A Critical Analysis Of Some Left-Liberal Reaction To The Recent Election
November 16, 2016
This is an attempt to take the pulse of what and how progressives are thinking in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election. I examined the pieces appearing in two reputable left-liberal print journals each of which appeared right after the election - The Nation and In These Times. (To distinguish between them, I labeled The Nation's articles with a capital letter - A through F; with In These Times, I labeled them with Arabic numerals - 1 through 11.) I followed this format: Each article's title comes first, followed by the journal's explanatory sentence in italics; these two items share a single set of quotation marks. Then comes the author's name in parentheses. Finally comes my short summary of the article.
In studying these articles, I was looking for four things: a) the degree to which the authors advocated thought, study and analysis before taking action, b) the interest of the authors in the mindset of the Trump voters, as opposed to that of the President-elect himself, c) the concern shown by these authors in the future of the Left in US electoral politics, specifically on the question of reforming the Democratic Party, versus trying to develop an alternative party to it, and d) which issues were discussed in the various articles. These questions are of concern to me (although I'm not a particular fan of electoral politics) and, I would think, to the Left in general. After an executive summary of my findings, I present brief summaries and analyses of the various articles. Then I conclude by presenting my thoughts and the reasoning behind them.
First, some general statements. Both journals believe that the Trump victory is both serious and dangerous. This is very different from their probable reaction to a Clinton victory. If Clinton had won, they undoubtedly would have viewed this outcome with relief, though both would have had some concerns about the likely direction of a Clinton presidency. This difference reflects not only the differing ways they saw the candidates, but also their having been caught off guard by the unexpected Trump triumph. Beyond this, two omissions are striking: Not a single article in either journal discusses, or even calls for a discussion of, the Green Party's failure to attract sizeable support from the electorate. Nor is there a single article about foreign affairs; neither war and peace nor nuclear weaponry is ever mentioned. (De-emphasis of foreign affairs was also a shortcoming of the Sanders campaign. Is this parallelism a coincidence?)
Now to some specifics. The Nation's coverage was mostly inferior to that of In These Times, except for Naomi Klein's piece (B). Several of In These Times' articles were more detailed, more thoughtful and more insightful, especially the one by Nancy Folbre (9). In terms of the four criteria I laid out earlier - a) thought before action, b) the Trump voters' mindset, c) electoral politics, the Democratic Party versus trying to develop an alternative party, and d) the issues discussed:
a) None of the articles in either journal suggested that thought should precede action. Many authors, it is true, gave various amounts of thought to their own articles. As I mentioned earlier, Folbre (9), devoted much thought to her contribution. I judge hers to be the most insightful article. But too many of the others simply advocated activism for its own sake, with no discussion of the reasons for working on a particular campaign or stratagem. This kind of anti-intellectualism almost guarantees that the Left will flounder. After all, we start at a considerable disadvantage, with all the instruments of state power - the Executive Branch, both houses of Congress and considerable parts of the judiciary (soon including, in all likelihood, the Supreme Court), not to speak of the police, in the hands of reactionary forces. In addition, the mainstream media and, not-so-coincidentally, much of the populace is opposed to many of our aspirations. On the other hand, one thing we do have going for us is that those in the urban areas in much of the nation, where it is easiest to mobilize, did not succumb to Trump's siren song. But, in order to make effective use of this single advantage requires strategic and tactical planning. None of the articles even hints at this.
b) Several authors considered the nature of Trump's support. Unfortunately many focused on a single issue - racism was usually the default choice. I hasten to emphasize that racism - both overt and covert - was, indeed, an essential element of Trump's campaign rhetoric, but it was far from the only one. Misogyny was right up there, as was anti-Islam, along with anti-immigrant sentiment. But in a presidential election all issues (including, especially in this one, the positive and negative personal qualities of the candidates) become fused and it is impossible to decipher any voter's motivation for choosing - or opposing - a candidate, even assuming there was a single predominant factor. Thus, those who attempted to argue that this or that ism was the determinant, condemned themselves to writing shallow and willfully incomplete articles.
c) Almost all the writers assumed that electoral politics were fundamentally important to the Left. But even given that challengeable assumption, the discussion often seemed to boil down to whether it is possible to stage a takeover of the Democratic Party. In this regard, the authors tended to write off the current Democratic establishment as having been reduced to impotence because of the unexpected Trump triumph. This is very dubious, if for no other reason than this establishment controls the Party's purse-strings, no small advantage in a society in which money not only talks, but yells so loudly. In addition, I would suggest that for us to choose to focus attention on electoral politics itself is to commit to fight on the enemy's turf. The longevity of the two-party system, the major parties' access to almost unlimited supplies of money, their joint control of the electoral process, the weakness of the Greens and the corporate control of the media all militate against the success of such an endeavor.
