I’ve decided that for me, this is a time to leave nothing potentially useful unexposed, and to stop hiding behind liberalism. I mean, if this election showed us anything, liberalism is no longer the shield it used to be in the war against the political right wing. So, I figure, why bother lugging it around?
In that spirit, here’s something that started out as an email discussion with a few progressive grassroots political leaders in the Northwest. I wrote it in a few minutes completely on the fly before taking a couple of hours to clean it up and flesh it out a little, slap a picture on it, and apply some tags and links, so please excuse the meandering looseness, lack of analytical specificity, and specific action items, etc.
This is just a conversation starter, but speed is a virtue right now so…
I think what this election showed us is that we were way too far behind the wave; too far to catch up, I’m afraid. Usually, you can pretty much predict election outcomes based on polling data and by comparing the relative strengths of the campaigns. Clinton had a national field program, more money for advertising and better marketing consultants, and a stronger resume to go with her stronger polling numbers. But, all of that only matters if you’re not facing a wave. All politics start out at a cultural level. Trump was way, way better at playing the cultural game. He was riding the cultural zeitgeist while Clinton tried to build a wall of doubt against it.
We need to play defense now, but I think we have got to start to also, equally, play the long game, and figuring that out should begin with an assessment that looks as much at cultural currents as at politics.
We need to play defense now, but I think we have got to start to also, equally, play the long game, and figuring that out should begin with an assessment that looks as much at cultural currents as at politics.
The Long Game
The next major wave of change is displacement – physical, cultural, economic. This election was, as a brilliant friend came up with at a meeting I attended recently, “the ghost of Christmas future.” That future promises 50-60% unemployment resulting from game-changing innovations in automation among other waves of expulsion and displacement affecting us broadly at a number of levels. Cultural displacement is one result, and whites are reacting to that, too, as other waves of displacement are driving racial demographic change in the U.S.
We need to position ourselves to carefully ride this next wave and carry our folks to safety, and while also spending time dealing with the destruction and problems associated with the one we missed. It’s a heavy lift.
Ever since the immediate post-Civil Rights era, voters of color have polled more optimistic than white voters, especially lower middle and working class white voters. There’s some generational change around this in communities of color, but it remains generally true. Now, white pessimism is literally killing white folk and it isn’t exactly lifting the rest of us up, either.
The pessimism of white voters has grown in sync with their rejection of liberalism. We can call it racism if we like and we’d be right. This is, after all, a response toproducerism, which is a racist construct, but we also have to recognize that the rejection is complicated. Producerism is basically that idea that society is made up of makers and takers, and the takers are Reagan’s welfare queens, Newt Gingrich’s entitlement junkies, etc., who are, in what amounts to an anti-Semitic meme, being bought off by elites in a conspiracy against real, hard working (white Christian) Americans. There’s more to this, but that’s enough for now.P olitical Research Associates is a good source of a more detailed explanation.
People of color, on the other hand, are pragmatic liberal voters, as indicated by the percentages of people of color who voted for Clinton. For us, liberalism is a shield. It’s not an answer, and liberalism has never offered satisfying solution to working class people because, obviously, liberalism is the ideology of capitalism which, in it’s U.S. manifestation, has been and is now both a system of racial exploitation and pretty f#*king unkind to workers of all colors, and worse to the unemployed, which at a certain level of unemployment are considered expendable (prison is a form of disguised unemployment).
But, people of color tend to choose liberalism, even when individual solutions don’t really work to rectify historical problems suffered by people defined by history as groups, because the political climate is so hostile. In such a climate, any shield will do.
The terrible state of the Black community below the poverty line, which will be much worse as we look toward the next big wave I described, is why, I think, younger Black people seem to be falling out of love with the old civil rights leadership and with liberalism, too. The fact that it isn’t an answer for the poor is becoming super obvious. Remember, liberalism is what lopped jobs off the Civil Rights Movement agenda, with predictable results. When a group that is being racially exploited wins the right to racial integration of the most superficial kind without the right to economic integration, civil rights exclusion becomes an excuse to go looking for workers elsewhere.
We need to start to think about race as class and class as raced. No more race versus class debates on the Left. The future depends on it.
A good way into understanding this pragmatism among people of color in the U.S. is to look at Dutch Turks. A Dutch friend of mine pointed out that Turks in Holland are a big part of the migrant worker class. Turkey doesn’t release people from citizenship so they become dual citizens of Turkey and Holland when you migrate to The Netherlands. Dutch Turks participate in both Turkish and Dutch elections. In Turkey, they vote conservative. In Holland, they vote liberal. In other words, in Turkey they vote with their hearts, but in Holland they vote with their heads. People of color in the U.S. are a lot like this. And lots of Asians and Latinos in particular are culturally conservative even if they are pragmatically liberal. If we don’t offer them an alternative, we are going to lose their loyalty. More incentive to think post-liberally.
