Many considered Donald Trump’s election to the presidency unthinkable before it happened. However, it becomes more understandable when one looks more closely at the various factors that built up a perfect storm over a long period of time and contributed to his victory. It would be a mistake to exaggerate or downplay any of those factors or oversimplify the narrative surrounding the election. If we are to successfully turn the tide against Trump-ism, it’s crucial to recognize the ways in which these factors are interconnected to address them at their roots. Many on the left have primarily ascribed Trump’s success to bigotry and cultural anxiety, minimizing the roles of economic anxiety and distrust in the system. In reality, both economic and cultural factors played an important role.
Tikkun’s editor Rabbi Michael Lerner responded to the 2016 election with a call to a new broad strategy for progressives as articulated here, encompassing new directions for both policy and a way of reaching beyond policy to speak to people’s hearts. His approach emphasized the importance of the Left embracing a unifying ideal that should be a guiding light for each particular progressive project–what he calls a New Bottom Line (NBL). The NBL would judge our economic and political systems, our corporations and government policies, and our educational and legal systems by how much they enhance our capacities to be loving and caring for each other, generous and empathic toward those experiencing pain not just economically, but also psychologically and spiritually, and how much those systems and institutions promote environmental and social responsibility. He critiques capitalism not solely because of the inequality and economic deprivation it causes to some, but because of the ways the system generates pain and deprives people of meaning in their lives beyond maximizing money. And he believes that while some of those who supported Trump were doing so because they agreed with his racism, sexism, xenophobia, fear of immigrants, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, a significant section of his support came from a feeling among many Americans that the left disrespects them and shames and blames them without knowing much about their lives.
Tikkun advocates for a new foreign policy based on replacing the strategy of “domination” with a strategy of generosity, embodied in a Global Marshall Plan (www.tikkun.org/GMP) and a comprehensive way to stop corporations from continuing to pollute the earth and use its resources to create lots of useless things just because they can be sold to make a profit for the owners of those corporations (it’s called the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is laid out at www.tikkun.org/ESRA). I’m proud to have been associated with Tikkun as a volunteer in their office for the past year.
I’d additionally like to call your attention to the Green New Deal, an ambitious and comprehensive collection of policy proposals supported by the Green Party. The concept contains numerous solutions to the country’s many problems, including the incorporation of ideas presented in the GMP and ESRA. It also fits into the vision Mohammed Mesbahi explained in his book Heralding Article 25 regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Meshabi advocates sharing resources to meet Article 25’s goal of guaranteeing basic needs to all. The Green Party version of the deal is composed of an economic bill of rights, a green transition, real financial reform, and a functioning democracy.I also support some proposals not specifically included in the Green version, such as converting the country’s road network to generate solar power and reinvesting in apprenticeships and training for trades. This article from the Nation focuses specifically on taking on agribusiness in order to fare better with rural voters. The labor movement can receive a much-need infusion of new life through a new workers’ bill of rights, which covers issues from basic protections to organizing abilities, and could be seen as an expanded version of the labor policies covered in the Green New Deal.
University of California Professor Robert Reich has called on Democrats to be more than anti-Trump and to stand for six big policies to address the forces of inequality and bigotry that made Trump possible, summing up many of the Green New Deal’s core values. An older blueprint for many of these values can be found in President Franklin Roosevelt’s proposed Second Bill of Rights regarding basic needs, rights, and opportunities. There’s another blueprint for many of these transformative policy goals within Movement Generation’s Just Transition, which lays out transitioning from an extractive economy to a regenerative one, and its decentralized nature can have an appeal to people who are wary of big government and favor local control. Ideas like those described in this paragraph and the previous one have the potential to create millions of decent jobs in both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas alike for people of all working-age demographics both with and without college educations. At the same time these ideas can transition society toward true sustainability and security as well as an economy focused on need before profit. It is more productive to recognize and promote the contributions of both the professional and working classes than to pit those groups against each other (or sow divisions within those groups). The larger overall monetary cost of these more visionary goals can be more than offset by the greater potential to truly solve major problems and not just patch them over, as well as by reductions in existing costs for goods and services.