Finally, d) I was struck by the almost complete absence of the issue of climate change. It was the primary focus of only one author, Naomi Klein (B). Yet it is extremely likely that during Trump's four years as President, the planet will have passed the tipping point toward irreversible warming. Thus, it seems that the mainstream media and the left-liberals share in this blind spot. Despite a powerful petition drive, not a single climate-related question was asked during any of the debates. For the mass media this "oversight" was par for the course; for left-liberals it is inexcusable. (Please note: on 11/14 Truthout features an interview with Noam Chomsky, entitled "Trump in the White House." His response to the interviewer's very first question is to embark upon a long sermon on climate change.)
Summary of Articles from The Nation, Nov. 11, 2016
1/ "Mourn. Resist. Organize. As we prepare to cover a Trump administration, the stakes are higher than ever—and we can't do it without you." (by Katrina Vanden Heuvel)
The basic thrust of this short editorial is reflected in its title and subtitle.
2/ "Donald Trump's Presidency Could Literally Mean the End of Their World Island nations like Kiribati will disappear if Trump goes forward with his energy plans." (by Naomi Klein)
This article zeroes in on Klein's major interest - climate change. It emphasizes what is obvious to some of us: Trump's stated policies, should they be carried out, are likely to be disastrous for the planet.
3/ "Bracing for Trump What do the next four years look like for those who voted for Trump, and those who fear him?"(by Kai Wright)
Analysis of this article will have to wait, since it didn't appear in print, but only as a podcast.
4/ "How to Survive Thanksgiving With Trump Supporters It will be hard, but we're going to have to find a way to talk with them." (by Laila Lalami)
This article is almost completely anecdotal. The author paraphrases a series of disheartening conversations she had with Trump supporters, everyone from strangers to members of her own extended family. She offers no conclusions, except to insist that dialogue with supporters of Trump is necessary.
5/ "Everything We Thought We Knew About Politics Was Wrong The country will survive, probably. But it could fundamentally change." (by Joan Walsh)
One sentence summarizes the author's thinking: "Here is the scary truth: This is the election in which a vocal minority of white people began to see themselves as a minority, and to act as a self-conscious minority group, with interests that are separate from those of other ethnicities."
6/ "This Is What White Supremacy Looks Like Don't be confused. Trump's voters didn't vote against their own interests, they voted for the preservation of white privilege—their paramount interest." (by Damon Young)
This article, like E, concentrates on what the author sees as an all-permeating white racism, with these differences: it is written from a black perspective and is even more emphatic and categorical. Here are some quotes to illustrate this:
"And please note that I am not including any qualifiers.... This is on all white people—who are complicit even if they didn't vote for Trump.
"Yes, there exists a difference between allies and racial antagonists. They are not the same. But those allies obviously haven't done enough collectively to repudiate the mindsets existing in their families and among their friends, possessed by their co-workers and neighbors, shared during private holiday gatherings and public town-hall meetings. Millions of white voters have shown us that nothing existing on earth or in heaven or hell matters more to them than being white, and whichever privileges—real or fabricated, concrete or spiritual—existing as White in America provides... .
"[T]he idea that white people are so possessed with clutching and cultivating and elevating white supremacy that they will endanger and outright sacrifice their own fucking lives to do so, is all I can think about. And if they feel that way about their own lives, why would they give a damn about mine?"
Summary of Articles from In These Times, Nov. 12, 2016
1/ "This Moment Demands We Fight Harder Than Ever Before We still have the opportunity to write the future of this country that we want to see. Let's seize it together." (by Joel Bleifuss)
Like A in The Nation, this is an editorial prelude. But it is somewhat broader than A, alluding to the possibility that the Democratic Party can be captured by the Sanders/Warren wing.
