God, the last few weeks have sucked. Since November 8 – the day a quarter of Americans chose to put in the White House an ill-tempered, small-fingered proto-fascist with so little self-control his staff has to hide his phone to stanch his proclivity for digital diarrhea – the media has self-cannibalized, asking how a man like Donald Trump could possibly be our next president. Most of these hot takes have been specious at best, trying to blame One Big Factor™ for the copious helping of egg on their authors’ faces.
Perhaps the most alluring school of post-election thought has been that Trump’s election was the manifestation of a rising tide of populism, consistent with movements aligned against neoliberalism in Britain, France, and Eastern Europe. There’s something to this: as wealth in the US and globally has congealed in the hands of a few, who thanks to their wealth can sustain the great kleptocracy. People have finally noticed, but elites are clever, and have managed, at least for the time being, to channel anxiety about the hollowing of the middle class into anger at minorities and immigrants, and moreover a crass subordination of civility and reality to bombast and emotion. Trump himself is no populist, and the policies he’s promised to enact can only barely be thus described.
The notion that a small-D democratic establishment could be friendly to corporate America is not an old one in the Democratic Party. Louis Brandeis, a progressive leader on the Supreme Court from 1916 until 1939, crystallized the Roosevelt Democrats’ stance on corporatism: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Something tells me the late justice would have balked at casting a ballot for the den mother of the wolves of Wall Street, Hillary Clinton – though, unlike too many Democrats this year, he would have done it.
Parallel to waning populist thought on the Left arose a pernicious new ideology that political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call “Randianism,” for its soulless prophet Ayn Rand. Randianism’s central conceit is that, despite a century of American evidence to the contrary and, indeed, centuries of what scholars have documented across a dozen or more successful, developed nations, a democratically-elected government cannot, because of incompetence or malice, be trusted to establish the correct balance between regulation and free enterprise. Leave it to a hack novelist to so thoroughly fetishize capitalists that the reader can practically hear her venereal moans from a half-century ago as she wrote of a Sheldon Adelson-type blowing up a newspaper office simply because he owned it and he could; that, friends, is the ideology that Paul Ryan embraces, the ultimate primacy of private ownership over the public good.
The notions of ownership and property rights have changed radically since Democratic populism’s coma began. For decades, leftists embraced the legal personhood of corporations while recognizing their social function; that is, they acknowledged the legal right of corporations to enter contracts, own property, and defend those rights in a court of law, while also insisting that corporations’ diffuse ownership and legal separation from the persons who own them entitle the public to a reasonable say in the dominance those companies can attain and the practices they employ. The Randianists tossed that grand bargain happily out the window, instead preaching that job creation was the prerogative of an elite, wealthy few, who through some combination of grace and non-interference of the state allow a small proportion of their invested wealth to trickle down to the rest of us.
What an utter con. At least a half-century of economic prosperity and growth, if not more, down the tubes, and all so top corporate executives in America could realize a 1000-percent gain in their own bottom lines since the beginning of the wicked Reagan administration. You, I, and every other working person has been robbed blind by this new class of robber barons, and we have been made blind to it.
Far are we from the days when a Democratic stalwart like Wright Patman could demand of an incredulous Federal Reserve Chairman “Can you give me any reason why you should not be in the penitentiary?” Populism is not a tame beast, is not a force that can easily be controlled from the top. Is it to be Democrats’ guiding principle henceforth? Moreover, what direction can the Clinton corporatists and contemporary Democratic doyens of identity politics take their party that positions it in opposition to the new Trumpistas in the GOP, without closing itself off to a massive swath of the (white) electorate.