Included in the links cited above is a reduction in defense and military spending. The military industrial complex uses considerable resources that could be much better spent on constructive change, while often doing more to threaten true security than protect it. A robust anti-war foreign policy will free up costs and be welcomed by many war-weary voters, in addition to being the right thing to do. Given the finding that Hillary Clinton’s record of support for the use of force cost her in locations with higher combat casualty rates, a less militaristic policy makes even more sense.
Obviously, a clear, unambiguous, and substantive economic and policy message is crucial but by no means is it by itself sufficient for bridge building to have a shot at success. Tone (as discussed in Lerner’s article) and messengers are just as important in order to get more working people to listen to the left. For one, we should conduct the fights for social justice and against discrimination in ways that don’t convey contempt toward those who have justifiable anxiety about their futures, and could be potential allies if they didn’t feel we were putting them down. It is critical to avoid the appearance of viewing historically privileged identity and cultural groups as wholly guilty of keeping down other groups, to recognize the struggles within relatively privileged groups, and to be tolerant of all cultural differences as long as they aren’t used as tools of suppression or domination. When discussing privilege, we should make sure to emphasize its relative nature. It’s important to make emotional connections with voters and not come across as talking over their heads, which is not inherently the same thing as dumbing it down. We on the left and in the Democratic Party should recognize the nuances of the status quo, so that we both promote the successful elements of policy and criticize the failed and insufficient elements of policies that Democrats like Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama supported.
It’s long overdue for those on the left to heed the expertise and advice of University of California Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, George Lakoff, and properly frame their arguments and narratives, as the right has done for decades with the help of figures like pollster Frank Luntz. A progressive framing for policy matters; however, when necessary, we should try to sell such policy by appealing to values often preached (if not necessarily practiced) by the right, such as the call for love and compassion in some versions of Christianity, family values, personal and fiscal responsibility, liberty, and security. In addition to Lakoff, the left, and Democrats in particular, should take to heart Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal and its critique of the professional class elitism that has eclipsed the party’s historic commitment to the working class. Among other things, that means not disparaging people over symbols of perceived lower status, such as not being well educated, being in a substandard living situation, or hailing from a particular region. There are online excerpts from the book on topics such as “Liberalism of the Rich” and the bipartisan failure to fight for blue-collar America. The book is one of six the New York Times recommended right after the election for understanding Trump’s win, listed alongside works such as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Perhaps the most important pieces of advice are to be a good listener whenever possible, articulate points in ways that minimize a defensive reaction, and seek to refocus misdirected anger in a more constructive direction.
As for messengers, it’s important that they are able to connect with people and gain their trust, and not be seen as personifying the institutions people are upset with. For example, despite being a career politician, Bernie Sanders has had a consistent message and has largely avoided being corrupted by the system. It won’t be enough to push a progressive narrative (for instance, re-training miners in coal country for clean energy jobs) if the community doesn’t feel like the messenger understands them. In areas where trust in the system is low, it’s a good idea to run outsider candidates. Our standard-bearers should avoid being cozy with lobbyists, dark money contributors, or elites from industries like Wall Street, Big Insurance, or Big Pharma. We won’t succeed at challenging the power of wealthy and institutional elites with the mentality that their support is required to win, especially after Sanders demonstrated how far a candidate could go by utilizing small donations. We need to promote candidates and leaders who recognize the extent to which many people feel betrayed by and have lost trust in institutions and the power structure, and by extension, the experts within said institutions, and thus are committed to making institutions more responsive to people and repairing broken trust. These political figures should know how to inspire as many people as possible, fit their constituencies, and sufficiently respond to criticisms and attacks, as well as having a wide enough general electorate and crossover appeal and not having favorability issues.
