If recent polls are right, Hillary Clinton is probably going to win the race for president in November. Did you feel a sense of relief as you read that sentence? As if, in just a few short months, this protracted battle for the future of our country will finally come to an end? As if we will wake up on November 9 like it’s the last episode of Newhart, shake off the bizarre dream of the Trump candidacy, and resume with our normal lives? (Oops. Spoiler alert.)
Well, too bad. The world won’t return to normal after the election, no matter who wins. And this is not just because Trump has unleashed political forces that won’t be easy to contain, or because a Republican-led Congress may be no more likely to cooperate with Clinton than they were with President Obama. It’s because elections are not the end of the argument, but the beginning of a new one. In 1976, Jimmy Carter’s pollster coined the term “permanent campaign” to describe the never-concluded process of courting public opinion. That’s taken on new meaning in our fragmented, chaotic, networked age, where arguments are never settled and consensus never truly achieved. And that’s why Hillary Clinton shouldn’t just be focused on winning her war against Trump. She needs to think about how she’s going to win the peace.
Avoiding a Pyrrhic Victory
“Winning the peace” is a term usually applied to global conflict, an understanding that what happens after a war can be just as determinative as the events of the war itself. The Marshall Plan is pretty much the definition of winning the peace; it committed resources to rebuilding a ravaged Europe following World War II and set the stage for generations of American global dominance. George W. Bush’s Iraq War is a textbook example of losing the peace, a failure to plan for the lingering hostilities that remained after Saddam Hussein’s removal and ended up miring the country–and eventually the rest of the world–in violence and chaos.
Look over the last few decades and you’ll see a parade of presidents who, in their triumph, neglected to do the hard work of winning the peace. Despite Gerald Ford’s statement at his post-Watergate inauguration that “our long, national nightmare is over,” his decision to grant Richard Nixon a full pardon a few months later enraged his critics and hobbled the rest of his presidency. After his re-election, George W. Bush announced that he had “earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it”–immediately before proposing a plan to privatize Social Security that destroyed his approval ratings. Three days after winning the White House, President Obama declared to Eric Cantor that “elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.” That’s certainly true, but his opponents never accepted the stimulus package and–in particular–the Affordable Care Act he pursued in the days after his election, a lack of consensus that dogged Obama throughout his presidency. (Then again, the Republicans committed themselves to a strategy of relentless opposition, which certainly didn’t help matters.)
To prevent a repeat of that logjam, the Brookings Institution’s William Galston suggests that Clinton begin by pursuing initiatives with broad bipartisan support. “She can choose to lead where, in principle, there’s the possibility of agreement–infrastructure’s not a bad place to begin,” he says. Eventually, he suggests, she can build a mandate “through performance that gradually convinces the most obdurate Trumpster that it is possible for government action to make their lives better.”
But establishing a post-election consensus will be harder now than it’s ever been. If nothing else, elections have always carried and conveyed a sense of authority–an established process that delivered a definitive result that even people who disagreed had to respect. That’s probably not going to be the case this time. Trump has preemptively announced that if Clinton wins, it will be because the election was rigged, a talking point that is being reiterated by the right-wing commentariat at Breitbart, Hannity, and The American Spectator. That’s already having an impact; a recent poll in North Carolina found that 69 percent of Trump voters would attribute a Clinton victory to a rigged election. And let’s go back to the first sentence of this story, the one that starts with “If recent polls are right…” As with last election’s “unskewing” craze–in which Romney fans presented their own interpretation of polls to show their candidate in the lead until the end–there are plenty of Trump voters who argue the current spate of polling is incomplete, faulty, or intentionally false. On election night in 2012, Karl Rove so believed the unskewing hype that he was momentarily unable to accept Mitt Romney’s loss in Ohio, only conceding after he spoke to Fox News’ polling unit. Now imagine what would happen if Rove never conceded. Now imagine he’s joined by 70 percent of Republican voters. That’s what the aftermath of this election could look like.
A Network, Not a Conspiracy
Ultimately, Clinton isn’t just up against a rival candidate or a rival party. She’s up against a network–a communications system, comprised of talk radio, Fox News, Facebook connections, and a million other linkages that instantly transmit information, theories, interpretations, and tribal assertions across its millions of members. In the past, Clinton has referred to the forces arrayed against her as a “vast, right-wing conspiracy,” but that’s not quite right. A conspiracy implies a centralized leadership structure, a head that can be lopped off, rendering the rest of the body inert. A network is stronger than any of its individual nodes–stronger even than its leaders. “Our era is one of connected crises,” writes Joshua Cooper Ramo in his book The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks. “Relationships now matter as much as any single object.”
Consider: information in the Trump-voter network doesn’t flow from Trump to his followers. It often flows upstream, with Trump retweeting charts and arguments made by his followers to the rest of the network. If Trump were to disappear tomorrow, that network would persist. If, as may be the case, Fox News were to lose ratings and political power following Roger Ailes’ departure, the network would reassemble around a different information source. Even if Trump were to graciously concede–and that’s a huge if–there’s no guarantee that the network would accept it. After all, look at what happened when Bernie Sanders tried to steer the network he’d inspired into endorsing Clinton, and was booed by his own purported followers.
That’s why–crazy as it sounds–Clinton can’t simply rely on the results of the election and the power of the presidency to grant her the authority to run the country. The spread of networks has demolished the power of traditional authority figures and structures–whether that’s Hillary Clinton or the New York Times or climate scientists. That’s why Trump’s followers are seemingly willing to believe whatever he says, regardless of how many tongue-clucking fact-checkers disagree. It’s also why it increasingly feels like political rivals don’t just have different opinions but inhabit entirely different realities.
And here’s an even trickier problem: Even if the current network of Trump voters were to diminish or disappear entirely, some other network would arise. This is what happens when there are no barriers to connection, and when the cost of and delay in communication trends toward zero. Different communities and linkages form, creating strange bedfellows and generating unpredictable consequences. That’s how the Trumpy Republicans arose in the first place, under the eye and against the will of the Republican establishment. As we see in everything from ISIS to Bernie Bros, in the age of networks, what begins as a fringe movement can quickly metastasize into a major political force.
So how can Clinton win the peace in the age of networks? According to Ramo, “it takes a network to defeat a network.” In other words, Clinton might try to accomplish something similar to the Obama For America campaign, in which thousands of voters were linked via Facebook, informed and activated and encouraged to connect their friends and family members. If the Obama administration had more actively tended to that network, instead of subsuming it into the Democratic National Committee, his entire presidency might have played out differently.
The Clinton camp hasn’t shown much facility for this kind of bottom-up campaigning. As Sean Hannity has gleefully pointed out, her Twitter presence pales in comparison to Trump’s. She has relied on authority figures from across the political spectrum to deliver her keynote argument, that Trump is unfit for office. And her network of big-money donors stands in contrast to the populist fundraising efforts of Obama, Sanders, and, yes, Trump. That may be enough to win the election, but if Clinton wants to win the post-election peace, she’d do well to remember that true power in the network age comes not from positions of authority, but from the web of supporters that surrounds them.