If anything, Democrats’ resounding defeat in what an observer from afar might reasonably call America’s hinterland reveals the vulnerability inherent in their electoral strategy: if the Democratic Party cannot produce actual gains for people of color, the working class and other essential blocs in the Obama coalition, it’s difficult from one perspective to turn them out to vote; from another, it’s unreasonable to expect them to. Hillary Clinton won some four million fewer votes than Barack Obama did in 2008, many of the losses accruing in key states – Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio come to mind. Indeed, it’s barely an exaggeration to argue that Hillary Clinton lost the election in Milwaukee, Cuyahoga and Wayne Counties, and in a handful of other localities in South Florida, Eastern Iowa, and small-town Pennsylvania. Democrats cannot shrug off losses in those states while keeping intact any reasonable expectation of victory.
One obstacle to victory for Democrats for decades has been the weakening social ties within workers’ organizations and in rapidly diversifying working-class communities. On one hand, right to work and other anti-union legislation has made labor organization more difficult, more dangerous and less fruitful for workers. On the other, withering demand for blue collar labor throughout most of the country has frayed the ties of working-class towns and neighborhoods, fractured families, opened the door to the ravages of addiction and ultimately bred stagnation and mistrust for change. When citizens’ ties to their identity are replaced by the shame of decrepit communities and poverty, they begin to emphasize other dimensions of their identity – in particular, race, creed, and national origin.
Ask the Right Questions
More important than the where of Clinton’s loss is the who – that is, which historically Democratic and independent voters cast a ballot for Trump and which past Democrats stayed home, and why?
On the first count, besides the modestly higher margins Trump enjoyed than Mitt Romney did in 2012 among Hispanic, Asian and black voters, the President-elect’s largest gains were with poor and low-education white voters, while Clinton also endured defections by young voters to third party candidates and, as always, nonparticipation, which was also endemic within minority communities. Voting booth defections to the Trump camp by Gary Johnson’s supporters, too, played a role in padding Trump’s margins where the vote was close. None of these electoral developments were damning in their own right, but together they were too much for Clinton’s advantage among minority and better-educated white voters to matter.
The open question is still that of what sort of platform Democrats should embrace to regain sufficient status among poorer, low-education whites, and consolidate their waning advantages among voters of color. Most questions of policy will, as always, be subject to elision by personality politics, and to that end Democrats are in a better position today than they were even a month ago. Already we have seen young, charismatic Democrats like Kamala Harris, Keith Ellison, Kirsten Gillibrand, Catherine Cortez Masto and Jason Kander, who have all established national profiles in the latter years of the Obama administration and constitute a generous addition to the political bench Obama tried and failed to recruit in the Castro brothers, Tom Perez, Kathleen Sibelius, Tom Vilsack and Gary Locke. If Democrats are to retake legislative control, though, many more names than those already tossed around at the dinner table will have to enter the rolls of the House, Senate, and state legislatures around the country. These as-yet nameless scores of Democrats will do as much to dictate the future of progressive politics in America as the top tier of the party, especially as that elite departs the Obama White House and ages out of relevance.
In terms of policy, the new Democrats I listed represent a broad spread of ideologies. Ellison is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has long advocated enthusiastically for both the Democratic identity coalition and the more populist wing of the party. He opposed NAFTA and CAFTA nearly a decade ago, and is an ardent detractor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Harris and Cortez Masto occupy nebulously-defined territory somewhere right of Bernie Sanders, opposing the TPP but not free trade writ large, and command political credibility as the former Attorneys General of California and Nevada and now Senators-elect from those states. Gillibrand, formerly of the conservative Blue Dog caucus in the House but now of a more populist persuasion, has a long legislative record that lends her claims of supporting workers and the middle class serious credence. Finally, there’s Kander, whose support in a state as red as Missouri belies enthusiasm for most of the causes championed by millennial progressives; if he manages to achieve electoral office in Missouri, no sure bet at this juncture, he could be a national political force to contend with in the not-too-distant future.
Based on this and the groundswell of hostility toward the TPP and other apparently haphazard free trade agreements, the populist left can probably tally a victory in that column. But ascendant identity coalitions – Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ movement, immigration reformers, women’s groups, and more – cannot be expected to give up much ground on core platform issues like marriage equality, income inequality, police reform or immigration reform. Marrying these diverse interests is a feat that can only be accomplished by cooperative leaders in Washington and enthusiastic activism in all fifty states.