Polling in earlier in the year has suggested that Trump’s victory was all about cultural anxiety and bigotry, but such generalizations don’t look closely enough at complexities below the surface. Simply citing that Hillary Clinton won most poor and working class voters and that most Trump voters were financially secure ignores that the number of working class Trump voters is still large enough to influence election outcomes. CNN exit polling shows Trump still won 41% of voters making under $50,000 a year (including 40% of those making under $30,000 a year), which is by no means an inconsequential percentage. With the same polls showing Trump winning 66% of white people without college degrees, there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement with those voters, and it underscores the need to provide better employment opportunities that don’t require degrees. One other notable finding within those polls was that Trump won an overwhelming 82% of voters who were most concerned about bringing about change, therefore it’s electorally smart for Democrats to refocus on moving away from business as usual in a more serious matter than they did during Obama’s presidency.
There have also been findings suggesting economic anxiety did little to fuel prejudice, but they largely have focused on the absence of a major increase in overall levels of racial resentment in recent decades. They’ve glossed over the effects that economic trends and perceived scarcity can have in breeding tribalism, and they’ve focused more on the impact of recessions than longer-term economic decline.
It’s natural for the pain in people’s lives to drive them to find sources of comfort, which unfortunately can manifest itself in the demonization of others. Without adequately addressing the pain, it can be more difficult to disabuse people of narratives that vilify. An Alternet piece on white supremacists misdirecting their anger goes over the long-term trends that have set the stage for such anger, particularly economic and class trends outside of wealthy enclaves for which elites have helped put the country on its current trajectory.
The “diversity-within-unity” (DWU) strategy in an American Scholar article referred to earlier provides a means for respecting the humanity and identities of immigrants and diverse cultures in ways that can also limit xenophobic tensions. At George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, the Communitarian Network elaborates the DWU model in regards to the law, state and religion, schooling, citizenship, language, core substance, symbols, national history, holidays, and rituals.
Long term economic anxiety (which differs from shorter term economic hardship), while not necessarily the dominant factor in Trump’s win, was nonetheless still an influential factor, and that is evident in the picture of how Trump performed on a county level. This FiveThirtyEight feature looks at how the economic factor played out, explaining that Trump received support in areas where economic prospects saw the worst decline. Even among Trump voters motivated by prejudice, it’s a counter-productive generalization to label them all as irredeemable and/or deplorable.
Among those who are working class and not dyed-in-the-wool bigots, there is a potential for the left to make a connection without compromising its core values. The significance of this is reflected in an opinion article in the Forward written in response to the turmoil in Charlottesville, VA, where Rabbi Mordechai Liebling talks about the wealth gap creating an environment for white identity populism and the responsibility to recognize the real pain of those who become convinced to direct their anger at diversity and multiculturalism. A more in-depth article about making these kinds of connections can be found in this American Scholar article discussing the need to not be enemies with Trump voters as a whole and to better understand them, while criticizing the characterization of the election as a black and white struggle between globalists and nationalists. The article points out the issues globalists fail to properly understand, particularly the value of community bonds in creating identity and security.
It’s understandable that many on the left and in the Democratic coalition will want nothing to do with these Trump voters, but the reality is that big tent coalition building often involves including disparate factions that aren’t fully comfortable with one another. A South African-style truth and reconciliation commission could potentially make a lot of difference in bridging the deep divisions in our society, thus making it more realistic to bring about the unity needed for coalition building.
Cultural and identity politics do have an important role to play in securing equal rights and protections, but it’s a mistake to be lulled into a “demographics as destiny” mentality or become overly reliant on either social issue campaigns or support from professional class voters. When such politics become an end in and of themselves, they can alienate other groups who could be allies on core issues. It’s a losing strategy to either take support for granted or write off giant swaths of the country without seriously trying to compete based on meaningful issues and values that matter in those places. At a bare minimum we should always field candidates and work on building the political infrastructure to support those candidates wherever they run. In this way the left can grow its appeal beyond the areas of the country where Clinton did well or was competitive to include more areas where she did poorly. The site ProximityOne contains geographic breakdowns of socioeconomic data such as median income per congressional district as provided for both the 114th and 115th Congresses, offering insight into which working class parts of the country Democrats are struggling in and could work on becoming more competitive in. The American Prospect has been publishing a series of articles on the relationship between Democrats and the white working class, offering up some frameworks for how to try to make the goals and suggestions described in this writing work out. The articles cover various aspects of the subject, such as geographic relevance, differences within the white working class, and different forms of populism.
