[Co-authored with tkgilbert]
The much anticipated RNC is over and the reviews are in. Reactions range from fear, to dismissal, to raw political calculation. Unfortunately absent is any attempt to actually understand and confront the political situation we’ve reached. This range of responses to an increasingly deranged conservative movement have become a habit on the left, a habit which has only served to reinforce destructive trends in our politics.
Let’s be clear. Donald Trump is a blatantly racist, sexist, narcissistic demagogue whose election would arguably be a threat to civilization itself. Fear, denial, and dismissal are psychologically reasonable reactions to his rise. Satire and a bit of levity would be healthier options. But none of this is sufficient as a political response.
Nate Silver outlined two options for Clinton: either accept Trump’s framing and paint him as unfit to lead us in chaotic times, or ignore/dismiss it and count on beating Trump by turning out the Obama coalition. Either of these tactics might work to beat Trump the man and win the battle in November, neither is a political strategy for winning the war against Trumpism in the long run.
Trump’s rise is fueled in part by a denial of 21st century realities: pluralism, globalism, rapid economic and cultural change. Dismissal is the appropriate response here, as these are realities we must live with whether we like them or not (and both the left and the right have reasons to celebrate or reject these developments).
But it’s also fueled by shortcomings in the way progressives and liberal elites have responded to these changes. The left has embraced cultural pluralism without making room at the table for the white working class. It’s delivered economic prosperity, peace, and cultural progress without political empowerment or real economic opportunity.
And deliverance is the operative word here: the left is still locked into a semi-messianic notion of economic and political “deliverance.” The path to prosperity should really be a thoroughly collective enterprise.
We can attack Trump as incompetent or psychologically unfit to lead. But you don’t have to believe Trump is capable of solving our problems to support him, you just have to think he’s capable of “disrupting” or destroying a political system which has been paralyzed, which places emphasis on political correctness over problem solving, which is beholden to special interests. Trump has already proven he can do these things by defeating the Republican establishment. This is the only way to explain some bizarre but real sources of Trump support.
We can attack the picture Trump paints of America as factually unsound and overly pessimistic. But you don’t have to live in fear of being murdered by illegal immigrants to believe they’re making your life harder or drowning out your voice. You don’t have to believe the President was born in Kenya to feel alienated from a new cultural majority which seems to be planning a future for your country that does not include you.
Progressives are on the right side of history. But we need to find a way of welcoming the white working class into our 21st century vision of a pluralistic society. We need to deliver political empowerment alongside our legislative and legal accomplishments. We need to acknowledge that although the Obama administration has represented a huge leap forward compared with the America of 2008, his original goal of forging a new kind of politics remains entirely unrealized.
That won’t be easy, but there is historical precedent. During The Progressive Era a century ago we confronted a rapidly changing country marked by economic inequality and the suppression of issues of racial equality. We achieved a complete transformation of our civil society: women’s suffrage, direct election of senators, the introduction of political primaries and the defeat of big city political machines, mass expansion of secondary education, trust-busting economic policy, muckraking journalism. We massively widened the political field to include all sorts of people who were empowered in ways that were previously unimaginable. There’s good reason to believe a similar transformation could be achieved today. For example, smart phone users have become the new muckrakers.
When liberals react in fear to the conservative movement they forfeit any possibility of a proactive response. When any of us dismiss our political opposition we feed the very alienation that’s led to Trump. When elites succumb to tactical political calculation they reinforce the suffocating political system that has left people hopeless and spiteful.
As progressives (and as Americans more generally), we’re obligated to view politics as dynamic and inclusive. To quote the senator from Batman vs. Superman, “In a democracy, good is a conversation.” We should demand that any conversation be fact based. We should demand it respect democratic norms. But it also must involve an actual effort to understand legitimate grievances even when they are expressed dysfunctionally, and to address them.