I finally had a major epiphany about American politics, including a clear answer to the question, “how the hell did Donald Trump just become the 45th President of the United States of America?” Many on the left still want to blame it on the country’s sudden lurch into racism and misogyny, but that ignores the mathematical reality that Trump won by winning one-third of the 700 counties previously carried by a black man named Barack Hussein Obama. Or, they will blame it on James Comey’s see-sawing FBI investigation or on Putin’s alleged hacking. And, while all seem to agree Hillary was a flawed candidate (the FBI investigation and the hacked e-mails were just two ways of shining light on that), that still doesn’t explain the rise of Trump.
My epiphany is that the fundamentals of progressive liberalism collided with the meteoric rise in a social media over the past eight years in a way that backfired and caused progressive liberalism to implode on itself. I promise I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second, but first some important numbers on social media. When President Obama was first elected in 2008, there were about 75 million Facebook users in the United States, roughly equivalent to the number of users still hanging on to MySpace at the time (presumably mostly overlapping as users switched from one to the other). I haven’t been able to find a demographic breakdown on FB users in the early days, but I had a 15-year old in 2008 and have a strong recollection that the early days of Facebook (i.e., pre 2008) were dominated by young people. Indeed, I finally dropped my resistance to what I thought at the time was a teen preoccupation and signed up for FB in 2008.
Fast forward to 2016. We adults took over FB. There are now approximately 200 million FB users in the United States, out of a population of about 320 M. The graph below shows the demographic distribution of FB users in 2016. As you can see, young people gave up on FB a long time ago. It’s just us geezers on there now. Indeed, 63% of FB users (about 126 million people in the US) are over 30. To put that in perspective, the US Census tells us that there are about 192 million Americans over 30. So, about 65% of folks over 30 in the US are FB users. FB is only one social media site, but it is clearly the largest and it clearly has the attention of adult voters.
Why does all this matter? I saw this meme posted on FB during the election.
It is, in many ways, completely accurate. Trust me, I tried. Despite all my brilliant political insight on FB for the many months leading up to the election, not one single liberal friend reached out to me and said, “OK, you got me. I was going to vote for Hillary, but you changed my mind.” So, why does any of this matter? Isn’t FB just a medium for each of us to rant our political views and have our like-minded friends “like” the post and our friends on the other side scowl at us or debate us in the comments section? That sure did happen a lot and NOBODY CHANGED THEIR MIND.
That’s where I think the fundamentals of modern liberalism collided with social media. Decades ago, the founding principles of liberalism were about helping people who needed a boost or were being left behind. While the solutions often failed, the heart was always in the right place. That all changed in the last twenty years or so, especially the last eight. The goals ceased to be “help the little guy” and morphed into “let me show my liberal neighbor that I’m even more open-minded than he/she is.” This progressive one-upsmanship led to some really silly stuff, like allowing men to go pee in the women’s room. Frankly, it also led to gay marriage, a notion that was soundly rejected by both President Obama and Hillary Clinton until the one-upsmanship forced them to go there. It led to the complete destruction of the First Amendment rights of students on college campuses. It led to a bizarre scenario where the President of the United States took the side of criminals like Michael Brown over the men and women of law enforcement who put their lives on the line to keep us safe. And, of course, it led to the silliness of climate change. The list is much longer, but the upshot is this. In the races taking place in Washington, DC, New York and California to be more liberal than your neighbor, because that’s what earns you respect in places like that, liberals went way too far. They went into places that were radical and well off the mainstream.
And, it all played out on Facebook. Twenty years ago it would have played out in the salons and wine bars of San Francisco and SoHo. Unemployed voters in Michigan who wanted their politicians paying attention to the lousy economic growth we’d had for eight years would never have known that people on the coasts were more worried about ensuring access for men to use the women’s room. Today, they saw that in real time from a long lost high school friend now living in California, who was posting his enthusiasm for such far-fetched ideas on FB. Many of them had voted for President Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 looking for Hope and Change in things that mattered to them. They were not big fans of Trump and many of them were likely repulsed, as was I, by some of his more objectionable behavior. But, they also knew this progressive one-upsmanship, this showing off who could be more radical to look good in front of their progressive neighbors, was spilling into the real world. They saw it on FB every day. And they knew it had to be stopped. So, they voted for Trump.