On my last trip to the US, I was very curious to listen to my friends to find out what they think about the current political situation. It is, of course, unique. We all know that. And the future is cloudy. We all know that as well. But do people see a way forward? Is there a language that can overcome the divisive nature of political debate that brought us Donald Trump?
Sadly, I found no one who could answer that question with concrete strategic ideas. There was lots of outrage, frustration, worry, etc.And at last one person argued that the next generation will figure it all out because they are “different”. But I heard no clear vision on how to re-unite the electorate. Instead, there was a strong sense that liberals and conservatives are born to disagree if not hate each other.
One theme that I did hear and have heard before is that liberalism has morphed into elite liberalism. That liberals have lost touch with working people. And as liberals pursued a more inclusive politics, fighting for minorities, women, gays, etc, they have alienated a significant portion of the working class. It is not that those folks ´want to discriminate, but they ask “what about me? Who is fighting for me?”
And one thing you can say about Donald Trump. He may be an egomaniacal and incoherent blowhard, but he worked hard to identify with blue-collar voters. That he succeeded in winning a significant number of their votes despite who he is, says something about a lack of competition for this voter segment. And it may be that because none of the people I talked to are blue collar workers, none of them know what to say to those folks.
That is the argument that Bernie Sanders makes, and it is worth a listen. His main point is that being liberal is not enough. One must also be progressive, which means fighting to protect the economic prospects of average Americans — the way FDR did in the 1930’s against moneyed interests.
Check out this interview that he did with Sarah Silverman (and my thanks to Eneko for passing this on to me). Sarah’s first question sums up what I was asking my friends in the US “What the fuck?” It is a good starting point.
BTW, my own view is that we are not about to go back to the politics of the 1950’s. Neither Donald Trump nor well intentioned progressives will bring back the sort of blue collar jobs that were relatively plentiful back then. But that does not mean we ignore folks who suffer because those jobs are less plentiful. They must have a future too and their future has to be part of the political discussion. .
I would add one more thought. I also do not believe that having money — even a lot of money — is necessarily a bad thing. The problem arises when powerful private interests collide with general welfare. You see this most clearly in countries with entrenched oligarchies who use power mainly to sustain their positions instead of promoting economic welfare. We dismissively call this “corruption”and it is. Bu while we may be revolted by it, we also have failed to eliminate it. Indeed, “anti-corruption campaigns” have been a nice tool to create dictatorship and even more corruption. My point — this is a dynamic that is not well understood. And I part ways with Bernie to the extent that he argues fighting for the working class is part of a “zero sum re-distribution game”. The challenge is less about dividing the economic pie as it is now, than enlarging it so that we all get more. Enlightened policies can achieve this — and those policies are about raising people up, not just taxing the rich on the one hand, or waiting for “trickle down” effects on the other. This is a false choice.
But even if you do not agree with Bernie, it is worth considering whether corporate interests and the public interest are the same . If, by and large, they are, then Donald Trump’s election is no big deal. If they are not, in what cases should individuals stand up for policies that corporations do not like? And if these cases exist, is it getting easier or more difficult to do this? It gets more difficult when political rhetoric is debased. And this clearly happened in the US in the last presidential election cycle.
Food for thought.
Follow Up – BTW, the other day, Lawrence O’Donnell reviewed polling results that suggest that a large percentage of US voters are also saying “What the fuck?” about Donald Trump. This is a highly unusual result – the norm is that during the transition period, president elects get to bask in the glory of their victory. Apparently there will be no honeymoon for Mr. Trump.