The left have a serious problem if increasing numbers of voters are switching their vote from Democrat to Republican because of class issues. Trump managed to channel class-based fury in a way that Democrats haven’t in a very long time. The number of voters earning under $50,000 who voted Republican went up by a whopping twenty two percent compared to 2012 according to the NYT exit poll. Contrastingly, people earning between 100,000 and 200,000 broke for Democrats by nine percent more than they did four years ago. According to a CNN analysis, over half of all union members in the key state of Ohio voted for Trump. This is an alarming trend. The Democratic Party, if it is to have any left wing credibility at all, must be the party of the poor and working class.
The great socialist historian Howard Zinn argues persuasively that the Democratic Party has never been a worker’s party. Unlike the British and Australian Labor parties who have historic links to the trade union movement, the Democratic Party was always a party of elites. Unionised workers only ever comprised one small part of their coalition. Zinn quotes fellow historian Richard Hofstadter when he says that both major American parties are “bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise… they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man.” Of course as the pendulum swings between the parties there is tinkering around the edges. And that tinkering is not inconsequential; “tinkering” such as Obamacare brought health insurance to twenty million people. Yet if the Democratic side of the pendulum has never been firmly attached to class concerns, it is even less so nowadays. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party generally must fess up to this terrible truth if they are to rectify the laughable notion of ‘Trump, the worker’s hero’.
French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou argues that political philosophy should provide “logical revolt”. Trump is all revolt (indeed revolting) and little logic. Yet it seems to me like the left have gone too far the other way of late. Too much logic, not enough revolt. American liberals, like much of the international mainstream left these days, are a timid bunch. They’re reasonable and rational, not angry. Clinton’s campaign focussed on her relative experience and competence. Extensive government experience may not have been the best marketing ploy in an election cycle where, according to one poll, 83 percent of likely voters agreed that the government is corrupt. Yet Democrats took pride in their management of this system. Bill Clinton took pride in the fact that he eliminated the deficit and repealed Glass-Steagall. Obama took pride in the fact that the stock market rose 120% over the course of his Presidency. The managerial left beat the neo-liberals at their own game and bragged about it. Obama did some great tinkering, but the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal proved that he still sees the world from a free-market lens. Trump is no doubt an uber-capitalist, but he has sworn to tear up the TPP and has given up on this neo-liberal debt and deficit obsession. In his victory speech he seemed to promise massive government spending on infrastructure to stimulate growth. On this he is closer to Franklin Roosevelt than either of Clintons are.
The issue with the above Democratic “achievements” is that, if they’re not destructive to the working class, at the very least they do nothing for them. A thriving stock market is, above all, good for the bosses’ bonus. With record levels of wealth and income inequality in the US, the majority of Americans feel that the American Dream – the idea that if they work hard they can climb up the social ladder – has become unattainable. They feel like they’ve been lied to.
They have. Thomas Piketty, author of the 2013 best-seller Capital in the Twenty First Century, shows with academic precision that in an increasingly low growth economy, where most of the growth goes to the top one percent, inherited wealth becomes even more valuable. If your family is not well-off, you will find it hard to ever buy a house. If you’re not born into the top one percent, you’ll find it very unlikely that you’ll ever make it in there. This makes people angry and it should. Especially when you combine these facts with the massive influence of money in politics in the US, it is easy to see why Bernie Sanders has described America as an oligarchy. And so the people must revolt. To save democracy. And the left should lead them. As Lenin well knew, rebellion without leadership will chaotically implode or fizzle and die.
The timid left who grew up during the Cold War could never imagine a leftist class based revolt in the United States. And so they focussed on identity politics, movements that had more luck. But there is a strong history of class based radicalism in America that has been wiped from the history books. Few Americans know that Eugene Debs, a Socialist Party Presidential Candidate and hero to Bernie Sanders, received 6 percent of the vote in 1912 with no media coverage and while he was in jail on a false charge. Few know that the International Workers of the World (IWW) used to have shoot outs in the streets with state troopers. Few know that around the time of the Russian Revolution, ten thousand socialists stood outside Grand Central Station singing the Internationale until they were fired upon by the police. Few know the lengths that the American capitalist machine has gone to in order to crush socialist revolt. Violence and incarceration met very many of those who pushed back too far. Yet they continued to push.
The Democrats should embrace this radical spirit. It is, after all, the spirit of the times. The good news of the 2016 election is that a majority seem ready to revolt. The left needs to focus now on turning it into a logical revolt. And it is possible. Large groups turned to Trump in this election cycle, but we have hardly lost the debate. Only 26 percent of eligible voters voted for Trump. Around 27 percent voted for Clinton, though they were far too heavily concentrated on the liberal coasts. Over 44 percent did not vote at all. There is a lot of room to build a winning coalition. But the mid-term elections are only two years away. How can the left win again and win meaningfully? What is to be done?
- Solidarity forever.