There has been a lot of discussion over whether or not these kinds of strategies have any chance of success, with many arguing it’s a lost cause. Some have cited that Democrats have already tried focusing on economics without succeeding. However, these writings have failed to address the possibility that the party hasn’t been going about that focus in the right way, or to adequately acknowledge that the working class voters who have been rejecting the party aren’t a monolithic group. By failing to sufficiently connect with or deliver for these voters, Democratic elites have enabled the Republican Party to inappropriately sell itself as a people’s party. One writing that looks more closely at how mainstream Democrats have increasingly left behind many working class whites in recent decades is this one from the Nation questioning if those voters really vote against their own interests. Published just over a week after the election, it criticizes both parties’ explanations for why people in the heartland are being left behind. It states how the right’s narrative for those struggles consists of identifying scapegoats while the left ascribes it to inevitable shifts that people have to figure out how to adapt to, pointing out how the right’s narrative has been more compelling, while neither narrative is actually beneficial. The Democrats’ push to take on monopolies is a start in the right direction, but it is far from being enough to sufficiently move that way, and the party will have to make a far more serious effort to revive the anti-monopoly populist soul that post-Watergate liberals too young to remember the Great Depression killed. What is certain is that we can’t know how successful modified efforts to reach out to these people will be unless we try, and by no means should we ignore other strategies, because the political transformation we need to successfully resist Trump-ism has to be a multi-pronged approach. This includes efforts to boost turnout and make the political process fairer and more accessible and responsive.
Now is not the time for Democrats to double down on incremental change and corporate centrism, which leave the concerns of too many people behind, obsess over appealing to affluent Romney voters uneasy with Trump’s style at the expense of caring about poorer voters, or to be defeatist in their approaches to campaigning and governing. It’s also not the time to be exclusionary toward those who aren’t unwavering party loyalists (given the need to expand popular appeal to achieve electoral success), particularly if they’re natural allies (like anti-establishment and independent progressives and populists, and many people who’ve become politically involved for the first time), or to take actions that drive many on the left to quit the party or refuse to support it in the first place. The more the party appears out of touch, the worse it will do with voters. It won’t do for the party faithful to act like it’s not making any serious mistakes and use opposition to outrageous candidates as a primary electoral strategy. The faithful need to be open to criticism and disagreement from its own side, or risk continuing to come up short in future elections, since the party cannot succeed when the left overall is demoralized or splintered. It makes more sense to focus on future elections and what makes certain kinds of political figures appealing, as articulated in this Inquisitr piece critical of internal finger pointing on the left. We should not take Clinton’s popular vote victory or the Democrats’ recent off-year election victories as a vindication of the party establishment’s outlook and overall strategies (considering the party’s electoral struggles down-ballot during the Obama era), or as an excuse for overconfidence going forward. For too long the political establishment has avoided outside-the-box approaches to persistent problems, prioritizing its own wealth and power and viewing politics primarily through a left-right lens and not a top-bottom one, and with so much on the line now, we can’t afford that anymore. We must push the conventional boundaries of what is considered politically possible and reverse the decades-long rightward drift of the national debate, and not be deterred by concerns about going too far left when it comes to ideas that aren’t really all that radical. There are voices warning that support for progressive positions will erode when the right attacks them or people learn of the costs, but we’ll never know if we use those warnings as excuses to refuse to even try to fight for those positions. A new year-round fifty state strategy that is bold, idealistic, populist, and has the potential to bring together people with differences (which requires avoiding ideological purity tests on every issue) is necessary moving forward. By energizing the progressive base and people who haven’t been involved in the political process, as well as improving the left’s favorability with the working class, we can garner support from as many kinds of people as possible, something that is essential in this moment. We have public opinion behind many of our visions; what we still need is sufficient political will.