Since the Democratic wave of 2006, conservatives have constructed a tremendous reservoir of state legislature majorities and governorships. Indeed, some more panic-prone commentators on the left have suggested that the elections in 2018 and 2020 present opportunities for the GOP to take the requisite amount of state-level power to formalize its agenda by way of constitutional amendments. Translating Republicans’ advantage into broad consensus on measures as consequential as a constitutional amendment seems a long shot, though. The only issues with institutional or grassroots support are congressional term limits (flatly opposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), right-to life and anti-marriage equality amendments (likely low priorities in a Trump White House), and perhaps a balanced budget amendment, though Trump cannot possibly be expected to leave his passion for debt at the door of the Oval Office. So, constitutional change beyond whatever Supreme Court decisions Trump justices can influence, is unlikely, though not impossible.
That constitutional amendments are a long shot should not assuage progressives and liberals who fear the consequences of a Trump presidency. Trump and his allies in Congress have, for at least four years, power checked only by the courts. Generous financial support for progressive organizations and impartial media outlets like those that have seen increases in giving are only the first step, which has as yet been taken only gingerly by the left. Much more must be done to build up the institutional strength so badly sapped during President Obama’s administration.
The Game Plan
Elected Democrats have, to date, failed to inspire confidence in the strength of their resolve to stop the Trump-Ryan agenda, which we know includes the commission of war crimes, the denial of climate change, rolling back the protection of voting rights, massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, complete or partial privatization of essential programs like Medicaid, Medicare, the Veterans Health Administration and the Department of Education, and the dangerous abnegation of American primacy and, yes, hegemony around the world.
The Republicans whom we counted as #NeverTrump friends are, for the most part, no longer on our side. Randianists and Trumpistas may not share much ideological common ground, but think for a moment: if the GOP was so successful at stymying even the most popular and moderate pieces of the Obama platform, how should one expect an even more hardline iteration of the party to behave when it controls both houses of congress and the White House? Indeed, the only loud opposition from the Right since Trump’s victory has come from a select few: Justin Amash and, to some extent, Ben Sasse and John McCain come to mind, though the latter two have kept silent or even, in McCain’s case, outright refused to acknowledge that the man soon to occupy the White House both exists and is a member of his party. The reality is that even the most extreme elements of Trump’s platform, which just this week came to include, apropos of nothing (save a morning segment on Fox News), a call to strip of their citizenship Americans convicted of flag burning. For once, bipartisanship: in 2005, Senator Hillary Clinton co-sponsored a bill that would have punished flag burners with up to two years in prison (“most experienced presidential candidate in history” my keister).
An action plan for an effective opposition party is medusoid and should have been initiated the morning of November 9, with the introduction of a law in both houses of Congress requiring that any candidate for president or president must publicly release his or her tax returns for the past five years, if not longer. Incredibly, we still know precious little about Donald Trump’s financial status, even as the expansive, international nature of his empire makes probable the most troubling conflicts of interest at least since both Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, were forced to resign for financial impropriety (and burglary, but Trump has yet to be linked to the pre-electoral bugging of DNC headquarters). That Trump has refused to release any sort of reasonable financial disclosure might suggest that he has something to hide, be it criminal wrongdoing or simply compromising financial holdings in India, Argentina, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, or elsewhere. Actual de jure corruption is one of the few attacks Democrats can level unimpeachably against the President-elect, and substantiating it would erode Trump’s support mightily, especially among those who inexplicably believe a racist billionaire could be on the side of the middle class.
