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Why Clinton Lost So Many Democrats

The decisive factor in Hillary Clinton’s victory over Bernie Sanders was her rock-solid support from upscale liberals voting primarily on culture-war issues. White Democrats, in other words, largely voted along class lines.

This was most starkly illustrated when the New York Times published a map [1] of how every precinct in the five boroughs voted in April, with Hillary completely sweeping Brownstone Brooklyn and all of Manhattan save a few lonely precincts on the Lower East Side. It was first seen as early as March 1 in Massachusetts, when Cambridge and its bedroom satellite Lexington put Clinton over the top by a fraction of a percent. And it ensured her consolidating victories throughout the Northeast and finally in California.

The urgent wake-up call that these facts should present to the Democratic leadership is this: While Hillary won the upscale white liberals and minorities who “look like the Democratic Party”—indeed, she lost among registered Democrats only in Vermont and New Hampshire—she still won only 54 percent of the primary vote, and she lost young voters by nearly three-to-one.

The turbulence of this election is best understood as the end of the era that began with the election of 1968, defined by the numerous domestic consequences of the Vietnam War. Published the following year, The Emerging Republican Majority [2] by Kevin Phillips remains the indispensable chronicle of the historical forces that led up to that election, as well as the most breathtakingly accurate forecast of its long-term aftermath. Phillips bluntly described the diminished Democratic Party that would face the Nixon/Reagan supermajority as “the party of the Establishmentarian Northeast and Negro South.” The generation of progressives shaped by this tumult reached its apotheosis in Hillary Clinton’s present campaign.


The presidential contender who set the tone of American liberalism for the epoch that began in 1968 was not a high-minded representative of Cold War liberalism’s better half such as Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern, but Bobby Kennedy, whose campaign represented an odd alliance of the Democratic establishment with such New Left ideologues as Tom Hayden. The politics of Vietnam have obscured the early history of the New Left, which was deeply invested in the idealism of the Great Society—an idealism that Kennedy most effectively channeled.

In his widely praised book The Agony of the American Left [3], Christopher Lasch diagnosed the fatally limited imagination of this species of leftism. In discussing the lionization of such early-20th-century anarchists as “Big Bill” Haywood and the IWW, Lasch explained that “Haywood’s militancy, his advocacy of violence and sabotage … and his view of radicalism as a movement based on marginal people, all correspond to the anti-intellectual proclivities of the contemporary student left.” Oddly enough, this proved a comfortable fit for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which was directed at such marginal populations as Appalachian coal miners and the black urban poor, as opposed to the more nationally unifying, and thus naturally more popular, programs of the New Deal.

Whatever one’s opinion of Bernie Sanders’s proposals for single-payer health care, tuition-free public college, and a massive reinvestment in infrastructure, they have reemphasized why the New Deal was popular and the Great Society was not. This is a fundamental break from the pattern of missionary progressivism by what in the 1970s was called “the new class” of affluent professionals, typified by the Great Society and over the following decades increasingly conflated with culture-war priorities.

This is the source of the biggest misunderstanding of the Sanders phenomenon by the generation of liberals formed by 1968 and its aftermath. Even older Sanders supporters, hailing from that milieu themselves, have typically assumed that the campaign is merely the latest in a predictable cycle of generational struggle between youthful “egalitarians” and wizened “politicians” (to borrow from the title of the suspiciously timed new book by Sean Wilentz, who is perfectly representative of this conceit as both an ardent Clintonite and nostalgic son of postwar Greenwich Village).

But Phillips provides a clearer insight into what presently roils American liberalism. Perhaps nothing is more striking to the retrospective reader of The Emerging Republican Majority than how completely marginal, if not irrelevant, was the drama of the New Left to the causes of the realignment that led to the Nixon/Reagan supermajority. Phillips recognized what was lost on the political and media elite of the 1960s and ’70s—that the emergence of this supermajority, not the campaigns of Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, was the real story of 1968.

Much of the political story of the past few years should be understood as the unfolding consequences of a highly analogous situation among the millennial generation. The privileged student radicals of 1968 became the vanguard of the new class, which, despite its electoral marginality, defined American liberalism for the next five decades. Their children, inheriting their values, advanced their cause both in the prestige media and as the loudest, most aggressive voices on elite campuses. Today, that prosperous elite is ever-more isolated from the social and economic devastation that has gripped most of the country.

The overwhelming preference of millennials for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton—and the not-insignificant showing of millennial support for Donald Trump—has thus been a revolt by that generation’s masses against their appointed representatives in prestige media, who were largely responsible for creating the illusions about the mood of the country that have set the tone and underlying assumptions for the Clinton campaign.

