Against Trump; for___?
Resisting is not enough; the left needs a transformative vision of its own
One month into Trump’s presidency, much of the energy on the left has been focused on building the “resistance.”
The Women’s March, the airport protests and the “Day Without Immigrants” strikes brought millions into the streets, and groups like “Indivisible Guide” and “Town Hall Project” have mobilized a record number of people to confront their elected (mostly Republican) representatives. Greenpeace, the radical environmental organization, literally hung a huge banner saying “resist” near the White House four days after Trump’s inauguration.
In the face of a reactionary administration intent on rolling back progress in every imaginable way, resistance at every step is unquestionably critical. Otherwise, millions could be thrown off health insurance or deported and the U.S. might literally go to war with China thanks to Trump and his minions’ paranoiac views on international affairs.
However, for the left to win power, merely protesting and resisting is far from enough. After all, Trump did not win the presidency by attacking President Obama and Hillary Clinton alone; he also aggressively promoted his own hateful yet deceiving faux-populist agenda to sway a large number of disillusioned Obama voters in the Midwest to pull off a win.
Instead, the left needs to articulate and promote a bold vision that fundamentally addresses the needs of working and middle class Americans to rally their support.
In an almost knee-jerk reaction to the election, elected Democrats of all ideological persuasions instantly started talking about adopting a stronger “economic message”. Sure, but a “message” does not equate a “vision.” While a “message” might win over pockets of votes here and there in the short run, only a powerful vision can mobilize millions of people across racial and cultural divides to transform the current political landscape.
As of now, it’s very unclear to me what broad and inspirational vision the Democratic establishment has for their party and the country.
On the right, conservative Republicans believe in dismantling the public sector and letting the private sector provide all essential services and solutions to all social ills. To me, this is a dystopian vision, but it’s still a vision. Trump and the alt-right believe in white nationalism, which is totally disgusting, but it’s a vision nonetheless.
But when you look to the left, what do Democrats and liberals believe in? A “new social compact” of neoliberal policies like “continuous learning, job training, [and] a basic social safety net, expanding the earned-income tax credit” in Obama’s words, or as Hillary Clinton passionately proclaimed, that single-payer healthcare will “never, ever come to pass?”
At a time of extraordinary inequality and massive discontent with the political system, with the future of the planet and the very livelihood of millions of minority and low-income people on the line, it is just stunning how few Democratic leaders have anything transformative to offer.
As a person, former President Obama is extremely hard to dislike, but it should not take a Ph.D for one to understand that, in an era of widespread populist outrage, Obama’s technocratic blueprint for America based on improved job training, a basic social safety net and more tax credits rings incredibly hollow.
I was simply stunned when I heard what Alec Ross, an entrepreneur and former senior aide to Secretary Clinton, had to say at a recent AU Dems event when asked how to win back Trump voters in places like West Virginia. Essentially, Ross said that Democrats have to tell those voters that their jobs are not coming back and that all we can do is to make sure their children have the education they need to compete in the global economy.
Does any sane person actually believe this is a message that will persuade – let alone inspire – those Trump voters who voted for him out of desperation in the first place? And how can anyone who considers themselves even vaguely left-leaning possibly believe that these people deserve to spend the rest of their lives in poverty and depression simply because they did not enter the “right” industry with the “right” skills?
Equally ridiculous are the ideas of those I call “moderate populists.” They think the way to win over the white working class is to talk less about, say, racial justice, take more moderate stances on guns and abortion and to focus the economic message on manufacturing jobs, trade deals and infrastructure investments, essentially co-optng much of Trump’s economic agenda.
While this throwback to 1990s centrism might win back some votes in the Rust Belt in the short run, in the long run it still does nothing to combat rampant inequality, curtail corporate greed or reform the corrupt political system. It also has next to nothing to offer millennials struggling with mounting college debts or minority workers working long hours earning starvation wages.
Rarely do you see in the Democratic fold are people who have big ideas and want to take this country in a fundamentally different direction. While it might make sense politically to shy away from the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders if their opinions are truly fringe and unpopular, it is extremely disingenuous and foolish to deride their populist (albeit slightly different) visions as some unrealistic pipe dreams when they seem pretty well received by the American public.
According to Gallup polls, 71 percent of Americans supported raising the minimum wage in 2013. As of last year, 61 percent believed the rich pay too little in taxes, 58 percent favored single-payer healthcare and 47 percent wanted tuition-free college (as opposed to 45 percent who don’t). Bernie Sanders, the biggest social democrat in the country, also happens to be by far the most popular national politician of either party at the moment. Are these just pure coincidence? Or maybe, just maybe, the American people genuinely like social democratic policies because these policies, you know, address their needs?
As the dumpster fire that is the Trump administration rages on, it’s easy for the left to get sucked into passively resisting his reactionary moves without putting forward an alternative. It is equally easy, however, for the left to present an alternative that is a patchwork of the same old, same old, that lacks a bold vision and fails to inspire.
The Democratic Party can either recognize the grotesque injustices in the current economic, social and political systems, offer a broad, inclusive and progressive vision for the country and create a new, diverse “New Deal Coalition” to regain power, or it could face yet another humiliating defeat by the orange con man who can at least utter the phrases “the forgotten man and woman,” “drain the swamp!” and “keep America great!”
Frank Yuwen Chen is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.