For President Obama’s part, he can and must direct the Justice Department to initiate independent investigations of Russian election tampering and voter suppression and fraud in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and other states where Republicans in state government openly conspired to prevent the poor and people of color from voting. They did this by closing hundreds of polling places, passing onerous voter registration and identification laws, and, in limited cases, by physically intimidating voters at polling places, in some cases with firearms. These investigatory panels, which would not finish their work before January 20, should be liberated from political pressure, and should commit to releasing a public report on their findings from their inception. To return to Justice Brandeis, “sunlight is the best disinfectant;” in a post-electoral environment where many Americans, including the President-elect himself, believe in widespread voter impersonation fraud, independent investigations are the best hope we have in restoring faith in American democratic institutions.
Obama can do more than that. Indeed, between the end of this congressional session on January 3 and the convention of the next, which will be set by law sometime before New Year’s, Obama will have a narrow window in which to make recess appointments – which he should exploit to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. Doing so would be intensely controversial, but the reality is that unprecedented Republican obstructionism is the only reason Merrick Garland has spent so long in political purgatory. Even the weak argument that the American people should be able to voice their opinions on an election year vacancy on the court collapses under the weight of Clinton’s 2.4 million vote advantage that only continues to grow. The people did speak; they told Republicans to shove it. Whom exactly Obama should appoint to the court is an open question; Garland was a laudable choice and would possibly survive confirmation hearings that, by law, must take place sometime before the end of the next congressional session, at the end of 2018. Still, Obama should at least consider adapting his choice to his tactics, whether that means choosing someone even more moderate or accepting the inevitability of his selection’s non-confirmation and appointing a radical leftist.
The severity of Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest has led prominent electoral experts, including former Bush administration ethics counsel Richard Painter, to encourage the Electoral College to vote against Trump. Democrats have kept their silence here, as not to appear hypocritical on the point of undermining democratic norms. I’ve got news for them: those norms were thrown from the 26th floor of Trump Tower long, long ago, and the man who defenestrated them is scheduled to move into the White House on January 20. Painter’s argument is that the President-elect’s conflicts of interest are intrinsically unresolvable – not that Trump has even constructed the illusion of resolution – and make him legally ineligible to take office, thus making it the electors’ duty to vote against Trump. Democrats should be screaming this from the rooftops in Washington and across the country, and should use the weeks remaining before the electors convene on December 19 to rally anti-Trump Republicans against Trump. Already, one Republican elector in Texas has resigned rather than vote for Trump. How many more conscientious conservatives are wavering, waiting to be persuaded by their representative, their senator, their attorney, their mayor or their president? The totality of pressure the Left can bring to bear is impressive, but impotent without organization. In any event, it’s unlikely that this strategy – convincing at least 37 electors to ignore the popular vote in their state, some of which have laws that would punish them financially or with prison time – would work. What Democrats have no choice but to realize is that, for the opposition in a republic as precariously perched as ours is now, the minority party cannot discriminate so capriciously against viable strategies; they simply don’t have the luxury of choice.
Democrats must also unite in opposition to cabinet appointments that endanger the safety of the republic. Sure, it’s frustrating that Elaine Chao, a former Bush administration official and wife to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will be the Secretary of Transportation, but that does not compare to the prospect of a convict like David Petraeus or the deranged Rudy Giuliani as Secretary of State. Trump’s most worrisome appointment thus far has been Attorney-General nominee Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, the man whom the Senate considered too racist to be a judge (in 1986, when “Big Trouble in Little China” was released, no less) and who considers the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union “un-American,” and who got his start in politics volunteering for a segregationist’s losing gubernatorial campaign. Seriously. To say nothing of Dr. Ben Carson’s appointment to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a post for which the good doctor is qualified by…living in a house and in urban areas for some portion of his life. Trump’s hubris is, to be frank, impressive. Democrats could learn a thing or two from their electoral betters.
