The 2016 election was disastrous for Democrats, but they seem determined to avoid the obvious lessons. Maybe rigging the nomination against Bernie Sanders was not such a good idea; maybe the economic precarity of low- and middle-income citizens deserves real attention; maybe actually delivering on prison reform would energize the minority vote; maybe Obama’s presidency, which ended by hemorrhaging Democratic seats nationwide, was not perfection; maybe people really do want single-payer health care, not subsidies for the medical insurance industry; maybe students drowning in debt need a lifeline; maybe unions need an ally; maybe warmongering, Wall-Street-beholden Hillary Clinton was a dreadful candidate—but no. Instead, Democrats fixate on a Russian conspiracy and how former FBI director James Comey interfered with Clinton’s coronation.
This blindness comes as no surprise to the contributors to US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty, a recently published collection of essays from socialist perspectives on
how we got stuck with Trump. Several essays observe that it wasn’t so much that Trump won as that Clinton lost, because the election’s second biggest story was the drop in Democratic voters; the biggest story was the Democratic primary, when millions of small donors and millennial voters gathered unprecedented momentum behind the social-democratic planks of the Sanders campaign. As Mike Davis observes, “The issue of utmost importance to the left is whether or not the Sanders coalition . . . can be kept alive.” Will that coalition try to wrest power from the corporate Dems who still control the party? The alternative, a third party, could be a recipe for marginalization—unless it was big enough.
Several essays here affirm editor Lance Selfa’s view that “locating Trump’s key support among white workers is sloppy and inaccurate.” Indeed, Sharon Smith comments, Democratic Party leaders were frantic to blame someone other than Clinton for her loss and thus helped create the white-working-class-revolt narrative. But the working class is not “predominately white and male.” She quotes a study that shows Trump did not flip working-class voters; rather, “the Democrats lost them.” Bolstering this is Davis’s statistic that one hundred million eligible voters stayed home.
Charlie Post argues (in an essay first published in International Socialist Review) that the 2016 electorate “was even more disproportionately well-off than in the last three elections.” Working people are under assault, with living standards crumbling from “the forty-year-long bipartisan capitalist offensive.” That class warfare of the rich against the poor and middle class has cloaked itself in the term neoliberalism. And for Nancy Fraser, the Trump election signals “a collapse of neoliberal hegemony” (though it should never be forgotten that the neoliberal, austerity-pushing attack on ordinary people will only gain steam under Trump). Fraser argues that “ideals like diversity and empowerment . . . now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.” She argues that Clintonism weakened unions and caused the decline of real wages and the increasing precarity of work. It should also be noted that Bill Clinton slashed welfare and his policies (most injuriously, ditching the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act) financialized the economy in a way that caused the 2007–8 crash and the ensuing wave of middle-class bankruptcies and foreclosures. Of course many, many of those foreclosures were inflicted on minorities.
Kim Moody’s essay observes that “people who don’t vote are generally to the left of those who do.” Most likely that electoral apathy has to do with Republicans and Democrats both being the parties of corporate capitalism. But what are the Democrats doing to appeal to these millions of nonvoters? To judge from the struggles of the Sanders wing within the Democratic Party structure, not very much. Voter wrath at jobs lost to trade deals and Wall Street immunity to criminal prosecution for its massive fraud a decade ago received a tepid response, as did the Wisconsin uprising against reactionary governor Scott Walker when he gutted unions. According to Justin Akers Chacón, the Democrats’ approach is worse than tepid, as they have “multifaceted capabilities to corrupt, divide, and demobilize social movements.” So who will represent the poor, working people, minorities, and the first generation of Americans to come of age bankrupted by student debt, a generation that is not afraid of the word “socialist”?
With this question in the air, meanwhile we have Trump and his serial political assaults on working people. From its atrocious tax reform to its policy for owners to steal restaurant workers’ tips, the Trump administration has shown it harbors no doubts about which side of the class war it’s on, despite campaign lies to the contrary. Top that with the administration’s racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, and the need for a radical alternative screams at the political class. But so far, that class has shown itself as oblivious as FEMA in Puerto Rico.
“Well before Trump ever ran for president, the scale of class inequality in the United States was already the worst in the industrialized world,” Sharon Smith writes. Indeed, so unequal is the United States that the Economist published an analysis demoting the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.” Contributing hugely to this ballooning inequality is the decline of unions. Smith mentions a Bureau of Labor Statistics report that “the average number of major work stoppages by decade has declined over 95 percent since 1947.” Under Trump, the assault on unions will only intensify. With the Janus case now before a hostile Supreme Court majority, unions may lose yet another vital revenue stream.
US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty also takes up the danger of neofascism. In his essay, Neil Davidson does not consider Trump an incipient fascist, distinguishing “between fascist and nonfascist variants of the hard right.” He refers to Michael Mann’s three features of the nonfascist Far Right: seeking office through democratic, electoral means; not worshipping the state; and not seeking to “transcend” class. He quotes Trotsky: “When a state turns fascist . . . it means primarily and above all, that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism.”
Fortunately, we are not there yet. The United States has a reactionary executive and legislature, through which reactionaries have, once again, captured the Supreme Court. But as the Sanders campaign and the rhetoric about helping average citizens of the Trump campaign showed, Americans are done with neoliberalism, with many millenials seriously questioning capitalism. This opens a greater opportunity than ever for anticapitalists and socialists, an opportunity that needs a political party to succeed.