The contradiction of white pessimism and people of color optimism is articulated through the kind of Nativism and white nationalism we are facing. The capsule account of their vision of America is “the original construction and intent of the Constitution.” Amendment 13 (abolition) isn’t part of that construction.
Donald Trump is very likely to play the Nativist populist, doing what he can to wield policy wedges that split the Black vote in order to go after immigrants, and promote anti-Black rage in order to split Asians and Latinos. Basically, he may, likely will, deploy a “some of my best friends are Black” strategy to both split our side and provide a rhetorical shield against accusations of racism. And this will be vividly legible at a cultural level to whites among whom an increasingly large share view themselves as equally or more discriminated against than people of color, while having that perceived discrimination ignored and minimized, while the perception itself is vilified.
We’ve not exactly been meeting people where they’re at on race when it comes to white voters and they’re predictably pissed about it. We need white folks organizing white folks against racism, and not while leading with “privilege” as the primary problem. Leading with privilege as a problem only breeds guilt or rage, and it also promotes individualist responses to race, including what folks are calling a hurtful “call out culture” of anti-racism among whites.
You can’t organize people by first hurting their feelings. Nuf said.
Just going after Trump on how unrealistic many of his promises are is not going to work. We also have to keep in mind that what got him elected isn’t sensible policies or comparisons of the competing policy agendas of Trump and Clinton. What made Trump legible and compelling to white voters was cultural. He played that game really well and it paid off at a time when the culture is rapidly changing.
Both Democratic and Republican proposals for fixing the broken economy are unsatisfying now and will fail to meet the test of the very near future. I mean, how is providing greater access to education supposed to help lift up the next generation if they will come of age at a time when the economy is shedding jobs at a rate faster than ever in our history? It would be better or at least as important for education to prepare kids to be good citizens and think socially and responsibility about one another as human beings and not just workers. Then, at least, we might be able to build a consensus that being unemployed is not a just cause to make people totally expendable.
We should apply this same logic to jobs programs that provide jobs that will soon be obsolete. We shouldn’t just say no to those programs. Those jobs are a good band aid, but a band aid is just what they are.
To make this sensible and accessible to people, I think we need to engage our folks in a discussion of a new social contract (that centers race and class, gender and religious pluralism achieved by reaching for real equity and not just bean counting). This is a proposal that was made by a leading global technologist who attended one of the labs convened by ChangeLab in response to the automation revolution referenced here.
And, since I’m no longer trying to act as a radical in liberal clothing anymore, I’m not mincing words. I think we also have to recognize that authoritarianism is an impulse that spans the political spectrum left to right. That’s what weaponizes “political correctness.”
There are plenty of bullies on the Left and the Right. This is one instance in which moral equivalencies between similarly calibrated acts of bullying as social censorship actually work, and in this case work against us.
We need to guard against real authoritarianism, which becomes more likely when people perceive themselves to be in an emergency, and the tendency toward authoritarianism expressed in everything from hate crimes laws to shaming campaigns on college campuses. The real game, in the end, is always about the people we will become through manner in which we engage in political struggle. If we win but become so hardened in the process that we can’t negotiate with our opponents, well, welcome to Stalin’s Russia.
The other impulse that spans the right to left political spectrum and tends to cross the color line is racial essentialism. Racial essentialism is in effect when we view the distinctions between politically constructed racial groupings as natural and not synthetic. The things that make racial groups distinct are historical effects originating from racial categorization, a political act undertaken for the sake of creating hierarchies of power, not a cultural or natural process essential to human beings. Racial essentialism naturalizes race, making it a noun rather than a verb, a thing that just is, rather than something that was and is being done. Racial essentialism is absolutely not our friend and to be avoided.
Among people of color, racial essentialism is expressed as anti-racist reductionism. Reductionism is when we analyze complex things in simplistic terms. A good example is when people say of stuff that happens like this election result, “the Trump win isn’t just about race.” Yeah, well, nothing is ever just about race. This from a Facebook post of mine:
Slavery wasn’t just about race, it was also about privilege and profit, liberty, freedom, and opportunity for some at the expense of others. Genocidal westward expansion wasn’t just about race. It was also about the wealth of capitalists, of major slave-rich capitalists, making it impossible for white freemen to make a living because they couldn’t stand up to the competition. Race is a principle guiding arrangements of power and the rationale for inequity and exploitation. It’s never just about hate. It’s never just about race. Yet, it is always ultimately about race.
