rights such that groups were clamoring for distinction and difference rather than commonality the differences and cleavages amongst us became the focal point. Consequently, as the title of this essay indicates, public argument and deliberation to solve problems receded into the background as individuals foregrounded their personal identities and private pain.

Liberal activism in the service of identity politics – to the exclusion of other issues – has been making progress along with a smoldering grassroots reaction and intensifying disdain for the other side. Finally, we ran into Trump who was equally as skilled at a self-righteous and aggressive style of discourse and thereby became the voice of the disenchanted. It’s important to underscore that the liberal group agenda is responsible for improving group political rights and battling the racism and discrimination it is so recognized for. The “group rights” agenda is responsible for reshaping civic life and addressing inequities burdening minorities as well as other segments of society. But the evolution of those rights into an arrogant identity politics rather than a unifying political agenda has left us with the contentious group distinctions we are experiencing and its accompanying polarization.

The recent presidential campaign was a despicable display of politics that was almost free of discussion of issues, uncivil, tacky, shallow, and polarizing. It failed its responsibility to our foremost political requirement, which is to use democratic means to shape a society into a fair and governable unit. This of course includes respect for individual group identities but in the future might require more emphasis on those things we need to do together rather than separately.



About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on December 7, 2016, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy, Political Parties and Elections and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Don, I admire your efforts to weave some logic into the frayed threads still dangling from the last election. BTW, I hope the word “last” here means most recent, not final.
    I take issue with your blanket exoneration of Hilary Clinton, however. She was the avatar of the smug identity politics you cite. Further, while evincing an attempted appeal to the left, she was talking out of the other side of her mouth to Wall Street and Clinton Foundation donors.
    Sure, the CIA nonsense about her emails (again, really?), pneumonia-gate and a shrill condescension toward her opponent, his deplorables — but her own supporters as well — led her to losing the most winnable election in my recall.
    As I lick my wounds and regroup, there’s a part of me which simply will not let go of the idea that this contest was hers to lose. And she did, perhaps closely, but spectacularly.
    Observing her odious opponent begin to fill out his cabinet with some truly dangerous, utterly unqualified righties, I shudder. Then I come back to blaming Clinton all over again.
    Not an attitude, not a movement, but her as a politician we all thought (we) knew better.

  2. Everybody got it wrong including Hillary. There were subterranean undercurrents of emotions and attitudes that nobody expected. The anger of the middle-class and rural voter and the unexpected number of people who voted for Trump because of disappointed political values, justified or not, had more to do with Hillary’s loss than her campaign. It was also very close remember..

%d bloggers like this: