In the wake of the election, I’ve made two important discoveries. One is that potato chips dipped in chocolate sauce make for an effective anti-depressant. The other is that the Democratic Party is gearing up to keep on losing.
Left-liberal commentators keep reassuring us that, by 2020, Trump’s working class voters will realize they’ve been conned and will boot the Charlatan-in-Chief out, assuming he hasn’t already been impeached. This, I believe, is a dangerously flawed assumption that, if accepted, will prevent the Democrats from doing what must be done to take back the government.
That the GOP will undermine the economic well-being of working and middle class Americans is a certainty. It’s already apparent from the villainous caliber and $9 billion-and-change net worth of Trump’s cabinet appointees that Trumpism is a noxious concoction of every wicked, ruinous fantasy the corporate, ultra-rich, ultra-misogynist and white nationalist wings of the GOP ever dared conjure.
It’s going to get bad, yes. Very bad (or worse, I should say, because it’s already pretty damn bad for a lot of folks). But that doesn’t mean Trump voters will turn on him.
Ask Walter Mondale. Back in 1984, he must have thought that most Americans had figured out that Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” was Republispeak for “the rich get richer.” The Reagan administration, just to recap, attacked labor unions, cut taxes for rich people and corporations, gutted social welfare programs, hiked the regressive payroll tax, and triggered an hourly wage stagnation crisis that continues to this day. His approval rating in 1983 stood at 41%. But none of that stopped Reagan from crushing Mondale 58% to 41%.
Four years of upward wealth redistribution later, George H.W. Bush handily dispatched Michael Dukakis. It would take the electorate twelve years to awaken from Reagan’s Morning in America to find that the United States had become a plutocracy. By then, the political center had skewed so far to the right that disgruntled voters’ only recourse was Bill “Third Way” Clinton, a centrist Democrat who ushered in the neo-liberal economic model that propelled the Republicans to their 1996 mid-term victory and, ultimately, set the stage for George W. Bush’s and Trump’s victories.
Obama, hand-wringing speeches about economic inequality notwithstanding, by and large fit the Clinton mold with an austerity-lite regimen that allowed the one percent to rake in $1.3 million a year while the bottom half made do on $16,000. No wonder then that only 21% of Americans feel that Obama’s policies benefited them financially and why 72% are dissatisfied with “the way things are going.” Then came Hillary, who assumed she could glide to victory not by admitting that neo-liberalism had failed, but by holding to the center, breaking a glass ceiling and not being Trump.
If history is our guide, blue collar Trump supporters won’t be overcoming their gullibility anytime soon. They’re pawns in a long con that harkens back to Nixon’s “southern strategy” to pry racist white southerners away from the Democratic Party. They voted for Nixon, they voted for Reagan, they voted for two fool-me-twice Bushes, and now they’ve elected a devious miscreant whose only virtue is the copious grist he provides late night comedians.
Trump has an even greater ability than his fraudulent forerunners to prey on people’s gullibility, rage and ignorance. In addition to being preternaturally skilled in the arts of deception, scapegoating and demagoguery, Trump is aided and abetted by a chorus of propagandists who will obfuscate and explain away every Trump betrayal, deception and scam.
White nationalist media baron Steve Bannon will surely be coordinating with Fox News, Breitbart and dozens more right-wing disinformation sources. They will withhold from their cloistered customers all evidence of Trump’s dirty deeds. When the negative impacts begin to be felt, when the unemployment rolls swell, the Social Security checks contract, the health care coverage disappears, the neighborhood school closes its doors, the gun violence explodes and the rising sea laps at the welcome mats of Floridian homes, the Bannon entourage will concoct false narratives starring brown-skinned scapegoats, government regulations, China and ghosts of Satan-worshipping, child sex ring-leading Democratic presidents past. When all else fails, they will frighten them into submission with relentless hyping of bogeymen (i.e. ISIS). Or they’ll start a war.
And many Trump supporters will believe him, because people simply don’t like to be proven wrong, especially by snobby liberals. To vote for Trump thinking that he was a populist who would improve the prospects of ordinary (white) Americans, only to be forced to admit a few years later that Trump is a pathologically dishonest and narcissistic plutocrat whose only ambition is the enhancement of his personal wealth and stature — how embarrassing!
Moreover, as playwright Steve Tesich observed in The Nation in 1992, many Americans have become resistant to truth and would rather hear a comfortable lie than an upsetting truth. (One of Trump’s comfortable lies is that white people are inherently great and America will be “great again” with fewer non-whites in line for slices of American pie). This desire to be protected from the truth, Tesich noted, is turning us into “prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams.”
Trump voters aren’t the only ones impervious to reality. The Democratic Party, after losing to a candidate whose unfitness for office is measured in light years, is still rejecting the obvious and incredibly important takeaway: Centrist politics are a dead end.
The center cannot hold
All over the world, right-wing nationalism and left-wing populism are on the rise, because neo-liberal austerity and free market fundamentalism have savaged the global economy, creating a credibility vacuum with eerie parallels to Weimar Germany. From Brexit and the resurgence of European nationalist parties to the rise of leftist coalitions in Greece, Spain, Iceland and Bolivia, nation after nation has seen its economy broken by austerity measures, its wealth pillaged by deregulated banks, its forests and oceans poisoned and plundered by laxly regulated corporations and its people’s spirits broken by financial hardship, the commodification of culture and the fraying of the social fabric that, once upon a time, before the one percent cut itself loose, knit us all together.
Shortly before he was assassinated in 1976, Orlando Letelier, Chilean Ambassador to the United States under Salvador Allende, tried in vain to make the US establishment understand that the purpose of Pinochet’s brutal repression was enforcement of an equally brutal laissez-faire economic regime that socialist Chileans would not willingly accept. But by then, Milton Friedman’s economic “shock treatment” (Friedman’s term) was already gaining acceptance as the bitter pill that must be swallowed not only by the developing world but domestically as well. Enter Ronald Reagan in 1980 to impose shock treatment as the remedy for 1970s stagflation. Fast forward a few decades and we now know that neo-liberalism engenders oligarchy.
When things get bad, people demand change, and that change can take either a reactionary or a progressive form — we can lurch left or right, but the center cannot hold. And yet trying to hold the collapsed center is precisely what the Democratic Party leadership insists it will continue to do over the strenuous pleas of its newly emboldened progressive wing.
If the Democrats want to win in 2018 or 2020 — or ever — they must renounce neo-liberalism unequivocally and with apologies to all the people who have been harmed by its ascendance. They must admit that neo-liberalism has created an oligarchy and then, they must offer the people something better, something along the lines of the Democratic Socialism of Bernie Sanders or, if necessary in light of whatever calamities are unfolding by 2020, even stronger medicine. And they must do it all without the aid of corporate and Wall Street campaign contributions — let’s see the GOP respond when the Democrats throw down such a boldly progressive gauntlet.
Assuming we’re still stuck with the Electoral College in 2020 (without it, recall, Clinton would have narrowly won), here’s how I predict a populist progressive agenda would play out with each of the major constituencies, beginning with the biggest….
People who don’t vote: The United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any democracy in the world. 45% of eligible voters sat out 2016. Rich people vote and so do a lot of upper-middle-class people but poor people are significantly less likely to vote. Many voters of color have been shoved off the rolls by the GOP’s diabolically effective voter suppression campaign, while others stay home voluntarily, either out of busyness or loss of faith in the political establishment.
Trump narrowly won Michigan and Pennsylvania. In these states, 300,000 eligible black voters didn’t vote, either voluntarily or due to the GOP shenanigans investigative journalist Greg Palast has been relentlessly reporting. Likewise, in Arizona, where the margin was 91,000, 600,000 eligible Latinos stayed home (or were purposefully disenfranchised). Looking at the Rust Belt more broadly (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and Michigan) which Trump won by 554,000–750,000 people who voted for Obama sat this one out (or were kept out).
