Skip to main content

Did Democrats Lose the Election Because They Were Too Condescending?

The idea that Democrats are somehow the elitist party goes back decades, at least to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time. That doesn’t make it true.

By Seth Masket


Senator Bernie Sanders participates in the PBS NewsHour Democratic presidential candidate debate at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee on February 11th, 2016, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

David Brock, the founder of Media Matters, gave an interview with NPR last week explaining why he thought Hillary Clinton didn’t win the 2016 presidential election. My impression is that some of these views are gaining traction among political observers as the interpretation of the election. Since how we interpret the last election affects how we prepare for the next one, this would seems to be a good time to interrogate some of those views.

Brock views the last election as turning on a number of cultural issues:

You had three things. You had resentment politics — and there’s racism as part of that — you had an inchoate desire for change, and third, there was a revolt against this notion of political correctness or elitism. And I have to say, I don’t think the Trump voter was wrong on all that. We all know liberals and Democrats who look down on certain people, and there is such a thing as P.C.

Asked to elaborate, Brock went on:

I think partly it’s demonizing people that you don’t agree with. So for example, there are people who hold pro-life views who hold them for religious reasons. We can disagree, but we ought to respectfully disagree and not say that this view is somehow, you know, badly motivated. …

[T]his notion of stridently demonizing people who don’t have the same view we have is just a wrong approach. And you know, I mean, I became a conservative for the first dozen years of my professional life in Berkeley, Calif., and it was a reaction against political correctness, so I get it. And there is still some cultural condescension that could could be dispelled because the reality is our policies are better for the Trump voter.

OK, there are two key issues here. First, were there people in the Clinton campaign, including even the candidate herself, who were occasionally disparaging of those with different views? Were there people who disrespected conservatives and pro-lifers and maybe spoke condescendingly toward them? Undoubtedly. That’s generally something one should avoid simply because it’s rude.

The second issue, though, is Brock’s implication that this is why Clinton isn’t in the White House today, and, if Democrats don’t start being less condescending, they’ll never win elections again.

This conclusion really flies in the face of most of what we know about elections. Just think about 2016, for example. Which campaign was more dismissive of its opponents? Which candidate was more disparaging of the views of the other, more condescending toward those who disagreed? Was it Clinton who referred to people in the other party as “stupid” or “nasty,” “haters” or “losers,” or who threatened to jail her opponent? Did she kick people who disagreed with her out of rallies? Did she dismiss her primary candidates with petty nicknames like “Crooked Marty” or “Little Bernie”? In hindsight, people may blame the losing candidate for being disrespectful, but it is difficult to imagine the voter who was legitimately neutral between the candidates last year but ended up voting for Donald Trump because Clinton was rude.

And let’s think about some previous years. If the Clinton team was condescending to conservatives, was it really more so than Barack Obama was in 2008 (when he said “bitter” conservatives “cling to guns or religion”) or 2012 (when Republicans were outraged by his “you didn’t build that” remark)? Republicans were unanimously and extremely vocal about Obama’s alleged elitism, his dismissal of and unfamiliarity with rural life, and his Ivy League orientation. More conservative Democrats in 2008, indeed, were viewing Clinton as the working-class candidate who understood the concerns of rural whites. News flash: Obama won in both years.

The idea that Democrats are somehow the elitist party goes back decades, at least to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time. It’s, of course, belied by the fact that poor people overwhelmingly vote Democratic while wealthier people lean Republican, but compelling and convenient narratives die hard. But we should at least be able to dismiss the notion that Trump is in the White House today because Democrats were too condescending. It’s unsupported by the historical evidence and by what we all saw with our own eyes last year.

People should be respectful of others simply because they should. But let’s not mislead them into thinking that’s how to win elections.