This self-satisfied culture-war extremism might have been tolerated by most millennials had it not become the hallmark of open class contempt. But it is no accident that leading corporate liberal publications, from The Atlantic to Slate to New York, traffic in the most unrestrained identity politics, belligerence, and transgender extremism while their mostly young writers have also been the most supportive of Clinton and critical of Sanders.

It may be extremely sobering that Hillary Clinton’s only challenger for the Democratic nomination was both a lifelong independent and a representative of the aging Jewish cohort that is perhaps the last surviving segment of voters with a serious attachment to the class-solidarity appeal of the New Deal Democrats. But it is at least as revealing that only such a man as Bernie Sanders could have rallied the economically hard-pressed youth of America behind a future they could believe in, just as it is now clear that only a human wrecking ball such as Donald Trump could have finally dislodged and buried the rotting corpse of the historic conservative movement.

Many longstanding assumptions about the future of American politics are likely to be exploded over the next several months. Polls have been showing Clinton and Trump running about evenly among millennials, and Nate Cohn of the New York Times has laid out data [4] undermining the assumption of a declining white electorate. Meanwhile, a millennial supermajority that rejects its politically correct mouthpieces, not unlike the boomer supermajority that rejected the New Left, is coming into view.

To be sure, that majority is firmly committed to social and economic policies that are far closer to those of Bernie Sanders than to those of Ronald Reagan. But it is precisely because the liberal culture-war catechism is so totally losing resonance with them—not to mention the slaying of the Reagan policy paradigm by Trump—that the liberal pundit class is invoking that catechism with increasing hysteria. This election will do much to determine how the millennial majority ultimately takes shape.

If Trump wins, the combination of his likely one-term disaster and the shock of a Clinton loss will likely open the way for a lasting generational transformation of the Democratic Party. Unless Trump loses in a landslide, which looks increasingly unlikely, there is no going back to the old order for the Republicans, in which case they could still thwart the emerging Democratic majority of the past decade. Yet the success of the Sanders campaign has made clear that if, as some have suggested, the coming realignment is between the Bloomberg party and the Trump party, the former cannot long survive.

The legacy of the Bernie Sanders campaign will have been to reveal that for the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, the twin legacies of the 1960s—in both the party establishment and its ideological base—are at long last at death’s door.

Jack Ross is the author of The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History [5] and the forthcoming The Strange Death of American Exceptionalism, on the history of the present political moment inspired by the scholarship of Kevin Phillips.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "Why Clinton Lost So Many Democrats"

#1 Comment By Axxr On June 21, 2016 @ 1:27 am

I’m Generation X, not Millennial, but I have experienced the same conversations too many times now:

“How can Sanders supporters not vote for Clinton? They agree on everything!”

“Um, they don’t agree on foreign policy, the economy, education, health care…”

“No, I mean they agree on everything that matters.”

“Um, those things matter to me.”

“Well, I mean that they don’t matter in the face of the war against women, the war against the LGBT community…”

“Oh, I don’t know. Foreign policy is a pretty big deal, for example.”

“Oh my God, so you’re a homophobic, racist misogynist? I though you were so much better than that. We’re done here.”

The identity politics side of the aisle sees everything through that lens, and if the lens can’t be applied, then an issue simply doesn’t exist for them. They are incapable of understanding Sanders’ import, and will thus be incapable avoiding a repeat of this situation again down the road.

#2 Comment By Sally Snyder On June 21, 2016 @ 7:25 am

Here is an article that explains why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have received the backing of a high percentage of American voters:


The dissatisfaction with the current political system has rarely been higher than it is now.

#3 Comment By Chris D. On June 21, 2016 @ 9:34 am

I like your premise, but I’m not convinced by your conclusion. I consider myself a centrist/blue dog Democrat who abandoned the GOP after the Dixiecrat takeover of ’94.

“…the liberal culture-war catechism is so totally losing resonance with them…”

I think that is more because the emerging millenial supermajority of Democrats that I see are Greens, rather than New Left culture warriors. I think they have a lot in common with Jerry Brown. Their desire for single-payer health care is probably the only alignment they have with the old New Deal.

They support free college, but this is mostly an extension of their desire to have their own debts forgiven. Once they’ve gotten over the hump on their own college debts, I think this passion will fade.

They like the word “infrastructure” because Obama used it a lot, but they probably don’t have an opinion on anything beyond wind/solar and mass transit. Green ways. Bike lanes.

Personally, I’m more hopeful about what might emerge from Trump’s ashes than Hillary’s. I look forward to checking out your next book.