Clinton lost the Rust Belt swing states In part due to voter suppression and in part because she didn’t give Democrats there enough reason to support her. A progressive populist will give them a reason.
Progressives: These voters are fond of though disappointed by Obama, tend to distrust Hillary, love Bernie and are chomping at the bit for a progressive takeover of the party. That goes double for young progressives (aka The Future of the Democratic Party if it’s going to have one). Give the people what they want.
Liberals: This very diverse group of voters are not necessarily big critics of capitalism but are zealous about civil rights and liberties. Bernie scared them a little, but Trump scares them way more. Given a choice between Trump and a progressive populist who is steadfast in their commitment to civil rights and liberties, the choice is clear.
Wealthy Trump supporters: These people, mostly white, voted for Trump because they expect him to cut their taxes (plus many of them are also plenty bigoted). They are one of three core constituencies comprising Trump’s base and should be ignored. We don’t need them.
White nationalist and woman-hating Trump supporters: Overt, hard core racists and misogynists enraged by the audacity of the Obamas, they salivated in response to Trump’s call to Make America White Again and adorned themselves with “Trump that Bitch” swag. These “deplorables”, as Clinton unskillfully called them, are a small but noteworthy segment of Trump’s base, though maybe larger than previously imagined by everyone but Ta-Nehisi Coates who’s been trying to tell us for a very long time.
This racist resurgence is heartbreaking but, from a strictly electoral perspective, we don’t need the racists. Melting their hardened hearts is essential work, but it will take a generation or more, and we want to start winning elections in 2018.
Evangelical Trump supporters: 86% of them voted for Trump. From what I understand, evangelicals tend to obediently cast their votes per their pastors’ directive, even when said pastor hypocritically endorses a serial adulterer and incest-fantasizer who most definitely does not do as Jesus would do. Lost cause.
Working/middle class passive racist and sexist Trump supporters:
White, non-college graduates went for Trump by a 39-point margin. Nearly every GOP candidate since Reagan has won this segment though not as titanically. Time and again, Democrats have slept through the wake-up call.
Are many if not most of them racist? Yes. In a 2012 survey, 79% of Republicans (and 32% of Democrats!) had explicit anti-black attitudes (believing, for example, that blacks are lazy and get more than they deserve). As Michael Moore articulates in Trumpland, these folks are aware that whites are becoming a racial minority in our increasingly diverse nation and that patriarchy and Christianity are on the wane and, for reasons that liberals don’t relate to, this make them feel uncomfortable, disoriented, scared even — hence the hysteria, for example, around seemingly trivial issues like the positing of an historically accurate “black” Santa Claus and the utterance of “happy holidays” in lieu of “Merry Christmas.”
Some of these voters are virulent white nationalists but most are what you might call “passive” racists (and sexists) — they don’t wear white hoods or condone sexual assault, but they do harbor harmful, prejudiced beliefs about women, people of color and Muslims and are vulnerable to invocations of some kind of white cultural pride that never really existed until they started noticing that their numerical majority was on the wane. We’ve all seen video interviews of these people innocently proclaiming themselves non-racist, but then so does Steve Bannon. They are either bigots or tolerant of bigotry which, as we’ve just spectacularly seen, amounts to the same thing.
And yet, there’s hope for flipping these folks. They used to vote Democrat (and most still do, those who still vote that is, but the rate of defection is on the rise). In voting for Trump, they made a morally reprehensible, self-destructive decision, because they’re either hungry for change or have given up hope of change and simply cast a retaliatory fuck-you vote as Michael Moore and Hunter S. Thompson predicted.
But given the choice between a plain-speaking progressive populist with a positive vision for lifting up all working class people and a fear-peddling, self-dealing, venal billionaire whose gold leaf veneer is beginning to flake off, many of this third core segment of Trump voters will be ready to cast their vote for someone who embodies an authentically populist sensibility.
