This piece is part of the “Trumpism – How Should the Left Respond?” video debate with Dissent editors and Contributors.
The Democratic Party has lost the Presidency, majority control of Congress, and an alarming number of state governorships and legislatures. In contrast, the Republican Party seems poised to ideologically control the remaining branch of federal government through the appointment of a Supreme Court judge. With the Democratic Party flat on its back, where does this leave the Left?
The election of Trump marked an abrupt end to a liberal revolution of global proportions, which peaked with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the death of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent formation of the European Union. Trump’s election represents a regressive counter-wave of fear brought on by major failures of that revolution: military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure of the Arab Spring to liberalize the Middle-East, the subsequent refugee crisis, the global financial crisis, and the stagnation of incomes among the working and middle classes of the industrialized West.
In the United States, voters in the 2016 presidential election lacked any real Left alternative. Hillary Clinton offered Progressive Neoliberalism while Donald Trump served up Nationalist Populism — a radical transformation of the Republican Party that the Left now struggles to understand.
Trump seized the Republican Party’s base with his furious demagoguery and now the GOP leadership appears trapped in his thrall. The Democratic Party must be reformed and strengthened through engagement with the Left. By Left I mean the political constituency in the United States who, in the wake of the global financial crisis, has consistently taken to the streets to announce not only its primary issue of social justice and pay equity but also urgent concerns with government corruption, disregard for indigenous rights, climate change, mass deportations, and the state sanctioned murder of black lives.
In the face of a Trump-led disinformation campaign and the grave danger to civil liberties that his administration poses, the Left has little choice but to work to strengthen the press and the Democratic Party. For the time being, the Democratic Party remains, de facto, the only viable party for Left electoral politics in the United States. As such, it presents the main vehicle for resistance to Trumpism from the Left.
Certainly, major problems exist with the Democratic Party. It must transform itself to express the interests of the black community and other communities of color, not just minority elites. And any response to Trumpism needs to be intersectional. The false-dichotomy between the supposedly specialized “identity” politics associated with civil or liberal rights and what may be described as “normal” politics — that is, class politics — needs to be recognized. In fact, so-called identity politics and class politics must be treated as the intertwined phenomena that they are. Today’s financialized form of capitalism depends upon subordination and exploitation of women and people of color. At the same time, Democrats need to re-learn how to talk to workers. This failure ceded the white working class — once the backbone of the Democratic Party — to Trump and Steve Bannon.
Bernie Sanders’ example hints at the possibility of success. In the primaries, using simple but accurate language, Sanders built a popular following by educating voters to think structurally about their common economic enemy. In contrast to Trumpism’s ignorance-based trade protectionism, Sanders’ brand of Progressive Populism insists on Fair Trade and redistribution that takes into account racism and sexism.
But Sanders opened a rift in the Democratic Party. Progressive Neoliberalism and Progressive Populism now wage an ugly proxy war in the race for DNC chair. No matter the outcome, activists must push the Party from within but also from without, by developing and retaining an independent identity and funding base. Promising developments include the creation of Our Revolution, the growth of the Working Families Party and their expansion of state electoral fusion voting, the rise in membership among the Democratic Socialists of America, and even the very new Justice Democrats.
Whatever the future holds, it’s certain that the Left must sustain critical analysis and the Democratic Party must change. It cannot rely on anti-Trumpism, the conveniently sudden renewal of faith in the integrity of the CIA, and allegations of Russian intervention. Democrats must recognize that this election was a referendum on economic pain and betrayal. Moving beyond Trumpism will require active resistance from the Left, new charismatic candidates, increased outreach, a fundamental change of political messaging, and the development of an economic policy platform that truly meets the needs of communities suffering economically.
In the face of devastating electoral losses and the existential threat of Trumpism, we cannot leave it to the Democratic Party to organize the people. It is now time for the people to organize the Democratic Party.