#4 Comment By connecticut farmer On June 21, 2016 @ 10:06 am

Bottom line: The Clintons typify the rather uneasy alliance between social/cultural liberalism on the one hand and what amounts to economic conservatism on the other (in the minds of “genuine” Progressives, the economic policies of the Bill Clinton administration amounted to economic apostasy). Call them what you will–“Limousine Liberals” (a phrase coined by failed 1973 NYC mayoralty candidate Mario Proccacino to describe the incumbent John Lindsay) or “Bobos” (“Bohemian Bougeoisie” as David Brooks called them), the Clinton wing of the Democrat Party has clearly broken with the Sanders Wing.

#5 Comment By Clint On June 21, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

Hillary Clinton can’t put Trump away with the attempted redux June Defining of The GOP opponent,even with the redux help of the biased liberal Mainstream Media.

Hillary Clinton is a Yesterday Candidate fighting the last war.

#6 Comment By moosejaw On June 21, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

At last. An article that fully recognizes that the Trump and Sanders phenomena are about deep changes in the electorate, not about Trump and Sanders per se.

GOP Establishment and elite attacks on Trump failed precisely because they were GOP Establishment and elite attacks on Trump.

It’s a shame the Sanders people didn’t bestir themselves to launch a similarly withering, no-holds barred assault on the Democrat Establishment and elite. On Hillary Clinton in particular.

They pulled too many punches. Even now they’re preparing to play nice with someone who embodies everything they loathe.

#7 Comment By Gatchaman On June 21, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

Interesting perspective. I never thought of Sanders and his freebies as a throwback to the New Deal, nor the difference in approach of the New Deal and Great Society.

I think a distrust of government is what drove voters to Trump and Sanders. Larry Summers wrote a great article about where this distrust comes from. Its not big ticket issues like Iraq which are somewhat abstract (to non-veterans) compared to the failures everyone sees up close and personal every single day: [7]

#8 Comment By David Naas On June 21, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

Maybe it’s finally time for a National People’s Party which is not in thrall to either the Kochs or the Soros?

Some ideas, not as a platform, but a starting point for discussion might be:

End all immigration to the US. The bucket is full. (If we can’t find jobs for our own workers…)

Institute tariffs designed to protect
American jobs. Repeal NAFTA, TPP, and all other trade agreements which take American jobs.

Real healthcare reform so the average person doesn’t risk all if sick.

Fair Labor laws designed to prevent “part-time” work scams by corporations seeking to evade benefits.

Strengthen Social Security and Medicare without raising the retirement age. (it is possible).

Eschew all forms of Identity Politics, white, black, brown, or purple

Respect freedom of conscience (religious objection to SJW “demands”. )

Overhaul of government regulations to eliminate those which should have been legislated. Executive Orders not allowed to legislate public behavior.

All laws to have expiration date (20 years?)
Supreme Court decisions to require 2/3 majority vote to overturn the actions of a State legislature. A referendum may not be overturned. Federal circuit courts also so circumscribed.

All members of the government, including legislators, judges, and executive to be subject to the same as as every other citizen.

Excepting invasion or other direct attack, the armed forces of the United States should not be authorized to take action beyond the limits of the US except on ¾ vote of Congress.

Expel college students who disrupt and force their ideas on fellow students, fire administrators who enable such behavior.

End economic manipulation by the financial sector.

All environmental laws must provide for restitution, resettlement and retraining for workers displaced by “Clean/Green” regulations.

Anyone who has worked for the government may not work for a corporation which fell under his area of regulation for five years after leaving office.

All legislative districts of state or federal shall be determined by non-partisan commissions and approved by the voters. The state legislatures may not make districts (so as to elect their own voters.)

Beyond requiring insurance and training for any adult who wishes to purchase a firearm, the federal nor state governments may not restrict the ownership of firearms to any citizen not convicted of a felony.

All politicians and political organizations shall make full disclosure of the amount and name of all donors.

#9 Comment By christy On June 22, 2016 @ 7:42 am

When Clinton loses the election in November she’s gonna blame Jill Stein. But it is really HER OWN fault for not opening the gates wider to include millennials and ‘new deal’ dems besides the limousine/cocktail democrats.

#10 Comment By donsker On June 22, 2016 @ 10:18 am

Not quite so fast in predicting the death of modern liberalism. Nor is it likely to die so long as the right fields candidates like Trump.

#11 Comment By N K Adams On June 22, 2016 @ 10:20 am

Another way of saying simply this: We DON’T KNOW. Mathematical modeling is garbage in, garbage out; historical perspective is, as the SEC requires it to be said, “no predictor of future performance;” and government centralization works effectively only in very limited circumstances, many of which are being rejected now by millenials. Evergreen America will re-emerge. We await the new generation’s education to its promise.

