Democrats could have won the US election if they’d learned from the struggle for equal opportunity

December 8, 2016

by M&S Staff

The campaign for president of the United States has frequently been called “the world’s most important job interview.” But as anyone who’s ever felt unfairly passed over despite being eminently qualified for a job can tell you, the hiring process isn’t always fair—and doesn’t always produce the best result.

For decades, I’ve fought for equal opportunity for women and people of color across industries involving household name companies such as Coca-Cola, Texaco, the NFL, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and Well Fargo/Wachovia. Based on my experience, I believe Democrats failed to internalize three key principles of equal opportunity during the election  – which is how America wound up with Donald Trump.

Principle #1: Fair competition produces the best results

In 2002, along with the late Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., I worked with the National Football League to develop the “Rooney Rule,” which created a more inclusive diverse slate selection process for hiring head coaching positions. Despite the fact that NFL players were majority black, there was only one African-American head coach out of 32. That’s because the hiring process relied primarily on a “tap on the shoulder” system—that is, setting sights on a particular candidate rather than an inclusive competition where the best candidate who can win the most games emerges.

We routinely fight for inclusive selection processes such as the Rooney Rule, not only because they produce fairer and more inclusive results, but because they are likely to produce a more thoughtful and deliberative process. You can’t know if you’ve selected the best candidate if you don’t have fair competition and a deliberative process.

During the primaries, the Democratic National Committee failed this fundamental requirement by favoring Clinton over Bernie Sanders instead of letting the process run its course. Not only did Wikileaks emails reveal that DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had put her finger on the scalefor Clinton, so did her replacement, CNN analyst Donna Brazile, when she alerted the Clinton campaign of certain questions CNN would ask Clinton during the primary debates.

More fundamentally, the Super Delegate system–originally designed to foster the “wise men and women” of the party to support the most electable candidate at the Convention—was abused. In 2016, the super delegates, who accounted for 20% of the nomination vote, “prejudged” the outcome by lining up behind Clinton before a single primary vote had been cast. That’s not fair competition. That’s a “tap on the shoulder” rigged system.

Instead of lining up en masse prior to the primaries, imagine if Super Delegates had used their judgment with an eye towards putting together the most electable ticket. Sanders supporters could have focused on the hard data that supported their candidate’s electability: his strong performance among independents, working-class whites, young people, and the overall degree of enthusiasm for his candidacy. Clinton supporters could have countered with an argument that a more centrist approach would bring in some cross-over Republicans or for the principle of making history with the first woman President. Who knows what might have emerged if Super Delegates faithfully determined the most electable ticket. It might have been a Clinton/Sanders ticket or vice versa, or perhaps a compromise ticket like a Joe Biden/Elizabeth Warren ticket.

Regardless of what the DNC does going forward, the guiding light should be one that is tried and true from an equal opportunity point of view: fair competition. This is how you achieve the best results.

Principle #2: Strategize to overcome double standards

Though Clinton may have benefited from unfair hiring practices in the primary campaign, she was clearly on the receiving end of unfairness in the general.

By any objective measure, Clinton was a far superior potential president than Donald Trump. Does anyone think that a female candidate without any governmental experience, who lashes out on Twitter, whose business record includes multiple bankruptcies and whose main claim to fame was a reality TV show, would have a chance to become president of the United States? Of course not. Is there a ridiculous double standard? Of course.

To overcome double standards and to break a glass ceiling, you not only have to be the best, you have to be beyond reproach. President Barack Obama internalized that truism, creating a scandal-free administration and conducting himself with the highest levels of integrity and grace.

If the Clinton team had fully internalized the uphill climb of breaking the ultimate glass ceiling on gender, they would not have allowed any donations from a foreign government for the Clinton Foundation during her tenure as Secretary of State. They would have taken Wall Street speech money and donated it to charity and released copies of the speeches. They certainly would not have put public records exclusively on a private server. For a candidate attempting to break barriers, allowing even the appearance of impropriety is simply not an option.

Principle #3: Safeguard against your own biases

There’s an apocryphal story in the advertising world about the Chevy Nova, which came on the market in the 1960s. The car didn’t sell well in Spanish-speaking countries, the story goes, because English-speaking advertising executives failed to realize that “Nova” translated to “no go,” or “doesn’t work,” in Spanish.

Though the story is a myth, there’s nonetheless a lesson in it that the Clinton campaign could have heeded. We champion diversity not just for fairness, but for the diversity of ideas that emerge from different life and work experiences. Team Clinton appeared to be tone-deaf to the populist movements of our time, failing to court white working-class voters—a group that Obama/Biden had won in a previous election by painting Republican candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney as out of touch. They ignored the warnings from people like Michael Moore, who predicted in July that his home state of Michigan as well Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin would go for Trump and his economic populism if the Clinton campaign didn’t pay more attention to working-class whites. They embraced the slogan “I’m with her” instead of drumming the message “She’s for us.”

With so much on the line, Team Clinton should have cast a wider net to ensure they were hearing a range of voices and views. They could have sent a delegation to England to fully understand what happened with Brexit. They could have invited Michael Moore to Brooklyn to share in person his analysis so they could ask, “What are we missing?”

If they had, they might have calibrated their messaging to emphasize whose side they were genuinely on (working people), focused more on Trump’s biggest vulnerability as the ultimate con artist, and had Secretary Clinton campaign more in Rust Belt states.

A crucial lesson from this loss is the need to embrace diversity in all of its forms: race, gender, ethnicity, life and work experiences, and diversity of ideas and vantage points. Democrats need to be smart about the struggle for equal opportunity and its teachings going forward.

Cyrus Mehri is a partner at Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, a public spirited law firm in Washington, DC. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at

“Democrats could have won the US election if they’d learned from the struggle for equal opportunity”. Mehri, Cyrus. Quartz. Dec. 26, 2016.