In an opinion article published this week, the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign – Jennifer Palmieri – highlighted a small electoral victory that ironically captured the reason for my party’s ultimate defeat. “As I like to note, Clinton received more votes for president than any white man in history,” she crowed.
Got it. White men bad, women good.
In Palmieri’s political world, she believes that we can cruise to electoral dominance if we build a coalition of voters based on identity politics. In other words, if Democrats can get a particular slice of Americans to the polls – women, Jews, ethnic minorities, gay men and lesbians – we will win.
The idea for this dates back most famously to 2004 when political experts John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published their book, “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” They convinced my party that hard data – demographic, geographic, economic, and political data – forecasted the dawn of a new progressive era.
They argued that there was a massive wave of Democratic voters in the country’s urban areas just waiting to support the party, and would do so for generations to come.
In short, we couldn’t lose. We just needed to better organize these various categories of people and inspire them to show up on Election Day.
Unfortunately for my fellow Democrats – and the country – these political experts made a series of bad assumptions that has proven disastrous.
First, they assumed that each category of people was largely homogenous. For instance, people like Palmieri would make the case that all gay men are basically the same.
Next, the experts came up with policy solutions and related messaging to cater to a category’s specific needs. Again, gay men would likely respond to increased funding for HIV/AIDS research, so that’s what was pushed in gay-friendly media outlets.
With those two pieces in the bag, the actual candidate running for office was important but not terribly so, provided that she or he stuck to the script. And so that was our approach taken in 2016; Clinton was anointed as our nominee. Voters didn’t need to like her.
Pre-election polls seemed to support this strategy. The liberal Huffington Post put her chances of winning at 98 percent. My friends in the Democratic National Committee started jockeying for positions at the White House last summer.
And then, on November 9, America woke up to President-elect Donald Trump.
As a shell-shocked campaign and party struggled for answers – coming up with a litany of excuses – they missed the obvious: successful campaigns are built on candidates first, policies second, and coalitions of voters last. We had it completely backwards.
I will offer up myself as an example. By all measures in Palmieri’s playbook, I should have pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton. I’m a Democrat and voted for President Obama twice. I’ve got a college education and, for years, I lived in big cities. I support renewable energy instead of foreign oil. I’m also gay and have faced discrimination throughout my life.
Slam dunk for Team Clinton? Not so fast.
I was – and remain – appalled at her vote in Iraq that sent 4,491 servicemen and women to their deaths.
Equally egregious, she bragged about killing Libya’s dictator despite him no longer being a threat to our country. The result of that fiasco? Dead soldiers and Ambassador in Benghazi, a new safe haven for the Islamic State, and a refugee crisis that threatens Europe’s stability to this day.
In sum, she pushed for wars without reason; she lacked the judgment to be commander in chief.
To the horror of my party, it turns out that I think critically. I do not follow the party line. Moreover, the Clinton campaign profoundly misunderstood my identity. I am an American first, a family man second, and a Democrat third. My sexual orientation is deeply important but it does not dictate how I vote.
After wrestling with what to do on Election Day, I decided on Gary Johnson; I couldn’t stomach Clinton and didn’t trust Trump. In fact, I still don’t. But the American people chose differently. Whether I like it or not, Donald Trump will be the president of the United States in just over a month.
It is now my solemn duty to follow the example I learned at the Central Intelligence Agency: salute my flag and commander in chief irrespective of my party affiliation, all while staying true to those Democratic values that I hold dear.
I will not whine or protest. I will not demand a recount. Instead, I will encourage people to support President Trump as their conscience allows, and oppose him respectfully and fairly where they cannot. We owe him the chance to succeed. That’s how adults behave in a democracy.
To Palmieri and Democrats who think like her, I urge our party to reconsider our embrace of identity politics. Most Americans simply do not care that Secretary Clinton won more votes than any other white man. It’s an offensive and intellectually lazy argument to make.
We will not be falsely divided into a nation of neat categories. If you cannot accept that, then please go away. And take your fellow ideologues with you.
If, however, you can accept this new direction, we can once again make our case to the American people – white, black, and brown; gay and straight; Christian and Muslim; rural and urban – that we are a party worthy of their vote.
The country deserves a faithful opposition, and that requires a credible voice to hold Trump accountable. Unless we ditch identity politics and stop whining, we will not be taken seriously. Instead, we will be stuck at the edge of an electoral abyss.
Bryan Dean Wright is a former CIA ops officer and member of the Democratic Party. He contributes on issues of politics, national security, and the economy. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.