Being an effective opposition also means bringing to bear the same nasty tricks the Right has used for the last decade, down to cravenly referring to the president using his middle name, and thus winning the battle for public opinion. One must necessarily be a fool if they fail to recognize the power of the phrase “Barack Hussein Obama” or “Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.” Even those appointments that need not be confirmed by the Senate, like the white nationalist Steve Bannon, cannot pass unnoticed. Remember the mass hysteria in 2009 and 2010 over Van Jones, Shirley Sherrod, Cass Sunstein, and others? If Democrats are worth their weight in ballots, they will make that controversy look paltry in comparison. There exists little purpose in the lickspittle servility and conspicuous silence Democrats have voiced to date, when sheer evil has access to the levers of power in Washington. One of the few Democrats with the fortitude to act like an actual member of the opposition has been Elizabeth Warren, whose statement on the nomination of notorious financial privateer Steve Mnuchin set my eyebrows ablaze with its sheer ferocity.
Principled stands on Sessions and Carson aside, Democrats should grant no quarter in their hearings on Trump’s other choices, like Mnuchin, his nominee for Secretary of the Treasury. Besides the unforgivable sin of being responsible for “Suicide Squad,” Mnuchin would be the second Goldman Sachs alumnus in the last decade to take the Treasury job, after Hank Paulsen in 2006. At issue is Mnuchin’s background in designing and trading mortgage-backed bonds, the precise financial instruments that triggered the 2008 meltdown. Even worse is Mnuchin’s subsequent partial acquisition of IndyMac in 2009, a bank in the midst of bankruptcy, from which he made at least $200 million. IndyMac’s business model was predicated on issuing and securitizing subprime mortgages; after the 2008 crash, Mnuchin garnered widespread criticism for carrying out over 36,000 foreclosures during his brief tenure as the head of the renamed OneWest Bank. One judge in New York even called Mnuchin’s practices “harsh, repugnant, shocking and repulsive,” for his love of locking homeowners out of their houses in the midst of blizzards and predating on residents hurt by familial losses in income. Democrats may not have the political wherewithal to block Mnuchin; but his background so thoroughly betrays Trump’s silly “drain the swamp!” rhetoric that there are fields and fields of political hay to be made here. The same can be said of Mike Flynn, who was removed as the head of the Defense Intelligence agency for disseminating classified information to foreign states, and of David Petraeus, who did the same in exchange for sad, sad sexual intercourse with a reporter consort. Flynn has even alleged some schizoid conspiracy between the governments of China, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and a global network of jihadis bent on the destruction of the United States. Again: seriously. Madness has penetrated our state, and looks poised to endure indefinitely.
The final step Democrats should take before Inauguration Day is the replacement of the House, Senate, and national committee leadership that have so spectacularly failed their supporters for a decade. Harry Reid is, thankfully, about to be put to pasture, but the rank-and-file ought to be focused on installing capable leaders to begin the great recovery. In ways that Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Reid were unable to do, the next generation of Democratic leadership must be able to unify disparate wings of the party, from identitarians to socialists to Blue Dogs to populists. The sad fact is that almost none of the national party trusts these people anymore, and their tenure must come to an immediate end – yes, in spite of Pelosi’s renowned ability to whip votes and in spite of Clinton’s popular vote victory. If in four years you, my dear reader, can look me in the eyes and say credibly that either of those mattered in a government run by a sickening cabal of white nationalists and idiots, I promise: I will kiss your feet.
Once Trump is inaugurated, as is overwhelmingly likely, the real fight commences. Democrats cannot afford to forget that, not only did they decimate Trump in the popular vote, but they earned significantly more aggregate votes in Senate and House races, too – a fact with no political application other than to rightfully remind the American electorate whom the majority voted for. Ceding a phantasmagorical “mandate” to Republicans is akin to letting one’s opponent in football start their drive on the fifty-yard line. If Bill Belichik dared do that, his tenure in New England would be blessedly brief.
