The American Left Must Rise Again, Because We Need It More Than Ever

The election defeat was a disaster for Democrats — but it provides an opportunity for a rebirth of the American left.

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a piece that began as follows: “Barring an act of god, a monumental balls-up on the part of Hillary Clinton, or *ahem* a RIGGED ELECTION, Donald Trump will not win the presidency in two weeks’ time.” None of those things happened, and Donald Trump won anyway. I was wrong. We all were.

Well, not all of us. Back in July, Michael Moore wrote an essay for his own website, setting out a list of five reasons why Trump was going to win the election. At the time, I ignored it, because I’ve never been a huge Moore fan, and because it seemed what he was saying was so at odds with reality. Four months later, it looks startlingly prescient.

And so, a week later, here we are: Donald Trump is moving into the White House (in the sort of hilariously inept fashion one might expect), and we’re stuck with the consequences of the decision the electorate made last Tuesday for the next four years.

The first question to answer, and perhaps the most important one, is where the Democratic Party goes from here. In the run-up to the election, conventional wisdom was the the Republican Party was a busted flush. In its years of flirtation with the extreme right, the argument went, the GOP had abandoned the center. Even moderate Republicans were considering voting for Hillary Clinton, a centrist candidate who was ready to welcome those alienated by Trump’s flirtation with extremism. The GOP’s sole remaining support base was angry white men, and that base was insufficient to win an election. When it looked like Trump was going to lose, it was easy to argue that the GOP had become marginalized because of the Democrats’ slow shift rightwards over the last 30 or 40 years — because there just aren’t enough far right voters to propel a candidate to the presidency.

Sadly Tuesday’s result proved that there are enough far-right voters to elect a candidate like Trump — or, perhaps more accurately, there are enough pissed off people in America to vote for someone as far right as Trump is, even if his views aren’t representative of their own. And some of those people, galling as it is, come from the traditional support base of the left. There are people who voted for Trump — or, perhaps more significantly, failed to vote against him — because no other candidate better represented their frustrations and resentment at capitalism. I’ve written before about the cosmic irony of the fact that it’s a hypercapitalist harnessing the frustrations of the working and middle classes toward capitalism, but ironic or not, it’s the reality. And the fact that this is our reality represents a colossal failure on the part of the Democratic Party.

In moving toward the center, the Democrats have abandoned the left. They’ve taken for granted the working class voters that represent their traditional voting base, even as they’ve embraced economic policy that has destroyed many of those people’s livelihoods. It was this key insight that I find myself returning to in Moore’s piece — that many of the people who voted for Trump on Tuesday are those who might once have voted for the Democrats, and might well have still done so on Tuesday had the Democrats fielded a candidate, or run a campaign, that spoke to them. In Moore’s words, these people are:

The carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room.

These people — the people left standing on the platform as the runaway train of capitalism rockets past them — are exactly the sort of people to whom the left should be speaking. They are the people to whom Bernie Sanders spoke so effectively. I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Democratic nomination process was somehow rigged, but even the most ardent Clinton supporter will admit, I think, that from day one, it was very, very obvious that she was the DNC’s preferred candidate. The fact that Sanders appealed to so many people that Clinton did not should perhaps have given the Democratic Party pause for thought, but it didn’t, because the idea of Trump winning seemed so inconceivable that the disillusionment of Sanders supporters seemed like a triviality.

It wasn’t, and the fact that the DNC missed this demonstrates how removed the Democrats are from the electorate. In fact, the Democrats aren’t really a left-wing party by any traditional, objective metric these days. In a pluralistic democracy, today’s Democrats would sit somewhere in the center; socially center-left, economically more toward the center-right. In the latter case, the GOP’s vision of endless tax cuts for the rich contrasts sharply with the Democrats’ radical ideas of (gasp) actually using tax money to pay for things — but the underlying model is the same, viz. free market capitalism.

Naomi Klein suggested last week in the Guardian that “It was Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump,” and while I’m not sure that there’s any single defining factor that can be circled as “The Reason” that Clinton lost, I think Klein is correct when she writes, “A good chunk of Trump’s support could be peeled away if there were a genuine redistributive agenda on the table.” And perhaps even more significantly, there are the voters who would have voted Sanders, or anyone else pushing a genuinely leftist agenda — and this doesn’t include the homeopathic leftism of Jill Stein, whose economic policy basically amounts to a white person with dreadlocks holding a sign that says “Free Hugs” — but instead stayed home.

In moving toward the center, the Democrats have abandoned the left. They’ve taken for granted the working class voters that represent their traditional voting base, even as they’ve embraced economic policy that has destroyed many of those people’s livelihoods.

The result of this election is a disaster for the Democrats, but perversely enough, it’s an opportunity for the left. The arrival of a Republican in the White House means that the Republican Party can no longer sit on the sidelines, being obstructive on the one hand and making insane promises about what they’d do if they were in power on the other. They are in power. The time has come to deliver on those promises — which, of course, they won’t be able to do. As Garrison Keillor wrote in the Washington Post last week, “The uneducated white males who elected him are the vulnerable ones, and they will not like what happens next.” For instance, the Donald isn’t going to build his stupid fucking wall, because of course he isn’t: building a wall that stretches for 2000 miles across desert and badlands and god knows what else would cost a fortune, and no-one wants to pay for it.