We need to accept this idea, once and for all. If you are white and liberal and straight and male, and believed that this was your country until Tuesday night, and now sit frightened, wondering if this is really your country, you really, really need to accept this idea because the security of your citizenship depends upon it.
We need to finally accept that race is a staple of American politics now as it always has been. That doesn’t mean we should lead with accusation. But we need to make anti-racism a first principle in our politics or the security of our freedoms and our rights will forever be held hostage to racism.
So, that was a bit of a rant, but the thing is, it cuts both ways. We should also recognize that nothing is just about race because by doing so we reduce racism to nothing but prejudice and hate. It’s about so much, much more than that. It’s the other incentives that impoverish us and have landed more than 800,000 Black men in prisons and jails in the U.S., and those other incentives are also crushing the hopes and spirits of white working class people. It’s never just about race. We need to avoid anti-racist reductionism.
By the way, on the causation tip, while it is tempting to blame third party voting for Clinton’s defeat, we ought not allow ourselves to be reductionists about causation in this election. That doesn’t mean that some of the margins of defeat Clinton suffered in states like Wisconsin and Michigan don’t appear to be smaller than the number of votes received by Jill Stein, nor that the combination of swing state votes for Stein and Johnson (who were both adamantly anti-Trump) going to Clinton wouldn’t have swung this election in a different direction. That’s real. But, it’s not Jill Stein’s fault that Clinton was defeated, or at least that’s not a useful way to view this situation. Clinton’s defeat was a result of a combination of things, including a strong and broad rejection of centrist politics combined with a lack of recognition of racism as an “us” problem and not just a “them” problem among many white protest voters who went for third party candidates and for Trump.
That weakness on race is also on the backs of progressives generally, and class reductionist progressives in particular, as well as a result of failures within the anti-racist activist sector. Accepting responsibility, even if we were the most close to “right” on this question, is the first step toward shoring up those weaknesses.
We Need A Good Defense
On the defense side, we need to think about rural communities, and the intersection of rural and Native American interests, especially under a right wing, privatization regime that is likely to go after public land. This, from a brief I wrote right before the election:
The Department of the Interior, as one demonstration of potential impact, manages hundreds of thousands of Native American trusts, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management. The issue of federal management of public lands is an organizing lever on the right (think Cliven Bundy and the Bundy militia), especially West of the Rockies where the Bureau of Land Management is the steward of most of the undeveloped land and natural resources in states where rural communities are facing a seemingly intractable economic crisis.
The right’s agenda in in the rural West includes privatization of public land. Public lands management and natural resource use and extraction issues directly intersect with the interests of tribal communities. If Trump is elected, will he put the potential of privatization on the table to appease those factions on the right for whom this is a bottom line issue?
We have to assume SCOTUS is gone. The legislative and executive branches obviously are, and they did a lot of damage in gubernatorial elections. This means we need to focus on local efforts to protect our communities, beginning with the most vulnerable, among whom are Muslims. We need to seriously consider what this means for Muslims. As a friend of mine who is a leader in the South Asian community said to me the other day, “this is like 9/11 all over again.” And she’s right on so many levels.
Violence is one potential problem. But that’s not all we’re likely to face. Surveillance regimes gone amok, and “see-something-say-something” vigilantism will also rise. And then there’s hyper-militarization of police and outright exclusion. It’s a whole lot of bad.
We need to develop local monitoring, documentation, and reporting systems that are community-based, not just those reliant on the police who are often very unreliable on this front. We need a sanctuary movement at the grassroots level, and rapid response systems.
Believe me, I went through the political attacks of the religious right against LGBTQ people in the 90s. Attacks like that open up social space for bigots to act out their bigotry. The harm this can do, not only to people but also to the political culture, is very, very serious.
The radical right will radicalize further and go into serious movement building mode if Trump doesn’t give them what they want. If they stay loyal to him, protests against him and efforts to push him out of the White House will also push them into action. If our side doesn’t get some discipline quickly around protest and direct action (as in, not just creating chaos), we will draw the fire of the right which is, as you know, much better armed and trained than we are.
Paramilitary groups on the right are not to be underestimated. Creating situations that draw their fire is exactly what the right wants. As direct conflict escalates, it provides the perfect justification for state repression and Blue Rage. And we should not forget that Fifth Column in the FBI that seems to have contributed to Clinton’s loss and consider it in light of what we know about the murderous history of COINTELPRO.
