Eighty years ago, Sinclair Lewis wrote the book “It Can’t Happen Here” about America electing populist Senator Buzz Windrip, who employs his homespun wisdom to remake the USA in a very different way than before, knocking aside traditional Democrats and establishment Republicans. Sound familiar?
The protagonist is the editor of a local New England newspaper, who seems unsure of how to proceed. After all, this Senator Windrip is like nothing the United States ever saw before. The journalist is caught between standing up to this new leader, and ducking his head low, frightened of the change that comes to our traditional way of life.
The book begins with the premise that something like this could never happen, and then questions whether it could. What people are asking each other today is: How did it happen?
It’s easy to start with blaming the losing candidate. Sure, Hillary Clinton is a poor campaigner, and her strategy of never appearing in Wisconsin and ignoring traditional Democratic states in the Midwest will be forever questioned. Some will claim she was too scandal-tarred to be successful.
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But down-ticket Democrats who don’t have a hint of scandal also went down to defeat. Democrats with a long list of political experience as well as new political faces lost. You couldn’t blame President Barack Obama any more than you could knock President Dwight D. Eisenhower for costing Vice President Richard Nixon the 1960 election. Both had approval ratings over 50 percent.
The party didn’t even do well in Joe Biden’s backyard, which tells you what might have happened if he was the nominee. Vermont’s gubernatorial mansion shifted red, telling you what you might expect if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren were the nominee this year.
Democrats might have escaped all of this if they realized what they were up against. Like many of you I looked at the polls, and even made a horribly inaccurate map based upon the latest polling projections.
If anything, I should have listened to my own points that I made in my research methods class. I told them about election night 2002, when Governor Roy Barnes went down to defeat even though surveys showed him ahead, outside the margin of victory. Polls that have a confidence level of 95 percent can still be wrong, I told them.
Where did they go wrong? I also told my research methods class that too many polls were bragging about sampling people “only online” or “only those with cell phones.” But I know relatives on my wife’s side of the family who have little to do with both types of media. They’re not plugged in. And they hold very conservative beliefs. They wouldn’t show up for a Romney, but they would turn out for a Trump. Knowing that the race was neck-and-neck in certain states, instead of a 5-7 point lead, could have made the different for Democrats, who didn’t realize how dire their situation was until it was too late. It was like the Literary Digest fiasco of 80 years ago, which predicted an Alf Landon landslide because they polled the upper-crust.
I won’t provide any spoiler alerts as to how the book progresses beyond this, but it is important to note that such events as occur in the story could be different, or very similar. It has little to do with what a president does, and more to do with how the American people act.
The future for the next four years is still in your hands, fellow Americans, not in Washington. It’s up for you to decide our direction. And that’s the best advice I can give no matter who had won in 2016.
John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; firstname.lastname@example.org.