Bernie knows how to do this. If you don’t believe me, watch him interact with Trump supporters here. If you’re short on time, skip to 4:10 and watch him turn a xenophobic woman into a socialist by redirecting her resentment toward immigrants toward the .001% who aren’t paying their fair share of taxes.
In a recent tell-all, Bernie campaign officials said they knew Hillary was in serious trouble in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin due to blue collar anger over Hillary’s support for free trade deals. (Loathing of the Clintons due to their support for NAFTA was also reported by Guardian editor Gary Younge on the ground in hollowed-out Muncie, Indiana). But when they tried to share their intelligence with Hillary’s campaign staff, they were blown off, despite the fact that Hillary reportedly asked labor organizers in September, “Why aren’t I fifty points ahead?” Why indeed.
Chris Andrade chronicled the perspectives of working class Americans in small towns and forgotten “flyover” cities for The Atlantic. The people he talked to felt that the American dream was broken and that the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and decline of blue collar America had “kicked them in the balls.” They felt betrayed and humiliated. To the extent that they were racist and xenophobic — and many were — Andrade saw it as a distorted reflection of their longing for meaning and pride. A former Wall Street trader, Andrade offers this prescription to Democrats:
They’ve got to be a party of the working class and not bankers. Clinton’s convention was all about appealing to Republicans, bankers. They’ve got to step away from Wall Street and back to Main Street… They used to be about helping working-class people fight monopolies, fight corporate interests. Help them build unions, help them get pricing power from employment — that’s gone. I don’t know what Trump stands for, but also the Democrats…they’re the party of bankers and war…What do they offer working-class people?
The Democrats must listen to Andrade and Bernie and try recapture some of these historically Democratic voters turned Tea Party Trumpsters. They must offer them something of value, not only for strategic reasons but because it’s the right thing to do — they have legitimate grievances even if they’re guilty of not recognizing the ways in which their skin color and penises confer privilege and even if they subscribe to a false narrative, transcribed brilliantly by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, that people of color and women are “line jumpers” who receive preferential treatment from the government.
Hochschild’s findings show that, sadly, little has changed since 1985 when, in the wake of Reagan’s reelection, Democrats commissioned a study of white auto workers in Michigan. The study found that most of these workers blamed their economic woes on blacks and felt betrayed by the Democratic Party which they saw as the “giveaway” party, meaning the giving away of white middle class money to blacks. Their misunderstanding of the source of their troubles is no mystery — twenty years of GOP dog whistling had done its trick.
When the Democrats had the chance, under Bill Clinton, to show these voters that they had their back, they instead compounded voters’ feeling of betrayal by, well, betraying them, with corporatist trade deals and banking deregulation that eroded working and middle class economic security. Obama had his chance when crafting his response to the 2008 financial meltdown, but he opted to bail out Wall Street instead of Main Street, his reforms, as Institute for America’s Future president Robert Borsage put it, “a minor correction to decades of upward after-tax redistribution” that left 45 million Americans in poverty, more than half of them black and Latino.
Before the Tea Party movement was coopted by bankers and other plutocrats, it loudly denounced bank bailouts. The Tea Party, in hindsight, was the forerunner to the Trumpocalypse. Had Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress bailed out Main Street businesses and Up Shit’s Creek Way homeowners and aggressively prosecuted reprobate banking executives, Donald Trump would still be busy fleecing his contractors and customers instead of the U.S. Treasury.
The American dream is long gone. Long, long gone. Politicians have ruined it, broken our values, sold out to folks with money who only care about themselves. Nobody cares about anyone who works with their hands anymore. We got to get this country straight again, before it all keeps sliding down into hell.
What are the chances McAdams voted for Clinton, if he voted at all? Why would he?
