Monday, December 5, 2016

Progressive Lessons from the 2016 Election

The first thing to highlight about the 2016 Presidential election is that our electorial system is unfair – Trump lost the popular vote by over 2 million votes, but he believes he has a mandate.  In fact, 42% of eligible voters did not vote at all, and 4% voted for a third party candidate, which means that Trump was supported by less than 27% of the eligible voters, and yet Trump will be likely be able to control the national agenda because the Republicans control both houses of Congress and two-thirds of the governorships. It is also important to stress that many people said they were not voting for him but voting against Hillary Clinton, and the majority of voters simply voted for the same party they always vote for. In other words, Trump won the game, only because we have a screwed up winner-takes-all system where many people do not even participate, and most of the people who do vote do not vote based on an analysis of the policies presented by the candidates.

One of the big post-election debates is over the notion that the election proves that identity politics is over.  In other words, Democrats should stop talking about racism, sexism, and Islamophobia, and instead they should learn how to listen to the white working class that voted for Trump.   Many liberals are taking up this cause against identity politics as if we should simply close our eyes and ignore the fact that Trump used racism and sexism to gain votes. Of course, one of the great strategies of the Right for the last forty years is to argue that whites are the real victims of prejudice and that people of color are privileged because they are supported by government programs funded through the taxation of whites.  In this upside-down world, a billionaire like Trump is represented as a working class hero and the real victim of taxes, government regulation, and bad trade deals.  Meanwhile, in place of blaming big businesses or wealthy individuals for hording profits and downsizing jobs, the Republicans focus the attention of the working class on the liberal elites who make whites feel bad for their sexism, homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. Instead of giving into this reversed racism, we have to fight it at every step and offer an alternative vision.

One of the main reasons why Clinton lost is the same reason why in the last 65 years only one party has held the White House for three consecutive terms: Americans always seem to want a change after a two-term president, and Clinton clearly did not represent any real change.  There is also the pesky fact that half of all Americans spent parts of the last year below or just above the poverty line, and most workers have not seen a real pay raise in 50 years.  Of course Trump only proposes false solutions to these real problems, but they are still real problems, and it does not help us to turn our back on racism.  In fact, in our culture, race and wealth are highly correlated, and you cannot talk about class without dealing with race even though white working class men see themselves as representing a group that stands outside of race.


It is vital to recognize that race helps to rationalize inequality as it also divides people who share a common class interest.  On the other hand, politicians can also use race to scapegoat specific groups in order to build political unity.  The big question is how to bring together a concern for prejudice with a desire to a build a strong democratic coalition that takes on real economic problems.   

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