This all speaks to the need for an anti-fascist faction of the Left that serves as a vigilante eye and voice for all of us. The faction is under-developed and woefully underfunded. If this election has taught us nothing else, we need a vital, robust, well-resourced anti-fascist faction of the Left!
Sexism is not to be underestimated as a driver of Trumpism, obviously. The rape culture of Donald Trump is a very, very big deal. We already live in a society in which the fact that women must live in a state of hyper-vigilance through so much of their lives is considered “normal.” It may be normal but it’s still completely unacceptable. We need to stop normalizing this.
In this election, white women voted in the majority for Trump, and working class white women even more so. We win them back by making sexism no longer normative. How many working class white women have you heard of who responded to Trump’s misogyny by saying, men are just like that? We have to make it clear that men aren’t just like that.
We need to provide resources to feminists of both genders to address the need for message discipline, and building a pro-woman echo chamber at the grassroots level in order to raise women’s expectations of just treatment and physical security as a democracy issue. And we need to consider abortion clinic security, abortion access, the threat to Planned Parenthood, etc., all very seriously. Particularly vulnerable here are Muslim women, immigrant women, Native American women, and rural women.
I also think we need regional brain trusts made up of, but not exclusive to, veteran progressive leaders. Diversity in these groups is important, and I don’t just mean racial diversity. I mean diversity of skill-sets, and knowledge-sets to encourage innovation and avoid confirmation bias. We need to accept the depth of our own ignorance that this election demonstrates. We need new analysis, new thinking in general, and coordinated strategy.
We also need to de-escalate the rhetoric and minimize unnecessary polarization while also getting folks to commit to non-compliance, non-accommodation, protection of the most vulnerable, including DACA enrollees, tribal community members, Muslims, Black people, especially Black protest activists, etc.
To me, Clinton’s concession speech was not a good example of non-accommodation, but it was to be expected under the circumstances. Obama’s speech about Trump’s victory, asking us to give him a chance, was worse. Harry Reid did a better job of drawing the line. Angela Merkel didn’t do so badly either.
It’s past time to engage Jewish leadership in this discussion and consider anti-Semitism the serious problem it is, and not just because it’s an example of ignorance and intolerance. Anti-Semitism is a form of racism, which is never “just” racism but a justification for and driver of much more. We, as in the progressive aggregate “we,” haven’t thought of them as a constituency that is vulnerable to racism for too long.
We also need to assess movement security needs. Time to anticipate another COINTELPRO, as I suggested earlier, not to mention vigilantism. We should develop Know Your Rights briefings and materials and be nimble enough to stay on top of potential changes.
We also need solidarity compacts and bottom line discussions.
In terms of thinking about how to respond rhetorically and around issues, I recommend we dig into this general framing:
We live in a system based on competition. Competitions only really reward those who win. How we treat those who lose says everything about the society we are. The Democrats have offered those who lose a safety net that is both inadequate and, in the context of liberalism (everyone rises to his or her or their potential, yikes!), a badge of humiliation and scorn. But, there is no competition without those who lose. They are as important to the competition as anyone. They are the stone against which winners sharpen the blade, and create the context in which “winning” has any meaning to begin with. From the point of view of those who own the competition, “losers” hold down wages, as one “contribution.” Capitalism directly benefits from those who lose, and in fact benefits more in some ways.
This is an unacceptable, broken system and we should name it as such. But, we need a strategy for fixing it that people can imagine them selves benefiting from, not just economically but socially and spiritually. We can’t just throw around prescriptions. We need to engage people in dialogue, formulating our solutions from the bottom-up. And, importantly, our solutions need to be post-liberal. That’s one step in addressing the central problem and getting in front of the next wave. All sides are attacking the middle/elites and the ideology of the middle of America is liberalism.
This is our Brexit. Keep in mind that already, this soon after the British election, those suffering buyers’ remorse among Leave voters are larger in number than the margin of the Leave victory. We need to anticipate this (60+% of Trump voters didn’t expect him to win, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that many of those votes are protest votes just like in the Brexit). We need to give those voters room to pivot and look like heroes, not goats. We can’t shame them into pivoting away from Trump. Shaming them will just cause them to dig in. Once they’ve dug in, they will have to justify that decision after the fact by adopting the bigotry of the Trump campaign.
This is all very general, and mostly about themes and tone, and it is woefully incomplete. But, it’s a start.