#12 Comment By BrandonJ On June 22, 2016 @ 10:36 am

The Emerging Republican Majority?????


#13 Comment By Gail On June 22, 2016 @ 10:37 am

Bernie IS the 1968 movement continued, as am I part of that. The core of the 1968 civil rights movement is not what this author thinks.

#14 Comment By Joey Firenze On June 22, 2016 @ 10:42 am

The explanation is much simpler than that.

I have talked lifelong Democrats (admittedly, this will be the first presidential vote for some). None support Clinton.

The millennials despise Clinton’s lying. They don’t trust her. Sanders is an honorable man. Millennials have no idea what Socialism is all about. They have zero knowledge of history or other economic systems, and one has to admit that it sounds good on paper as long as human behavior and motivation are not included. For these people, it is a choice between a liar and an honest person.

Older, less educated, working class (not welfare class) Democrats I have talked to know Socialism is destructive. They know Clinton is corrupt and represents all they despise about politicians who use their position to get very rich. They see right through the Clinton slush fund and wall street “speaking fees” as outright bribery. These Democrats I have talked said they are voting for Trump. They said their jobs depend on it.

#15 Comment By jon jones On June 22, 2016 @ 10:49 am

The decisive factor in Hillary Clinton’s victory over Bernie Sanders was her rock-solid support from upscale liberals voting primarily on culture-war issues….

^ Not. Bernie lost because he only had support from white democrats. He was destroyed among blacks and Hispanics.

Race wasn’t close either – so the whole premise of the article is nonsensical… and agenda pretending to be an analysis.

#16 Comment By Sean Scallon On June 22, 2016 @ 11:09 am

The thing about generational splits is that they are easily solved through the sheer course of time. The youngsters who staffed the Kennedy-McCarthy-McGovern campaigns of 1968 eventually were going to take over the Democratic Party. It was simply a matter of time and how long they were willing to wait. And so it will be true for Bernie supporters as well given how two-thirds of the youth vote went to Sanders.

But, as was debated on one Rod Dreher’s blog posts, would a Sanders Administration issue a similar ruling on transgendered bathrooms as an Obama Administration? The answer is a resounding YES! Do you honestly think there’s a fundamental disagreement between Sanders and Clinton supporters on such “identity politics” questions as one would find between Republicans and Democrats? No. The differences were matters of emphasis and what one puts First and foremost in terms of policy. Sanders emphasized economics matters and political reform. Clinton highlighted her experience but had to be forced to Left on economics in order to hide her neoliberal sympathies, which is probably Sanders biggest accomplishment.

But identity politics? Who did most radical black writers, directors and intellectuals support or endorse during the primary? Bernie Sanders. Which candidate and his supporters pointed out all the injuries to blacks as a result of policies the Clinton Administration pursued in the 1990s? Sanders again. Yet it was blacks (old blacks from the South as it turned out) who basically handed the nomination to Clinton (as they have given the nomination of the Democratic Party in every Presidential election except 1988) and many ways thanks to typical white liberal condescension about how they just HAD to support Bernie. Well, no they didn’t. And guess who is providing the most resistance to Sanders’ plan to end superdelegates? The Congressional Black Caucus!

I often say to religious conservative like Rod one cannot separate economics from culture and the same is true for liberals and socials, only from a different point of view. It was actually easy in the 1930s to get broad support for the New Deal even from an unlikely coalition of poor whites and poor blacks because of widespread economic suffering but CIO, which had dreams of forging such multi-racial labor coalition failed in that regard by the end of the decade. And the compromises which New Deal leftists had to make to get things like Social Security passed Congress controlled by Southern Democrats, either the Bourbons or racial demagogue populists, compromises like black field workers could not be eligible for Social Security for example, were ticking time bombs which were set that finally exploded in the 1960s by the New Left. Its existence was largely because of this ramshackle coalition of unlikelies called the Democratic Party. At some point, the party was going to have to choose sides because younger leftists from Kennedy onwards were not going to tolerate such contradictions anymore and LBJ understood this as well which is why you had the Great Society. Were they wrong or was it the fact middle class and poor whites back then still view themselves in a zero-sum game with society?

Jack, remember the older black fellow in the audience from the book signing you had in the labor library in St. Paul last year wondering if Eugene Debs practiced his socialism, his upper middle class parlor socialism, with his blinders on? Well, I think Sanders supporters have to ask themselves same thing before they claim their inheritance.

