Holding OutProtest Votes in the Electoral College

On Monday, the Electoral College met to finalize what most of us understood as an inevitability after November 8: Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States. In less than a month, he will be sworn in as the least popular president-elect in recent history on a day people have already threatened to fill with protests. (Give ‘em hell, America.)

However, 2016 being 2016, the year wouldn’t go down without a fight, and the same goes for some diehard electors. That included two people who defected from the Trump camp, but also a clump of electors who refused to cast their votes for Hillary Clinton, many of whom instead voted for Colin Powell. It felt a little bit like kicking Clinton while she was down.

Bernie Sanders supporters took the protest vote even further. In both Maine and Minnesota, former Sanders delegates tried to vote for Bernie but were foiled. One Hawaiian elector successfully cast a ballot for the failed presidential candidate, saying he felt Clinton wasn’t qualified enough and suggesting Sanders was “robbed” at the convention. This belief is common among some supporters, including delegates sent to the convention who didn’t understand how the party nominating process works.

This pervasive myth that Sanders would have won the presidency merits closer discussion because this is a conversation we are likely to have over and over again as people relitigate the primary in the coming years. Some Sanders supporters will undoubtedly blame Clinton and her supporters for the upcoming horrors of the Trump presidency—if only they had fallen into line behind the right candidate, they will say,  none of this would have happened. This kind of purity-test politics has always been popular on the left, and its perpetuation makes it much easier for people to distract each other while Washington burns.

We’re hearing over and over again—including from Sanders—that the Clinton campaign focused too much on identity politics when they should have been trying to win the hearts of the white working class. The campaign failed, we’re told, because Clinton refused to speak to the interests and concerns of everyday Americans in its haste to embrace “identity liberalism” and obsess over diversity. (Just so we’re clear, “everyday Americans” is code for the white working class.)

Let’s take a minute to talk about “identity politics.” First of all, people who aren’t white are everyday Americans. So are disabled people, trans people, queer people, Muslims, and a host of others who don’t look like the majority of those at Sanders rallies. They’re everyday Americans, too, and they care deeply about what happens in the United States—and they also want to see progress. While the United States may be a majority-white country (for now), the complexity of diverse identities in the United States means that the white, male, Christian, cis, heterosexual population is hardly a monolith and shouldn’t be treated as the center of the universe. If you think whites are the majority of working-class Americans, I don’t know what to tell you, because things are about to change.

Clinton’s campaign was unprecedented in terms of its inclusive breadth and scope. She grasped that the only way to reach voters was through acknowledging their existence and talking about what she wanted to do for them. She understood that this election was not just about class and economics, and she understood that she had to convey concrete policy proposals. That’s not identity politics. That’s common sense if you believe the Democratic Party should truly be the umbrella party for everyone.

But you know who really went to town in the identity politics department? Donald Trump, who thoroughly owned the myth that white, middle-class people are an oppressed minority in the United States. He understood the psyche of his followers and manipulated it with mastery—and it was all about identity politics. This year reaffirmed the notion that the “white identity” is under threat and should be preserved.

Somehow, when politicians talk about what they are going to do for underrepresented groups, it’s pandering, but when they reassure white people in power that they will remain in power, it’s…fine? As is perpetuating myths that economics are the sole driver of inequality in the United States, which focuses on the very specific concerns of a very specific and very small group of white, privileged liberals?

Throughout the campaign, we heard about Clinton’s failings on the regular. She’s apparently crooked, untrustworthy, aligned with Wall Street, slippery, and entitled, and she probably hates unicorns. Sanders supporters repeatedly reference the popular support enjoyed by the senator—who, to his credit, got further than most people expected. But that kind of groundswell of popular support doesn’t always translate to success.

To wit: Where were all those supporters as he lost primary after primary? Where were they in states critical for a successful White House run? Why did Sanders perform so much better in caucus states, which have much lower turnouts, than those that run proper primaries? Why were so many of them white? Within the bubble many of his supporters constructed, it felt like he was an undefeatable giant of progressive politics. Out in the real world, that just wasn’t true.

“Sadly, when the primary season was over, and their candidate was not successful, many of them lost hope, as well as interest. Many felt the Democratic Party had not listened to them, did not care about them, and did not respect them,” wrote David Bright, the Maine elector who attempted to defect to Sanders. His comments were a telling testimony to the sense of entitlement that many Sanders voters—especially those who became interested in politics for the first time in 2016—exhibited during the election and the convention. Succeeding in politics takes work and time and patience. It doesn’t happen overnight. Just ask Clinton, who ran and lost in 2008 when many assumed she would take the nomination, worked as an integral member of the Obama administration and became quite friendly with her former opponent, and then picked herself up eight years later to have another go, because that is what grown-ups do.

Yes, Sanders mobilized huge numbers of donors and volunteers and ran a campaign without the considerable backing available to Clinton. But it was clear quite early in the primary cycle that this election wasn’t about him, that even as Trump was terrifyingly ascendant, this was going to be a Clinton versus Trump race.

And if you think the misogyny hurled at Clinton from both the right and the left was bad, the anti-Semitism that became a pervasive theme in the Trump campaign would have turned even darker and uglier for Sanders—and it would have colored perceptions of him and his chance of winning, just as attacks on Clinton’s gender did.

It’s interesting to imagine a world in which Sanders won. That world, though, is even more unlikely than one in which Clinton did. Even if this had been a free and fair election without voter suppression and the manipulation of the electorate, Sanders might have had a small, very devoted following, but it wouldn’t have translated to the rest of the country. If Clinton is to stand accused of not speaking to the white working class (even though she did), Sanders could rightly be accused of not speaking to the majority of Americans. Any kindergartener can tell you that it’s not enough to be popular with your three best friends: You have to reach the whole class.

And while postgaming the election is a fun intellectual exercise that will no doubt dominate holiday tables in the coming days, we have more important things to do right now, starting with developing a functional, collective, organized resistance to Trump. That doesn’t mean subverting diversity and identity to a “common cause” in the name of the greater good, but rather incorporating our rich diversity of experience into a collaborative resistance marked by solidarity, not “I got mine” or ideological purity.

s.e. smith's headshot. they are wearing blue and their short, curly brown hair halos their head.
by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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