2/ "It's Time to Dismantle the Democratic Party and Start Anew Trump's victory only confirms that the Democratic Party as it stands is a corporate fundraising machine that doesn't speak to the needs of working people." (by Robert Reich)
Reich's article is accurately summarized by its explanatory sentence. Thus it can be read as an amplification of one aspect of the Bleifuss's piece (1).
3/ "After Trump's Win, Our Job Is More Clear Than Ever: Organize. People have mobilized to defeat authoritarians in Trump's mold before. Now it's up to us to fight like hell, together. (by Kate Aronoff)
Here are two paragraphs that summarize the tone of the article as a whole:
"Before November, progressives' task was to show that Trump has no place in American politics. Now, we have to grapple with the fact that he does.
"Both liberalism and the left have failed to mount a tangible response to the deep pain wrought by a neoliberal status quo. As many look to blame the electorate, it's worth remembering a few lessons from Brexit: Not all of the people who voted for it (or him) are hardened sexists and racists (though many are); a protest vote is not necessarily a vote for evil and many of the people paid to write about politics are deeply out of touch with most of the country."
4/ "Trump Won, But the Future Still Belongs to the Left Moving forward, step one is to support the communities of color, immigrants, Muslims and women who Trump's America threatens most." (by Leeann Hall & George Goehl)
This article gets a little more specific than do the previous ones. It has three major points, of which the third, which we reproduce in full, is the most interesting:
"First and foremost, we will stand with the communities of color, immigrants, Muslims and women who Trump has spent his campaign attacking so harshly.
"Second, we commit ourselves to unwavering resistance to Trump and his agenda... .
"Third, we commit ourselves to win back the hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters who have been distracted by a campaign of fear and hate. We need to listen to our brothers and sisters in communities across the country who feel left out and forgotten, and come together around our shared interests: building strong local economies where families flourish, protecting the land and water that nourishes us, and ensuring that the nation respects the equality and dignity of every human being."
5/ "Trump Won. 5 Things To Do Now. Here's a plan to take back the party that failed us." (by Michael Moore)
Moore's article presupposes that it is both possible and desirable for the Left to capture the Democratic Party, as though those currently in control of it will just slink home in shame. It feels like a shallow article, dashed off in a few minutes without sufficient thought. Here for example, is his final and (judging by its placement) his fifth and, apparently, clinching point: "You must say this sentence to everyone you meet today: 'HILLARY CLINTON WON THE POPULAR VOTE!' The MAJORITY of our fellow Americans preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Period. Fact. If you woke up this morning thinking you live in an effed-up country, you don't. The majority of your fellow Americans wanted Hillary, not Trump."
It actually wasn't a majority, but merely a plurality, if we take into account the votes for the other candidates. But, putting that aside, the difference between their vote tallies, as of November 13, appears to be under 700,000 votes out of almost 122 million votes cast: Clinton: 61.275.925; Trump: 60,586,111 (uselectionatlas.org). Percentagewise, that translates to Clinton: 47.55%, Trump: 47.01% (roughly a half a percent). That's not very substantial, certainly not enough to build a case for how progressive the American populace is (even assuming Clinton to be a progressive - something highly questionable).
6/ "Trump won because Democrats Have Lost Touch With the Working Class The Republican Nominee tapped into the anger, pain and fear that motivated voters this election." (by Marilyn Katz)
This article explicitly zeroes in on the pain felt by large segments of the working class, and concomitantly, on the ignoring of this pain by the Democratic candidate and establishment. Katz makes a sharp distinction between the Sanders positions and those of Clinton.
7/ "Don't Blame Voters of Color for Not Turning Out. Blame Voter Suppression and the Clinton Campaign. Liberals took people of color's votes for granted, while conservatives kept them from the polls." (by Marc Daalder)
The supporting sentence describing this article, sums it up.
8/ "Trump Won Because the Democratic Party Failed, Not Because the White Working Class Revolted. It's time to stop uselessly pouring energy into the black hole of the Democratic Party." (by Arun Gupta)
The title of this article neatly says it all. Gupta (somewhat) exonerates the working class, and pins the blame for the Trump victory on the Democratic hierarchy:
"[H]ow [did] Hillary Clinton and the entire Democratic establishment... lose to a woman-bashing, Mexican-deporting, Muslim-hating, white-supremacist-embracing charlatan?
