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John Atcheson: Why the US Elected a Despot and Why It’s Poised To Do It Again

There’s an emerging conventional wisdom that says the way for Democrats to win in 2020 is to move to the center and pick up some of those centrist votes. This is the perspective being pushed by the neoliberal establishment, the mainstream media, and the bulk of the paid political pundits.

There are two things wrong with this.

First, there is no center, or to be more precise, it’s miniscule. Too many pundits confuse independents with centrists, when in fact, the vast majority of them lean one way or another.

If you add up left leaning Independents and Democrats they equal about 48 percent of the electorate, while right leaning Independents and Republicans add up to 39 percent of the electorate.  Real centrists comprise only about 7 percent.

Second, the real prize in electoral politics is the no shows. To see why this is so, we can examine the last two elections.  In 2016, about 58 percent of eligible voters turned out, and Trump won—thanks to the electoral college—with only a little above 27 percent of the voters, while Hillary Clinton got about 28 percent.  Let’s look at the numbers from 2016:

  • 65.8 million voted for Clinton;
  • 62.9 million voted for Trump;
  • 6.9 million voted for a third-party candidate; and
  • 96 million didn’t bother to vote.

There are nearly 231 million eligible voters in the US, but only 135 million voted in the 2016 election. The math makes the best strategy for winning pretty clear. On the one hand, you could abandon your values and drift to the center in order to win over some portion of the 16 million true centrists, on the other, you could stick to your values and go after some of the 135 million no-shows.

The 2018 elections had one of the biggest turnouts for a midterm in over a century—50.1 percent—largely because Democrats ran on progressive values, and because Trump elicited such a sense of fear and loathing that it produced the largest turnout for midterm elections since 1914. But here again, the prize in terms of sheer numbers has to be the 49.9 percent who sat it out.

If you examine voter turnout stats for the last centruy, two things become clear.  Democrats win when turnout is high; Republicans win when turnout is low. Actually, the records show one other thing – Republican victories presage record deficits and economic downturns.

So you would think that the Democratic leadership would pursue a strategy that focused on targeting the now-shows.  But you’d be wrong.

Why No-Shows Don’t Show

To get some of the no-shows on board, you’d have to run a campaign centered on the people’s interest, not the monied interests.

The reality is, people are legitimately cynical about the Democratic party—in fact about both parties. The Smith Project revealed the depth of the people’s cynicism.  For example:

  • Eighty-six percent of all voters believe political leaders are more interested in protecting their power than in doing what’s right for the American people.
  • Eighty-three percent believe the country is run by an alliance of incumbent politicians, media pundits, lobbyists, and other interests for their own gain.
  • Further, 79% believe that powerful interests from Wall Street banks to corporations, unions, and PACs use campaign and lobbying money to rig the system to serve themselves and that they loot the national treasury at the expense of every American.

And if you want to understand where Trump gets his support from, here’s a stat from the Smith Project that ought to make it obvious.  Some 77 percent of Americans prefer candidates who “take on the political elites and special interests” to those who conform to a set ideology.  Trump voters aren’t voting for anything, their voting against the status quo.

And all those cynics are right. The system is rigged. For example, between 1980 and 2015, the top .01 percent saw their income rise by 322 percent, while income for the bottom 90 percent rose by just .03 percent.

And it’s not just the economy.  As Gilens and Paige showed, the will of the people is all but irrelevant, when it comes to public policy. Indeed, they concluded that the US was no longer a democracy, but rather resembled an oligarchy in which the will of the rich and special interests consistently trumped the people’s interest.

No wonder people are cynical. No wonder “no-show” has won every vote since World War II. 

How to Get the No-Shows to Show, and Why Neoliberals Don’t

The antidote to this legitimate cynicism is a campaign run on values, not tactics. Yes, Trump is abhorrent. But revealing how bad he is won’t put a dent in the number of his supporters, and it won’t get no-shows to show.  And it definitely won’t win enough of the centrist 7 percent to get a victory.

The majority of Americans overwhelmingly back progressive policies, including the Green New Deal, (which gets extremely high support when its broken down into its elements and is supported by a plurality of those polled), and Medicare for All.

Instead of adopting the obvious winning strategy, neoliberals are waging a war on progressives.

But instead of adopting the obvious winning strategy, neoliberals are waging a war on progressives. Nancy Pelosi’s staff assures the health care and pharmaceutical lobbyists that Medicare for All is going nowhere, and Ms. Pelosi herself ridicules the Green New Deal. The Center for American Progress—a bastion of neoliberalism—publishes a series of shallow hit pieces on Medicare for All and on Bernie Sanders.

And it looks like Pelosi, Schumer et. al. are betting the ranch on revealing how bad Trump is. Trying to get his tax returns released, hoping against hope that the Mueller report will reveal a few more hidden skeletons—this, together with an all-out effort to get the mythical centrists—seems to be their strategy for 2020.

Here’s the thing. Trump’s supporters don’t care how bad he is. They just care that he’s assaulting the powers that be.  And the disaffected no-shows won’t show up at the polls simply because Trump is worse than the average politician.  To too many, that’s the difference between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

There may be a few math-challenged neoliberals who actually believe that going to the center is the way to win, but for most, the reason that the neoliberal establishment doesn’t adopt the obvious strategy for winning back the White House and the Senate while retaining the House is simple. They got where they are by serving the interests of the rich, the elite, and corporations.  Adopting the kind of policies that would serve the people and get no-shows off the sidelines threatens their true constituency.