Jamie Walsh, a young white Indianapolis Trump supporter who voted for Obama in 2008, spoke candidly to reporter Gary Younge:
Nobody speaks up for the poor…There is systemic racism but black people have advocates. Poor white people don’t. They’re afraid. They’re afraid that they’re stupid. They don’t feel racist, they don’t feel sexist, they don’t want to offend people or say the wrong thing. But for them white privilege is like a blessing and a curse if you’re poor. The whole idea pisses poor white people off because they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand.
You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it. I understand how it works but I don’t think most people do. So when Trump says stuff, they can understand what he’s saying and he speaks to them in a way other people don’t. And then you’ve got people calling them stupid and deplorable. Well how long do you think you can call people stupid and deplorable before they get mad?
Walsh is right about one thing: Nobody speaks up for the poor. Democrats claim that compassion and equality are their core values but then turn around and enact economic policies that do real harm and are anything but egalitarian. Voters may be ignorant but they’re not unaware of this contradiction. Hence, the loss, under Obama, not only of the White House and Congress but of more than 900 state legislative states (many but not all thanks to gerrymandering) and GOP control today of 25 states compared to the Democrats’ five.
The GOP wooed these voters unscrupulously, but the Democrats’ inability to win them back is their bad. They can woo them back not by pandering to their bigotry but by inviting them to enter the Big Tent and take their place alongside their dispossessed black and brown brethren, united in a common yearning for a life of dignity, belonging and purpose. Not all of them will accept the invitation but that’s okay, we don’t need all of them but the more the better, not only to increase our odds of winning elections but for the sake of building multi-racial bridges that will mitigate the corrosively divisive culture as we now find it.
The Democratic leadership has a plan: More of the same!
Democratic entrenchment in the political center has cost the party increasingly large chunks of its base. They’re losing working and middle class whites, African-Americans, Latinos, youth (they preferred Bernie), union households and women — women! A female candidate couldn’t inspire the support of enough women to defeat an overtly misogynist serial predator, partly because the more affluent women put class interest ahead of women’s rights and party because racist women put white supremacy ahead of women’s rights and partly because some women have, it seems, internalized misogyny and partly because Clinton’s brand of feminism doesn’t speak to the lives of income-insecure women more worried about keeping a roof over their heads than breaking through glass ceilings that loom so far overhead as to be all but invisible. (There’s a lot more to contemplate here about why any woman in her right mind would vote for a serial sexual predator, and some good analysis can be found on this Women’s Magazine radio hour).
The Democrat leadership is resisting the obvious necessity of recapturing at least part of its white working class base (the less racist part) and reenergizing its multi-cultural progressive base because doing so requires moving outside the center.
Progressives like Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, Keith Ellison and Bernie Sanders constitute a newly energized progressive populist wing. But the old guard is pushing back hard, exonerating themselves just like they did after their working class base “betrayed” them in the 2004 election and bemoaning low voter turnout without pausing to consider why people don’t vote. And for their hubris, they will be punished in 2018 and 2020 and so will we all.
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Time columnist Joe Klein and other establishment politicians, thought leaders and donors, insist that the Democratic Party need not and should move to the left. According to Pelosi, the Democrats simply need to get better with their messaging. In other words, the Democrats’ game plan is to get better at pretending that everything is okay (or will be once again as soon as Trump is ousted) when it’s quite apparent that ours is a political and economic system in crisis.
The Both/And Solution
This doesn’t mean, as some have suggested, that the Democrats should abandon “identity politics” (a pejorative term for “civil rights”). Democrats should stand firm — and double-down — on the civil rights (and voting rights!) issues they’ve defended for the past half-century, and they should experiment with communicating egalitarian values in ways that resonate more broadly and avoid antagonizing the very people they’d like to educate, most of whom aren’t as fond as liberals are of being scolded and told to “check their privilege.” Getting trained in Powerful Non-Defensive Communication would be a good start.