In 2020, after four years of Trump doing god knows what, we’ll be left with the same angry mob who rallied to his cause at this election. (Assuming, that is, that he hasn’t managed to burn the entire country to the ground in the meantime.) If we can learn anything from this election, it should be not to treat this mob as monolithic. Sure, there are many people who voted for Trump because they always vote Republican, come hell or high water. There are others who voted for him because they really are contemptible racists, yearning for a white supremacist utopia that never existed and will never exist. These are people to whom the left will never speak and,  to whom it should make no effort to speak. These are people who spraypaint swastikas onto burned churches, or abuse Jewish journalists on Twitter, or who speak proudly of all the pussies they’re going to grab now their man is in power. These are people who deserve nothing but contempt.

But nearly 60m people voted for Donald Trump. In doing so, every single one of them chose to ignore the safety of the groups Trump threatened, which is deplorable, and every Trump voter will have to shoulder the responsibility for the consequences of their vote. Nevertheless, amongst this group are those whose choice to vote Trump came less from racism and more from disenchantment with American politics, from the fact that there really is no-one who represents their views and their interests. So while we can’t in any way condone the implicit or active racism of Trump voters, we can build a more meaningful alternative for those whose vote, as Michael Moore said, was a “molotov cocktail.”

Sanders issued a statement after the election that, amongst other things, noted, “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.” He’s right, and the problem the Democrats have is that they’re part of that perceived “Establishment.” The most important question they need to answer in the aftermath of this election is how to prove to voters that this isn’t the case — that they can offer genuine change. Voters are clearly receptive to such a message: they voted for Barack Obama in huge numbers in 2008 for this very reason.

At this point, the Democrats have two options. The first is to stay put, hope that Trump’s presidency doesn’t do too much damage to the country, continue as a centrist party that doesn’t really stand for anything, and cross their fingers that a charismatic figure — Michelle Obama? — can oust Trump in four years’ time. The second is to plant a flag in the ground and proclaim that they have an ideology to promote, one that isn’t simply “We’re not the GOP.” They can reject the GOP’s top-down model once and for all, adopting policies that aim squarely at redistributing wealth and helping people live a decent life. They can reject the GOP’s insistence on a market-driven healthcare model, instead pushing for the sort of state-funded social healthcare that exists in pretty much every other first-world country.

A crushing defeat like this offers an opportunity for rebirth. The Democrats, frankly, have nothing to lose: they were just defeated by Donald fucking Trump, despite fielding a candidate who was orders of magnitude more qualified and more competent than him.

Ever since the 1950s, it’s been a truism in American politics that socialism — or anything that looked or sounded even remotely like socialism — was political suicide. This may well have been true in the McCarthy era, but even then, it was because espousing socialistic policies could well have constituted actual suicide, not because they didn’t resonate with voters. Sanders has proved that socialist policies continue to appeal to voters, and the changing nature of the electorate — with older voters dying off and millennials voting in droves — means that the word “socialism” doesn’t carry the stigma it once did. This means that the left will only be more important in the decades to come. In the boom years of the ’80s, when capitalism seemed to represent the end of history, a status quo that was the final stage of political evolution, leftism seemed decidedly old-fashioned — who needed stuffy old Karl Marx when everyone was making money hand over fist, when we could all have the big TV and the house in the suburbs and as much excellent Colombian cocaine as we wanted?

But the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath laid bare the failings of capitalism, and those failings will only become more prominent now. Capitalism is predicated on the idea that everybody works to earn wages to buy products that somebody else works to make, thus generating income for the producers, who then buy products that somebody works to make. But with manufacturing jobs being automated out of existence and/or outsourced overseas, the engine isn’t running smoothly any more; eventually, it will sputter and cough its way to a halt.

As this reality approaches, despair at capitalism, at the status quo, at both parties, is growing. The reasons for that despair are exactly those that progressives should be addressing. A crushing defeat like this offers an opportunity for rebirth. The Democrats, frankly, have nothing to lose: they were just defeated by Donald fucking Trump, despite fielding a candidate who was orders of magnitude more qualified and more competent than him. As galling as it is, this election represents a crushing defeat for the model of the Democratic Party that Barack Obama basically managed to keep alive via sheer charisma: that of a party that isn’t so different to its opponents, but less objectionable. For too long, the Democrats have defined themselves by reference to the Republicans; even in this campaign, we constantly saw Clinton reaching rightwards when challenged, trying to court Trump voters who were never going to embrace her.

If anything, this election represents — or should represent — the end of third-way politics. The American electorate has demonstrated very clearly that it’s not interested in compromise. The blame for this can be placed at the door of the GOP — eight years of obfuscation and obstruction have worked a treat, convincing voters that Washington is full of impotent suits who stand for nothing and get nothing done. But regardless of the the reason, this is the reality in which we operate, and for the left to thrive, it has to stand for something, not just against something. The time to start doing so is now.