As 2016 drew to a close a friend of mine posted “2016 sucked. Good riddance.” This friend has been deeply upset by the election of Trump for reasons that I sympathize with. Yet if 2016 “sucked” because, among other things, Donald Trump was elected, 2017 is the year he begins to govern, supported by a formidable Republican majority. Progressives need to come to terms with this and think through their next moves as the opposition. Conservatives ought to approach this season of political change with compassion and an ideologically flexible commitment to America’s collective well being.
What does this look like? And what do young people who are hungry for a role, on either the right or the left, do next?
I’ve sat down several times trying to put pen to paper on this topic. It’s been bewildering. I’ve spent a lot of time just staring out my apartment window, where I’m blessed with an incredible view of downtown Mexico City. There’s something humbling about seeing a city of 20+ million people at rest. In a healthy way, it’s a reminder of how little I or anyone else really matters. And in the context of an election where rhetoric around Mexico played a central role, it also reminds me how high the stakes are.
Rather than strive for some kind of a magnum opus that ties everything together via some elegant cultural or economic narrative, I decided to just get some thoughts out there. These are for the right, the left, and the in-between.
To begin, I do not accept that the political changes at home right now represent a simple struggle between good and evil. Without a doubt “Trump that bitch,” “Build that wall,” and — more rarely — “sieg heil” represent perhaps the ugliest political expressions that my generation has ever seen. These sentiments toxify culture and degrade those who indulge them. Policies with their root in sexism, xenophobia, and white supremacy are unequivocally abhorrent. America needs its progressives in the opposition now more than ever.
Yet to attribute the rise of Trump to these dark forces alone is as intellectually lazy and dangerous as claiming that they are not relevant or real. Americans have legitimate differences in how they think about the role of government and regulation (or lack thereof) in economic and civic life. Improbable elites Joan Williams and J.D. Vance, both of whom charted unlikely paths into Harvard and Yale, have observed the enormous cultural rifts that have opened up between the American left and the white working class. Even President Obama recently acknowledged progressives’ failure to build a ground game. In other words, progressives haven’t really been around white working class America lately. Not just physically speaking during the election but, as Vance and Williams argue, in terms of a legislative agenda that fails to address their concerns. Wisconsin voters were expected to fall in line, as they have in every presidential election since 1988. But they didn’t. And if all you can do as a progressive is pout about how “racist” America is then there is a huge flaw in how you consider your fellow citizens. Think about what you can learn from what just happened. It’s there if you’ll look for it.
I don’t mean to conflate real with perceived grievance. The doom and gloom narrative that our next president rode on his way to electoral victory is puzzling. If you go by the numbers it’s not clear what so many people were so upset about. To borrow from Michael Grunwald, America has been increasingly “awesome” for the latter half of the Obama presidency. If you’re someone who believes that Obama and the Democrats just spent 8 years running the American economy into the ground, you’re just splendidly wrong. So why so much rage? Part of the answer must reside in the fact that humans are about as preoccupied with relative equality as they are with an absolute standard of living, and America has been growing shockingly unequal over the past several years. If you’re someone who believes that the market, on its own, will provision for the American dream then you’re not looking hard enough at the data. To paraphrase: Liberals don’t necessarily ruin the economy and there’s growing evidence to suggest that Americans notice income inequality and are upset about it. Something to think about if you expect that deregulation and aggressive relaxation of upper income taxes is going to “make America great again.”
In fairness, I’m not sure that either party said anything truly economically compelling this election cycle. No one at a national or state level that I’ve heard is talking much about how automation, having overhauled manufacturing, is now on track to do the same thing to services (for just one example, consider the implications of Uber’s self-driving vehicles for the transport industry). As technological trends simultaneously increase the concentration of capital while putting significant numbers of Americans out of work, the time to start considering a sensible implementation of universal basic income is now. Given the state of political discourse at the moment, this is probably not even a conversation that we’re capable of having. The point is broader then a specific policy issue, however. We lack political leadership that is willing to talk about what actually matters (technological automation, global competitiveness) rather than what makes a good soundbite (free college, job-stealing immigrants).
Another piece of the rage puzzle probably has to do with a social media-driven breakdown in how we communicate with one another. Inasmuch as the internet is supposed to connect citizens and foster the exchange of diverse ideas, it seems to just as often hyper-concentrate selected ideas based on our confirmation biases. Instead of healthily diverse thought ecosystems, social media seems to grow ideological monocultures. You may not know, or even care, when you’re in one of these thought environments, but these are deeply unhealthy and fundamentally unstable ecosystems. These online echo chambers create an audience for despicable people like Alex Jones, and probably facilitated the way that information from Russian hacks of DNC servers were disseminated and spun. Yet the critique is one that applies to the right and left equally. Responsible citizens should strive to avoid these echo chambers. Diversifying one’s information will be an increasingly important skill in the years to come for those interested in getting beyond the politics of identity.
If this feels like a watered down, feel-good attempt at “can’t we all just get along” then I’ll be clear: I believe Donald Trump is an incredibly dangerous politician. I believe that he opportunistically channeled incredibly negative energy in his base, and that the consequences of his post-truth brand of politics will reverberate far beyond his presidency. I am grieved by how little his propensity to lie, belittle opponents, and overtly disrespect women influenced his constituents’ decision to vote for him. I struggle to not be bitter toward the Republican party, which displayed a remarkable lack of moral courage in failing to oppose him and is now even more craven in its embrace of his presidency. This is a party that no longer leads but follows a base that has totally lost its way.
And yet it is so important that progressives and conservatives meet each other and think, hard, about the collective good that is America. Demography is going to turn the political landscape against the GOP in it’s current manifestation. If the party is unable to produce thought leaders to present an alternative to the current wave of angry populism, the voters who now feel vindicated by a Trump victory will eventually be truly politically marginalized (recall that he lost the popular vote by a margin of nearly 3 million votes). When this happens Republican voters will be just as angry, but their party will have ceased to be relevant and they will progressively experience a real, not just imagined, erosion of influence. It’s better for everyone, especially GOP voters, that the party start leading again in the realm of ideas, not just soundbites; true civic ethos rather than rage, hubris, and lies.
Progressives already know that America will continue to be more racially diverse and culturally liberal. The pendulum will swing back their way eventually. That’s just reality. I hope that my progressive friends are willing and able to take the time in the political wilderness, to do a bit of soul searching. Not to reinvent their core convictions or accept the new status quo, but to think about where these disconnects are coming from and what part they can play to mend them.
For both the political right and left, to reduce American politics to the logic of power is a dangerous game. It leads to miscarriages of justice by whatever group mobilizes well enough to hold the political system. America, at its best, is a profoundly aspirational place. Our politics should be aspirational as well, not just in theory but in practice.
Back to the What to do/What next? question. Finding ways to connect with others who are different from you seems like a good place to start. Diversify your sources of information and subvert ideology to data. Practice radical empathy, channeling the thoughts and emotions of those around you to the fullest extent possible. And if it’s in you, run for a political office. Once you’re there, lead, even if the price of authentic leadership is your political career or reputation with your constituents.
Happy 2017. Whatever it looks like for you, let’s get to work in the fullest and most loving expression of that word.