Democrats will be more successful at holding the line on civil rights during the coming onslaught if they simultaneously promote economic and environmental policies and programs with crossover appeal –namely, massive and unapologetic investment in transportation, clean energy, public schools and universities, medical and drug rehab clinics, and low-income housing stock, all of it easily financed by taxes on domestic and offshore corporate profits, financial speculation and capital gains and by dramatically curtailing military spending. Besides the fact that our nation desperately needs investment in all of the above, this platform will also serve to undermine the “line jumper” myth that gives rise to white antipathy toward the Democratic Party.
These bread-and-butter programs benefit workers, students and the community as a whole. We’ve been fighting for crumbs for too long, fighting for the remainder after the one percent has appropriated half the bread, and relying on the Democrats to ensure that it’s a fair fight for women and people of color. The Democrats should be about providing more bread, not refereeing the fight for the crumbs. Both/and, human rights and progressive populism, is the path to power.
A strong majority of Americans hold quite progressive beliefs on abortion, marriage equality, climate change, taxation and immigration, and the bigger the voter turnout, the more likely a left-of-center candidate will win. Even on the supposedly uber-divisive issue of Obamacare, it turns out Rust Belt Trump supporters favor a rehaul that looks an awful lot like single payer.
They don’t necessarily speak the language of progressive intellectuals, and they’re easily distracted and manipulated by racist and xenophobic fear-mongering, but they do know what they need and will (some of them) recognize a legitimate populist agenda when they see one. If Democrats keep them focused on their economic needs rather than their racial animus, many will come back. A party that steadfastly and uncompromisingly promotes a progressive agenda would win every presidential election by a landslide (with or without the electoral college, preferably without) and turn red states purple and purple states blue, no matter how much voter suppression the GOP connives.
When Obama was running in 2008, he seemed to get this. In the absurd kerfuffle around his past membership in the rancorous Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church, Obama delivered perhaps his most endearing speech, in which he spoke of the painful legacy of segregation while also acknowledging that working class whites’ bitterness was borne not only of racism but of wage stagnation, the offshoring of blue collar jobs and the eroding of the American dream. For one glorious moment, it appeared that Obama had every working Americans’ back and would stand up to the corporate and financial powers that were enriching themselves at the expense of the working and middle classes. And so millions of white working class Americans voted for him.
And then he pulled a Bill Clinton. He promised Wall Street during a 2009 meeting that we would protect them from pitchforks and he made good on that promise, bailing out the banks instead of underwater homeowners. And seven years later, five million Obama voters abstained or went for Trump or a third party. Forty-three percent of white voters went for Obama in 2008, and that slipped to 39% in 2012 and to 37% for Clinton, because Obama didn’t deliver and, they knew, neither would Hillary.
The Democrats will not win back the swing voters by sitting around waiting for them to either die off or be so overcome by buyer’s remorse that the same old careerist Dems they resent so much suddenly start looking pretty good in the new shade of lipstick developed by Pelosi’s marketing gurus. They will not reactivate their disaffected base by insisting, in the face of lived experience to the contrary that, pre-Trump, things were basically okay. They clearly need a new playbook, with an intro written by Bernie and chapters by Black Lives Matter, Moral Mondays, Idle No More, organized labor, Eve Ensler’s one billion women rising, Just [climate] Transition, the Dreamers and Indivisible.
To save itself and the planet, the Democrats need a radical reboot, and yet they resist. I can’t put it better than Gary Younge in the Guardian:
You can pin it on the Russians, WikiLeaks, the FBI, the media, third parties, and they all played a role. But sooner or later moderate liberals are going to have to own the consequences of their politics. In this period of despair and volatility, their offer of milquetoast, market-led managerialism is not a winning formula. For a political camp that boasts of its pragmatic electability, it has quite simply failed to adapt.
And so, like the Tea Party did with the GOP in 2010 (here’s how), disaffected Democrats need to take over and shove the party to the left and, if that doesn’t work, go about building a third party in earnest. Pelosi, Lieberman, Joe Klein, Donna Screw Bernie Brazile, Chuck Goldman Sachs Schumer, Cory BigPharma Booker, Hillary and Bill…you’re fired.