If they succeed in derailing the progressive insurgency that gave Democrats a victory in the 2018 midterms, they may hold onto their seats; even if they don’t they’ll likely get a cushy job in a think tank, lobbying firm, or media outlet.  But we the people will have to risk four more years of Trump.

That is, quite literally, an existential threat.


First published in Common Dreams. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track.

Nancy Pelosi’s staff assures the health care and pharmaceutical lobbyists that Medicare for All is going nowhere, and Ms. Pelosi herself ridicules the Green New Deal. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

3 comments on “John Atcheson: Why the US Elected a Despot and Why It’s Poised To Do It Again

  1. johnlawsonpoet
    May 29, 2019

    Reblogged this on Site Title.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kevin L Smith
    April 18, 2019

    John Atcheson, you did a great job on your article with included facts and citations; but it’s politically misleading.

    There’s no such thing as neoLiberalism. The definition of neoliberalism is an exact clone of the FAR-RIGHT agenda in the USA. I assume you live outside of the USA; it’s a far-right myth and propaganda that liberals in the USA are fascists (far-right).

    By this I mean: Liberals in the USA are Left-leaning; there’s no such thing as far-left, it’s a lie. In Australia, Germany, and most other “western nations”, Liberals are FAR-RIGHT. Only in the USA are liberals on the left.

    Your article seems to promote this lie by providing the term neoliberal; there’s no such thing. In the USA the far-right are Republicans or Conservatives; and typically support a neo-fascist Christian/Catholic agenda.

    The far-right in the USA are always using the false-equivalency that there exists a far-left; it’s a lie: people who are ‘left’ accept and embrace diversity; you can’t do that to the extreme. People on the far-right say the Republicans freed the Africans who were enslaved; which is true, President Lincoln wrote the emancipation proclamation. President Lincoln was a Social Liberal (left-leaning; not right) [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Union_Party_(United_States) ], he helped start the national UNION party; which later became the Republican party. After the civil war, the Southern Democrats TOOK OVER the Republican party.

    President Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by a Confederate racist upset about the emancipation proclamation; he was an explicit racist.

    The far-right fascist element has historically flipped-flopped between the political parties a number of times. Any political party that gets anything close to 49% influence is going to have some of these far-right fascist white-supremacists in it to keep an eye on people and influence direction in subtle ways.


    In the USA are biggest problem is fascism, not politics. Confederates (far-right white-supremacists) have continuously been steering us more and more to the right; slowly over time. “In god we trust” was added to our currency in the mid-60’s, and so was “under god” in our pledge of allegiance. The original author of the pledge of allegiance was an ardent supporter of the separation of church and state; and a secularist.

    The biggest sham in the USA is the Federal Reserve “central bank”, which was heavily promoted and supported by the defunct Federalist Party; which was reborn some time ago as a far-right “think-tank” that pretends to be moderate, but only supports a far-right agenda. The membership of this sham think-tank is nearly 99% white; including some leading far-right politicians. The Federalist Party were one of the groups that existed leading up to the American civil war, which was supported by the Confederates (far-right white-supremacists).

    The Federalist Society, like the defunct Federalist Party; promotes the “Federalist Papers” and wants to rewrite the USA constitution using them. They are far-right fraudsters. https://fedsoc.org

    The electoral system in the USA is a complete fraud. It was intended by the ‘founding fathers’ to prevent fascism from taking over. It was intended to REPLICATE the “popular vote”, but provide a fail-safe in case of a fascist group taking a majority. The electoral college has been modified many times of history; and the fascists are taking advantage. Not to mention the far-right cheats a lot in elections; once, when Bush Jr. was running for re-election, the CEO/President of a voting machine manufacturer said he’d do everything he could to help Bush win.

    The Confederates in the USA are planning a separation and a new civil war. They have a plan in the works; when I don’t know, they’re waiting on something. Some of them have said the elimination of the electoral college in the USA or impeachment of President Trump would be treason. Either way, they are working on a plan for the white-supremacists to take over.

    Our problem in the USA is fascism. This is why we illegally invaded and continue to occupy two sovereign nations, both of which had nothing to do with 911; the majority of hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Our past supposed left-leaning President Obama (who I voted twice for), failed to stop either of those wars. The oil we’re stealing from Iraq & Afghanistan (along with poppy in Afghanistan) is being sent to SAUDI ARABIA; our far-right fascist ally (since 1933) that executes women and gays publicly.

    Fascism is alive and well in the USA; until the white-supremacists are addressed, we will continue to have problems.

    This is why I’d personally prefer that you not promote the false-equivalency that there exists a far-left; there’s no such thing.

    Russia is now a Christian church-state; Catholicism always has been. Both are far-right. The KKK, the Confederates, the Nazis, and white-supremacists; they’re all FAR-RIGHT. Beside of fascism as our biggest problem is: the people on the left not doing a god [expletive] thing about it.

    Fascism is always far-right; no matter the political party or country.

    Thank you John!


  3. dodadagohuhsgi
    April 17, 2019

    Sooner or later, a point of no return is reached.

    Liked by 1 person

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