#17 Comment By Tomadzo On June 22, 2016 @ 11:13 am

Well, for me , it’s this inevitablility that Hillary would be the candidate , if not for Obama, the last 3 election cycles. I never wanted her and I certainly don’t like being told that it’s her turn. I have soured on these familial political powers. I want new viable candidates. Bernie Sanders was certainly enticing, but I don’t agree with many of his policies. I wish McCain had won in 2000 and not had to run so deep into the Republican dark side to survive politically.

#18 Comment By todd weakley On June 22, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

The majority of complaints are really about Congress, not the president. How many Congressional bills have been vetoed by Obama? Only 9 since Republicans are in charge of Congress. It’s not him we complain about. Reagan vetoed 78, HW Bush 44, Clinton 37 and GW Bush 12
Until you vote out those that are in place in Congress, you can just keep complaining, but nothing will change.

#19 Comment By EngineerScotty On June 22, 2016 @ 12:58 pm

A dumb question:

If a voter supports Sanders in the primary, but Clinton in the general, is that a voter Clinton has “lost”? Or is that the normal course of partisan primary politics, where you support the guy you really want in March, and the party’s standard-bearer in November?

That vast majority of registered Democrats who supported Sanders will be voting for Clinton. She has considerable more trouble with left-leaning independents; who have little institutional loyalty with the Democratic Party, and lots of reasons (some of them fair) to distrust her. OTOH, many of these left-leaning independents are folks that aren’t generally enthused about any mainstream Democrat, though Clinton seems to draw particularly intense scorn.

To second Sean: conservatives would not be happy with a Sanders administration any more than they would a Clinton one–if you’re a conservative interested in Bernie in the hopes that he’s secretly an ideological bedfellow of, say, Pat Buchanan–that judgment is SORELY mistaken.

#20 Comment By William Burns On June 22, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

There are a few problems with this article. Ross exaggerates the difference between the New Deal and the Great Society. The most politically successful program to come out of the Great Society was Medicare, which is as universalistic as anything that came out of the New Deal. As Sean Scallon points out, Bernie voters were not rejecting the “politically correct” side in the culture wars. In fact, Bernie supporters often contrasted their guy’s early support for SSM with Clinton (and Obama’s) hesitance. Trump losing in a landslide also looks like its growing more likely, given the combination of his high personal unfavorables and his train wreck of a campaign, not less likely.

Ross has a point here, but this article could have used a rewrite.

#21 Comment By John D. On June 22, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

I can’t believe the level of evidence-free wishful thinking on the part of the conservative press. Mark my words – Hillary Clinton is going to get 90%+ of the Democratic vote (and way over half of the Independent vote), and most millennials won’t vote for Donald Trump. Articles like this read like the “ghost dance” of Republican pundits – and maybe of the Republican Party.

#22 Comment By Daniel On June 22, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

Interesting article and some good comments here.
In particular I thought these stand out as having more than a kernel of truth:

Axxr says:

“The identity politics side of the aisle sees everything through that lens, and if the lens can’t be applied, then an issue simply doesn’t exist for them.”

David Naas says:
“Maybe it’s finally time for a National People’s Party”

(Indeed – And the areas of discussion David suggests for a starting point are spot on)

Chris D.
“They support free college, but this is mostly an extension of their desire to have their own debts forgiven. Once they’ve gotten over the hump on their own college debts, I think this passion will fade.”

#23 Comment By the easy solution On June 22, 2016 @ 11:14 pm

I don’t think there’s much mystery about this. She has the 65+ contingent of entitled Boomers and aging second wave feminists who support the Clintons through thick and thin. And she has the captive inner city black vote. End of story.

Everyone else is sick of her corruption, smarminess, lies, and incompetence. All it took was someone like Sanders, who is decent and clean regardless of what you think of his positions, to take nearly half the vote away.

She is the incarnation of our rotten, discredited Establishment. Of the parasites who have battened on cheap labor, war, and globalist trade deals, while the rest of us watched our country, liberties, culture, and life savings slip away.

#24 Comment By DesertDavey On June 23, 2016 @ 6:25 pm

Mrs. Clinton has not lost ANYTHING yet. The Democrats merely had a primary! In any primary, people choose candidates to support. Now that Clinton has won, most of those Democrats will vote for her in November.

Trump only got 35-40% of the Republican vote in the primaries… enough to win, of course. But I haven’t seen any articles here in AmConMag about why he lost so many Republicans!! And, in fact, most of those Republicans now support the party’s nominee. I expect the same dynamic on the Democrat side.

That said, there is a change occurring … in both parties. The MEANING of “conservatism” and “liberalism” are going through a metamorphosis. But where that might lead us, I would say it’s far too early to tell.