"Simple. Trump captured the historical mood with his message of white nationalism and economic populism. Then he threaded an electoral college needle against an atrocious candidate. Clinton has a lead in the roughly 120 million votes cast for the two major-party candidates, while Trump essentially won with some 107,000 votes. That's his combined margin in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania."
9/ "It's Easy to Blame the Democratic Party for Trump - But Reality is More Complicated Thomas Frank and others lament that the party favored Clinton over Sanders, without asking why Democratic voters went along." (by Nancy Folbre)
Folbre creates a sophisticated and thoughtful analysis of the voting and concludes that there is no simple explanation for Hillary's defeat. Rather, she believes, there was a multiplicity of reasons, no one of which explains everything. Here are her final three paragraphs:
"We need to ask why these divisions [within the electorate] persist and how they might be overcome, even if the answers we find undermine preconceived notions of class solidarity: Many whites, for example, resent public policies that benefit low-income people of color. And many men don't like the prospect of taking orders from a successful older woman.
"The left wing of the Democratic Party, represented by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (among others), offers a small but crucial bulwark against the coming Republican onslaught.
"This bulwark needs help overcoming political divisions based not just on class but on race, ethnicity, citizenship and gender. It needs a strategy for political coalition-building that goes beyond mere contempt for establishment liberals."
10/ "What Trump's Victory Tells Us: The Culture Wars Continue, But There's a New 'Wedge' Trump used economics as a wedge issue in a novel way for the GOP, while submerging the old social issues." (by Theo Anderson)
Anderson's article, too, is summarized in his title and the explanatory subtitle.
11/ "Labor Leaders Deserve Their Share of the Blame for Donald Trumps Victory Leaders of organized labor rejected a wildly popular, diehard union-backing economic populist, thinking the centrist was the safe bet. She wasn't. Now, the working class will pay the price. (Micah Uetricht)
Uetricht's article focuses on the Democratic primaries and the fact that most of organized labor's officialdom colluded in preventing enthusiasm for Bernie from getting "out of hand." He believes, in retrospect, that
"[i]t will go down as one of the great ironies of American political history: faced with a moment of record inequality and searing economic pain, a deeply unpopular, wealthy demagogue told voters he understood their misery and would reverse it. To take him on, leaders of the organized working class opted for the candidate whose ties to Wall Street were far stronger than her support for labor and argued that things really weren't that bad out there."
My Own Thinking
1) It is foolhardy to move to activism without a well-thought-through process of deciding upon priorities. These decisions should be taken during wide-ranging discussion. I think that CounterPunch is a site well-situated to host such a discussion. (In fact, some of its recent articles already seem to be oriented in that direction.) So I call upon it to make one of its priorities the fostering of such a dialogue. For a useful discussion to take place, some considerations ought to include a) the relative importance of different issues and how they manifest themselves, both globally and locally, b) a careful analysis of the societal balance of forces related to these issues, c) the nature of the activism required for us to play an important role in the desired outcome and, d) how we would/will deal with the inevitable, possibly violent, response of our opponents. (I'm not suggesting that ongoing actions, such as the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline, should be discontinued. But, rather, that new campaigns should be well-thought-out.)
2) It is crucial for us to engage in an ongoing dialogue with those who were Trump supporters. Even given our legitimate criticism of their faults, it is imperative that we try to reach out to them to win them over to the extent this is possible. If they are racist, for instance, we still might be able to forge common ground on the basis of shared self-interest. This will, in all likelihood, become more and more pertinent as Trump's promises become generally recognized as unkeepable. I doubt it will be possible for us to eliminate racial prejudice, or misogyny, but we should not allow this to stand in our way. We cannot afford to puristically take the moral high ground; there is too much at stake. Furthermore, when we are actually working with people, they are more likely to reconsider a previously-held stance, than if we are merely talking at them. And what do we have to lose in making such good-faith attempts?
3) Even if some of us may want to continue on the electoral road, elections happen too infrequently for us to place too much emphasis on that process, certainly to the exclusion of other approaches. Moreover, coupling activist tactics with an electoral campaign can only strengthen the latter, since the activism establishes a positive context in which the electoral campaign would take place.
4) Finally, I must make a plea for us to devote more attention to climate change. Since this is an issue that confronts our very survival, all other issues, important though they may be, pale in significance to it. With a climate-change-denier sitting in the White House during the next four crucial years, it is imperative that we keep this topic on everyone's radar screen. If we don't do this, who will?
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