The crux of any successful Democratic strategy for the future, though, is necessarily candidate recruitment. Perhaps the most damming indictment of the 2016 Democratic Party is the sad state of affairs in Texas’ 32nd Congressional District. The Texas 32nd, which encompasses Dallas’ northeast suburbs (including, ironically, the homes of George W. Bush, T. Boone Pickens and Ross Perot) voted handily to elect Hillary Clinton. What about the House, you ask? Pete Sessions, the incumbent Republican, won 71% of the vote, defeating every Democrat in the district – none of whom saw any value in running for office. That’s right: in a congressional district Hillary Clinton won, there was literally no Democratic candidate for the House. That’s an inexcusable failure of Dallas, Texas and national Democrats, and one that liberals can no longer afford to tolerate. You wonder why the GOP has an indelible advantage in the House? Look no further. It’s time for Democrats to wrest their heads from their collective sphincter and embrace, not face, the music.
And what’s the tune, Sam? Demographic realignment. Democratic efforts to retake control in the “blue wall” states they lost this year – Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and, to a lesser extent, Missouri and Indiana – are at least partially futile. The youthful exodus from many of these states to the South and the coasts – to places like North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, and Texas – augurs a massive realignment of the electoral map. Democrats have simply got to respond to that. This election was as big a change in the electoral reality since the election of 1980 (in which America consigned itself to eight years under a president whose depth of policy knowledge could be inscribed on one side of a three-by-five index card), and ought not be dismissed as a one-off revolt against a weak Democratic candidate.
The DNC’s highest priority going forward, though, should be finding energetic, young Democrats to challenge Republicans like Pete Sessions. Candidate recruitment is a problem from the city council level to the presidential race: if you seriously believe Hillary Clinton was the best candidate available to Democrats this year, your delusion is the fundamental problem of the Democratic Party. Damn Gillibrand, Cortez Masto, Kander, and the rest – coastal liberals and electoral losers won’t stop Trump. All you comfortable liberals enraged at Trump’s success cannot spend your weeknights at the local dive bar whining about conversion therapy and structural inequality; in Trump’s language, your lazy asses need to mobilize, sacrifice, organize and devote yourselves to the continuation of the progressive experiment of the last decade. I spent my summer organizing for Democratic candidates for office in Missouri – what did you do? One of my favorite refrains is that, if you didn’t vote, I’ve no interest in your opinion until the next election. For liberals, an extension is appropriate: if you didn’t sacrifice your time or money (whatever you can) for Democratic candidates for office this year, close your pathetic, fetid maws. Voicing your complaints after the election is so useless it’s robbed me of untold hours of sleep since November 8 – and I hope it’s taken much, much more from your loathsome selves. Denounce my privilege all you want, but Trumpismo is on the rise, and it ain’t my fault; it’s all of ours.
Participation, including but not limited to religious attendance at the ballot box, is the real key to limiting the depth of Trump’s impact. Progressives need to mobilize communities to ensure their voices are heard, and must also work to establish themselves in government and the policy community to provide a counterbalance to the right-wing machine that enjoys such far-reaching power today. Our anger at this election’s outcome has to be sustained and channeled into real, transformational policy change and electoral mobilization. Successful activism and advocacy will occur over the period of months and years, not days and weeks, and it surely requires some degree of sacrifice in every progressive’s life. A whimpering call to action here might change one mind, somewhere, but the reality is that we live our politics every day of our lives. Attitudes toward equality and liberty pervade our every action, which as we’ve seen countless times in the United States can be positive or negative in consequence. More important than the decision others made at the ballot box is, arguably, the way you interact with your peers and with the state.
That Thanksgiving meal where Grandma denounces the “coloreds” as lazy and criminal? Your duty as a liberal is to challenge that, at risk of ruining your precious, stupid dinner. If your bartender mentions that he thinks the internment of the Japanese was smart, you must risk ejection from the neighborhood dive to correct him. If ever you hear someone at the laundromat talk about the dangers of foreign sovereign debt, your duty is to inform them that the only states to have failed due to debt acquisition are autocracies and nations that eschewed immigration. Defend, in public, your brothers and sisters of color, of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Jews, women and political minorities, like socialists and anarchists. Politics is lived, not written. If standing up for the values you and I hold dear means being a jerk, then welcome to the club of joyful, proud ruffians fighting for liberty. We’re always accepting new members.