A year into the Trump administration, it’s clear that neither the worst fears nor the best hopes of progressives were borne out. Trump has failed in many of his policy initiatives, most notably the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the attempt to immediately ban Muslim refugees; his right-wing supporters have not been able to mobilize large numbers of people. But millions of people who have been moved to protest Trump’s politics have yet to change political realities.
Many progressives are looking to flipping Congress out of Republican control in the 2018 elections as the solution to the problem. “US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty” reminds readers that Trump is not the cause of the problem and the solution is going to require something a lot deeper than putting Democrats back in charge. These essays, written by a number of socialist scholars and activists, all of them to the left of Bernie Sanders, take a sober and mostly non-rhetorical look at the prospects for truly progressive politics in the U.S.
The book gets past the false choices often posed by mainstream political strategists who suggest progressives should move away from “identity politics” (i.e., feminism, anti-racism and LGBTQ rights) to cater to mainstream suburban Republicans or conservative White workers. In fact, as journalists Kim Moody and Mike Davis discuss in two separate articles, while there were a few counties that did show working class shifts from Obama to Trump between 2012 and 2016, the more important factor in Trump’s victory was that so many former Obama voters sat out the election — not just White folks, but African-Americans and Latinos as well. Moody points out that the media’s “white working class,” generally identified in practice as Whites who don’t have a college degree, actually includes a lot of fairly well-off small business owners, and that the Trump voters without degrees tended to be those with the higher incomes.
While some commentators on the left have blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss on the persistent misogyny in American culture and in the working class, these essays suggest that the real problem was that Clinton ran on Obama’s record, saying that she would continue the policies of the previous eight years. Both she and Obama had ties to the Wall Street bankers who brought on the 2008 recession that hurt poor and working people all over the country. In places that had yet to recover from the crash of 2008, the slogan “America is already great” sounded hollow. And it was those who have benefited the least from the economic recovery who mostly sat out the election.
In the concluding essay, Nancy Fraser, a professor at the New School for Social Research, summarizes the choice many people saw in the 2016 election — between “progressive neoliberalism” and “reactionary populism.” The former was the result of the coalition assembled by Bill Clinton, which tied less radical portions of gay, feminist, and anti-racist struggles to an agenda of financialization of the economy, austerity and fiscal “discipline” in government.
If Trump’s reactionary populism was a con game in the sense of pretending to help communities he had no intention of helping, the progressive neoliberalism con was in convincing some leaders of progressive social movements that they could best advance their agendas in de facto alliance with Wall Street and large corporations, rather than making common cause with groups being hurt by economic decline and the loss of manufacturing jobs.
Fraser proposes that “Rather than accepting the terms presented to us by the political classes, which oppose emancipation to social protection, we should be ... building a new alliance of emancipation and social protection against financialization.” In other words, we should redefine liberation to include a strong social safety net and an economy that is run for everybody, not just Wall Street.
Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the 2018 and 2020 elections (and therefore, implicitly, to support whatever candidates make it through the Democratic Party nominating process), than to rally progressives to a long-term strategy for systemic change. Several writers in this volume speak to the need to develop an independent political force; they are rightly skeptical of the likelihood of reforming the Democrats from within. But building an alternative that could exercise power at the national level will require a major effort of inclusive organizing in all parts of the country. The massive women’s marches, the immigration protests, the protests against police brutality and the recent teachers uprisings may be precursors. It would have been useful for a few of these essays to address, in detail, what this “new alliance” could look like and where we go from here. That vision is needed; with that vision, it could happen.
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