The election of Donald Trump is undoubtedly a disaster for the global left. Left of centre parties find themselves in opposition across the west. In the UK, Europe, Australia and now the USA, reactionary governments have responded to the twenty first century crisis in capitalism with austerity and xenophobia. Division and uncertainty reign supreme. Trump read the mood of more of the voters than Clinton did. If you still find yourself unable to understand how he won, watch his final advertisement of the election:
When I first watched that ad, I was shocked at how radical it sounded. I remarked to a friend that if I didn’t know anything else about Trump then this ad might even convince me to vote for him. He sounded like Lenin, I told my friend. He calls on voters to bring down the “political establishment” who have conspired against the working class for generations. Indeed Steve Bannon, the chief executive of the Trump campaign, reportedly once told a journalist that he himself was a “Leninist” because he wanted to “destroy the state”. Of course we already know that Trump’s transition team is full of Washington and corporate insiders who aren’t likely to destroy the capitalist state at all. Yet his campaign, albeit controversial, captured the imaginations of millions. Such is the anger in the US, they are willing to try anything. And it will be to the eternal shame of the American left that they did not manage to channel this widespread fury towards creating a better world – towards socialism. However this shame should not stupefy. The only acceptable response, as millions of young protesters have already realised, is to act. What action specifically is required? As Lenin famously asked, what is to be done?
The answers to this question should be based on analysis of recent events and it is here that I first turn.
Following the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to transform the economic and political reality of the United States by cobbling together a broad electoral alliance of voting groups known as the New Deal Coalition. Ethnic and religious minorities, white working class (in particular union members) and liberal minded college educated urban dwellers were brought together by the promise of a big government that will interfere with the free market where necessary to create more prosperity and, crucially, (as we say in Australia) more fairness. Ever since, the Democratic Party has sought to gain power by emulating such a coalition. Such a broad coalition was always shaky, especially after the cultural shifts of the fifties and sixties. It was hardly ever sustainable to simultaneously court the votes of feminist women and anti-feminist Catholic working class. It was hardly ever sustainable to simultaneously court the votes of African Americans and racially suspicious uneducated whites. The underlying tension of the left in the US, as in the rest of the world, was identity politics vs class politics. The issue in question: which should take priority – Racial equality? Gender equality? Sexual preference equality? Or is it wealth and income equality?
Despite the difficulties, Obama managed to cobble it all together for two impressive victories. As the first major African American Presidential Candidate he inspired record numbers of African Americans to turn out and vote. He inspired young people. A majority of women could be counted upon. Hispanics clearly split for Obama. The LGBTI community overwhelmingly went for him. Liberals in the cities admired his intellectualism and oratory. There were challenges as the first Black President of course. He had even less chance than other modern Democrat Presidents of emulating the support that Roosevelt had in the South among whites. The narrative became that he didn’t need them. Indeed the narrative became that Democrats didn’t need whites to win. For the last few years, more non-white babies have been born in the US than white babies. The changing demographic of America meant that a racist Republican could never be elected. And so identity politics won out within the Obama coalition. It was a winning formula…
How could they get it all so wrong? Well first of all, it wasn’t the full story. The conventional wisdom left out a key Obama coalition group. This NYT analysis suggests that most voting data grossly underestimates how reliant Obama was on the white working class. In fact one third of all the people who voted for Barack Obama were white people without a college degree. Very few of these Obama voting uneducated white folks lived in the South. But following the 2008 economic crash and the Bush Recession, white people in the “rust-belt” and “wheat-belt” who didn’t allow racial prejudice to determine their vote fled the Republican Party in droves. And they largely stuck with Obama the full 8 years. Yes, when you look at the numbers broadly the economy is on the up. Yet of the 11.6 million jobs created after the economy started growing again, 8.4 million went to those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher. The life expectancy of literally every other demographic group in the world is going up, except white middle aged Americans. They are killing themselves with obesity and suicide. This is a depressed group. This key element of the Obama coalition were still waiting for that hope and change in 2016. According to the New York Times exit poll, voters who wanted a leader to bring about change voted for Trump 83 percent to Clinton’s 14 percent.
Trump deliberately smashed the shaky coalition in a way that conventional Democratic wisdom believed impossible. He spoke incessantly about manufacturing job losses which were exacerbated by (Bill) Clinton’s trade deals. The same jobs that those formerly Obama voting rust-belt whites used to have. Trump also attacked the coalition with old fashioned dog whistling and wedge politics. He took full advantage of the fact that the Democrats had embraced identity over class and sought to remind more-traditionally minded white voters of any racial or gender prejudices they may have. If they could embrace their inner racist or sexist then they would find it even more difficult to embrace the Democratic Party. What’s more, the id-pol obsessed Clinton Democrats would find it even more distasteful to try and appeal to them.
The real magic of the Trump campaign – the really baffling thing – is that he actually managed to improve the number of ethnic minorities that voted Republican. According to the NYT exit poll he improved upon Mitt Romney’s share of the African American vote by seven percent. Despite all his rhetoric around Mexicans stealing jobs and raping people, he actually improved upon Mitt Romney’s share of the Latino vote by eight percent. The ironic thing is that when identity politics is devoid of class analysis, a discussion of race and gender can only focus on how the elites experience racism and sexism. Meaning the identity concerns of the modern Democratic Party (which sometimes seem to basically end at the symbolism of getting African Americans and Women elected to high office) are not necessarily shared by the African American and female base of the party.
Earlier this year when I went to Harlem I noted the Obama murals painted on nearly every block. Having a black President must be truly inspiring for the black community. Yet there were still lots of homeless people in Harlem. And African American unemployment today is twice that of white people.
Women generally viewed Trump unfavourably and it meant so much to so many women to see a woman elected. Yet Clinton only beat Trump with women voters by one point more than Obama beat Romney. And when it comes to white women, a majority actually voted for Trump.
When less well-off minority and discriminated groups looked at their own intersecting social identities and their related systems of oppression, enough of them chose their class interests over their gender or racial interests to swing the election. What should really worry the left is that these people came to the conclusion that the Republican Party is the best party to look after their class concerns. Here, we can find the source of the left’s tragic but necessary shame. The shame that must spur us to action.
To be continued in Part 2