Monday, December 5, 2016

Liberalism in Trump’s America: Where do we go from here?

A lot of people I know have been asking me (since I appear the only person my friends know with a political science background), what the Democrats as a party - and liberals in general - can do about the presidency of Donald Trump. My answers tend to not be all that well received, though they are by no means completely bleak. First, let's get one thing right out of the way: Donald J. Trump is going to be president. There is nothing that can stop that now. Even though some people seem to be holding onto the slim hope that the electoral college will do what many say it was meant to do and derail his presidency (here), this is extremely remote possibility. 2016 has been a weird enough year that I won't say it's impossible, but even in this year of shattered precedents, this is one you won't catch me betting on. So, without an escape hatch that could prevent the Trump presidency (without causing a constitutional crisis), what are we sad, shocked, embattled and embittered liberals to do?
Outlook for the Party…
In the short term, the answer is frankly, not very much. The Democrats lost the presidency, they lost the House, they lost the Senate. They lost the whole enchilada in a fashion that is still difficult to fully grasp. The party ate it harder and deeper than just about any other election I can think of.  2016 has been, for the Democrats, an absolute, unmitigated cluster-f--- of truly epic proportions. So, for the next two years at least, the party will be hobbled and largely relegated to symbolic protest and filibustering. Now, it's entirely possible that Paul Ryan might find the Trump agenda abhorrent enough to work with the Democrats in opposition, but this is very unlikely. For one thing, he will only need to do it if he needs to bypass the so-called Freedom Caucus. In light of the renewed strength and enthusiasm of the far right, it is entirely likely he will be loath to do anything that might elicit a primary challenger in 2018. This year has been so weird, and this president-elect is who he is, so I wouldn't write off any scenario completely; but things will have to get very, very nutty before Ryan is likely to try to outflank his conservative colleagues like that.
Outlook for Liberalism…
On the other hand, for liberals in general, the outlook is not quite so bleak. The presidency of Donald Trump actually presents liberals with a prime opportunity to rebuild the party from the ground up. A lot of pundits have argued that this election was a repudiation of the Obama legacy. This is nonsense. There is no evidence (not yet anyway) that Obama voters who moved to Trump did so because they are anti-Obama, or anti-liberal. Far from being a repudiation of liberalism, I feel this election will likely be judged by history to be a repudiation of Clintonism. Salon has a very good (if somewhat heavy-handed) breakdown on what twenty some-odd years of Clintonism has done to the liberal cause and the Democratic party (here). The short version goes like this:
  1. Democrats were getting their butts kicked at the Presidential level with 20 years of card carrying liberals trying and failing to capture the Presidency (with the one-term Carter being the exception)
  2. Clinton devised a pro-Wall Street, center-right platform for the Democratic party which would negate the Republican advantage with the business class 
  3. Because the interests of Wall Street and labor are basically incompatible, 20 years of far-right/center-right divided government eviscerated the economic prospects of the Democrat's working-class base and alienated the largely white, old union Democrats in the manufacturing heartland
The 90's were really and truly when private sector labor went to pot and the Clintons were at the helm; so it only makes sense that broke, angry alienated working classes would have a hard time swallowing the idea of a Clinton presidency. That moderate liberals didn't see this coming (and this includes both the traditional and big-data pundit classes), will likely go down in history as one of the greatest political blunders of all time. However, it still looks like it is less a repudiation of liberalism, than it does a repudiation of Clintonism. And this is a very, very important distinction.
If this thesis holds, then liberal activists have a very good chance to remake the party into something which would be far more competitive in the upcoming contests. Bernie Sanders popularity in the rust-belt was misread by many (most) pundits as being led by young, millennial, multi-cultural liberals. The reputation of these voters as unreliable made the movement easier to dismiss. This reputation isn’t entirely undeserved. These are the same voters who came out in force for Obama but disappeared during the midterms. However, there is some evidence emerging that white working class voters made up a larger part of Sanders' voters than the media ever acknowledged. If it turns out to be true, than it bodes well for the development of a stream-lined, Sanders/Warren led, 21st Century New Deal Democratic party to emerge by 2020. But to do this, the party will need to make some major changes. The list below represents my personal opinion of three of the most important steps the party needs to take to engineer a comeback: 

Dump the Clintonistas 
This should be a no-brainer. Anyone who is attached to Clinton-era leadership needs to go…NOW. At the moment, this means, perhaps more than anyone, the ouster of Nancy Pelosi as minority leader. I happened to live in San Francisco when Pelosi became party leader, so I got a little first-hand experience of what her constituents thought of her. Believe me, it wasn't good. Her power, as far as I can tell, stems from her ability to tap into the vast amount of private wealth the Bay Area generates. Her fund-raising prowess is certainly an asset in the days of Citizens United, but her connection to the Clinton era and its focus on big money makes her a "yuge" liability. On top of this, she was Speaker when the ACA was being developed and she should therefore share the blame for its many short-comings. This should be non-negotiable. Pelosi needs to go.

Re-evaluate the platform to re-focus on labor protection, education and economic sustainability
The decoupling of labor from the Democratic party is perhaps the single most damaging legacy of the Clinton era. Without national level champions, the unions were gradually eroded away until only the public-sector unions remained with any force. That is not to say that private sector unions are not organizing and campaigning all over the country. They are; but without the power of the federal government behind them, they are contending with a hostile business class that is fueled by both Wall Street and an indifferent (at best) federal government. The pro-labor policies touted by the Sanders/Warren faction now seem incredibly prescient given how the vote went and who lead the voting. This being said, the approach should not be simply a return to the big-labor/big-business nexus of the post-war era. A lot of very good academic work has been done on the importance of local level investment and public support for small businesses. Sustainable, local and regional growth models need to be pursued by the liberal political class; not just big manufacturing. 

De-emphasize ideology and abstract social justice issues
This will undoubtedly be the most controversial of my opinions here, but I think it is important to state. For too long, I feel the Democratic party has been focusing on abstract issues untethered to the local issues facing voters. Solving the Israeli/Palestine impasse is certainly important, but so too are the women's health centers that closed down in Texas over the last two years. There are many liberal organizations focused on solving the issues which directly affect the lives of voters. The fact that Democratic leadership took as long as it did to embrace Black Lives Matter is truly a terrible sign. At the same time, liberal activists' preoccupation with ideology over practical politics needs to be addressed. It has been, in my opinion, a great mistake of liberals to assume the goal of civil rights activism has ever been to change people's minds. Securing equal justice under the law should the first (and maybe the only) priority of the activist left, not changing hearts and minds. 
By implementing such reforms within the Democratic party, liberals may have a chance to re-engage the large class of voters lost by twenty years of Clintonism. It will not be enough to sit back and hope the Trump administration hangs itself. That was the very mistake the party made made in this election and the one which makes us all have to get used to the phrase, “President Donald J. Trump”. 
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