Firstly, the left must stick together. Following Trump’s win, an outbreak of blame has infected the left. I’ve seen people on the left blame feminists for fawning over Hillary and ignoring her flaws, I’ve seen feminists blame the misogynist working class. I’ve seen “Bernie Bros” and “Brogressives” wear the blame for not embracing Clinton. I’ve heard the blame levelled at white people for buying Trump’s racism and I’ve heard the blame levelled at ethnic minorities for not focussing on white people enough. These fractures merely help Trump smash the Democratic coalition further. Divided we fall. Unity is the key to re-building.
When I criticise the modern Democrats for relying on identity politics, I do not mean identity politics is unimportant. I criticise the Clinton campaign, and the Democratic Party more broadly, for focusing on identity politics devoid of class. Both are important. Not only for coalition building but because both are intertwined ways of assisting to emancipate the most oppressed and unprivileged groups in society. Wealth and income inequality makes racism and sexism worse. When working class people are feeling particularly desperate, when they are made to compete against each other for jobs and the dignity of a stable future, it is unsurprising that the bonds of solidarity are weakened. We are suspicious of our competitors. Competition is promoted as a virtue by the capitalist class.
Engels argued in his The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State that patriarchy developed with capitalism. Howard Zinn argues that racism is not a natural human trait but, again, a result of competition fostered by capitalism. Whether or not they are entirely right is academic, it does seem true though that identity politics must have some grounding in class.
At the same time, socialists cannot ignore identity politics. Sexism, racism and homophobia make class inequalities worse. People with non-Anglo Saxon sounding names will far more often than others have their resume thrown in the bin even if they are qualified, educated and full of cultural capital. Having a womb is basically seen as a “pre-existing condition” by health insurance providers who will charge more accordingly. LGBTI people are far more likely to be bullied and suffer mental health issues that will prevent them from establishing a career. The list could go on for hours.
The leaders of the left must explain and repeat again and again that class and identity are two sides of the same socialist coin. Education, leadership and solidarity can re-build the winning coalition and eliminate the tension that has existed in the modern left for years.
- Radical opposition.
When Trump visited the White House as part of his transition into the Presidency, Obama told him “we want to do everything we can to help you succeed, because if you succeed, we all succeed.” Hopefully that was bullshit. A “smooth and peaceful” transition of power may be a hallmark of American liberal democracy, but American liberal democracy isn’t exactly working very well right now. Indeed it was always founded upon inherently conservative principles. The American left needs to recall the old union slogan – “no justice, no peace”.
Republicans obstructionism managed to scuttle much of the left’s agenda over the last 6 years and in the process they also managed to set themselves up as the anti-establishment party. They even went to such unconventional lengths as refusing to hold a vote to replace a dead Supreme Court Justice. Democrats should remember this. When trump inevitably betrays the working class, to whom he promised so much, Democrats must go to any lengths they can to oppose. And the opposition shouldn’t just be in the Congress. It should be in the streets. In the union halls. In the schools and Universities. The left must organise.
There are already good signs. Protests continue outside of Trump Tower. Bernie Sanders and his fellow class-warrior Elizabeth Warren have today both been appointed to leadership positions within the Democratic Party. They have both pledged to be Trump’s “worst nightmare”. Keith Elison, a Sanders supporter and the first ever Muslim member of Congress, is favourite to become chair of the Democratic National Committee. He has pledged that his focus will be on grassroots activism.
- Policy ambition.
Trump’s victory shows that anything is possible in politics. But it won’t happen if you don’t aim for it. The mainstream left has been too modest in their aims in recent decades. Hillary Clinton red-baiting Sanders during the Democratic primary for arguing for universal public healthcare was a cringe worthy example of this. ‘It wasn’t realistic’ she said. Well they said a Trump Presidency wasn’t realistic. They said Brexit wasn’t realistic. At least the right wingers are crazy enough to try. No one said it would be easy. Universal healthcare wasn’t easy to achieve in Australia. It took years of union campaigning. Whitlam managed to bring it in but only after a double dissolution and a historic joint sitting of parliament. Then Fraser repealed it. Hawke brought it back in again despite being viciously opposed by the Libs and the doctors. We got there in the end. And so has every other western nation.
The left need to fundamentally challenge neo-liberal capitalism. Challenge the thinking that the American Dream is possible without a strong welfare state. Challenge the idea that individual effort and talent determines one’s lot in life rather than economic, social and political factors largely beyond one’s control. Challenge the idea that you can have prosperity without equality. And, yes, challenge the arcane existence of the Electoral College. Challenge the massive gerrymandering that has undemocratically entrenched a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Challenge the ridiculous first-past-the-post system of voting. Challenge the idea that ex-convicts should be stripped of their voting rights. Challenge the idea that residents of Puerto Rico and Guam cannot vote despite living in American territory. We need a bold, broad and regular message shouted from every op-ed, every speech, every pamphlet and every door-step.
Trump’s victory symbolises the fact that people know in their bones that capitalism isn’t serving them. They are looking for new ideas. There is an ideas vacuum that can and must be filled. The ideas should be logical, yes, but they should also encourage revolt. The old world is melting away, the new world has not yet been established. Let’s not allow Trump to establish it.
Elliot Brice is a Melbourne based secondary school teacher with an Honours degree in Philosophy.