La Voce has been in the vanguard of newspapers analyzing the politics of the Trump circus. While others have poured rivers of ink over judicial, economic, diplomatic and other arenas of the current Grand Guignol, this paper, with a sense of European history in its quiver and a sharp eye for some of the parallel tracks being followed in current Italian politics, has faced directly the threat to American and Western political norms.
A recent survey, in these pages, of what light the social sciences can shine on today’s malaise led friends and readers to ask the logical what-is-to-be-done question. The findings of the recent work of the major social sciences were clear: the American Right wing is engaged in a brutal trampling of the political rules and practices once considered inviolable, while proving the feeble inadequacy of the factors intended as safeguards against precisely what they are doing.
So what is to be done? Since a sign of the ill health of the political corpus is the increasing use of normally-non-political tools (the courtroom, executive orders instead of legislation, etc.) the clear answer must be the use of mainstream political action – voting and electioneering. The answer is correct, but it is that of a high school civics class (in itself a dying species). It is too simple, too shapeless. This is a brief attempt to give shape to the targeting and, thereby, the shape of the strategy that can change the numbers enough to change the outcome.
The basic diagnostic fact is that today’s ugly politics, with its brutal selfishness, did not start with Donald Trump. The last two Democratic presidents have contributed to the mis-use and over-use of executive orders when they were frustrated by the Congress. The American Left has frequently turned to the courts in the pursuit of social objectives lacking enough Congressional support. Most important of all, the pivotal change in American elections, that which opened the doors to big money, even at the local level, and to bizarre candidates who would never have come out of the infamous smoke-filled rooms, were the “McGovern reforms”, the disastrous result of good intentions.
However, most of today’s political savagery has been cooking in the kitchen of a wing of the Republican party since the early 1960s; even today it has a Gingrich odor. The success of that wing is shown by the fact that it is no longer a wing: the moderates are now just a wing of the snarling main body. The extremists have planned and built, especially at the state and local levels, in order to rule over the long haul.
As a consequence, the Democrats cannot just focus on a single election, even granting the probably-historic importance of next month’s voting. They must envision a root-and-branch transformation of the two-party system over that same long haul, digging even deeper than the gerrymandering and voter suppression games that were the focus of the GOP effort. It means nothing less than an examination of the social and economic class (Yanks hate that word) structure of today’s United States. This will be raw, perhaps painful, but necessary.
To start at the top….
The Democrats can forget about the moneyed upper one percent, probably most of the upper five percent. With some heroic exceptions, the Warren Buffetts and a few other mavericks-of-conscience, the wealthy will vote their selfish interests, alerted by their teams of advisors against anything bearing the aroma of wealth distribution. The failure of the super-rich to recognize how much they have to lose through climate change and civil unrest, to see that the Mexican wall will make it more expensive to get their swimming pool cleaned, has thus far been lost on many of them, as well as the current failure (or willful ignoring) by their armies of financial advisors and other consultants. Most of the super-rich will continue to finance the politicians who agree that global warming is a fantasy, that blood-spattered tyrants can be terrific friends and allies, and that affordable medical care is the reason why Sweden and Canada no longer exist as nations.
At the next level, the focus on the upper-middle class in the Democrats’ day-to-day campaigning makes perfect sense. Many of these citizens are still open to arguments based on justice and social compassion, and can calculate intelligently about their own self interest and some version of the good of society. They do go to the polls and they are permitted to vote. But they are not enough. A major achievement of the Republican party has been to render these voters insufficient for long-term electoral success.
Without relying on the term “proletariat” it is important to calculate correctly the size and shape of America’s bottom and lower rungs. For the political calculus, this sector is far larger today, for the political calculus, than just the number of those below the poverty line. In terms of potential political behavior, it goes far beyond the unemployed and those on welfare. It must, today, include those who do not work full time and are, even when they do, seriously underpaid and those whose buying power has not gone up over the last few years (a very large segment of whom have seen their wages, in real terms, actually go down). It thus includes much of the “lower middle class”. This enormous bloc is properly labeled the disappointed. They are not where they thought they would be after years of striving. And the old American belief that their children would prosper, would lead better lives than they themselves have had —this part of the American dream has vanished.
And some, especially the young, the dark-skinned, the newly arrived, have never even gotten a toe-hold on the ladder to that dream.
The great strategic achievement of the Republican Right has been to divide this disappointed class, to make it a battlefield in an artificial civil war. Well, maybe not entirely artificial: a part of the disappointed class is in the embrace, fueled by the language and postures we associate with Donald Trump, of a growling atavistic racism, unrelated to their own economic and other interests. They read the Trump slogan in translation: Make America White Again. They have, effectively, dropped out of modern America. (Some few, when they discover the extent of the lies they have been told, may actually scramble back aboard.)
Despite the powerful poisons of lies and their fathers’ hatreds and phobias (often the same thing), these points of neuralgia will not be enough in the long, or middle, term, to mask a crucial fact: the very large main body of the disappointed have such strikingly common interests that they constitute a great unrecognized, unrealized, unborn coalition, of a size that wins elections.
Let’s put to rest the one fabrication that would cast a shadow on the birth of this game-changing new coalition. This is the myth the white part of this mass (mostly rural, mostly in the American heartland) rarely, very rarely, is in direct competition with the darker part (blacks, Latinos, immigrants from many places) for the same jobs.
The truth is that they all absolutely share an interest in wages, working conditions, health care, education, social welfare, environmental pollution, climate change, justice, policing, fair progressive taxation, extreme economic inequality…all the buzz issues that naturally unite them.
Donald Trump and his posse have made a strenuous political effort to dig the current gulf between these two quasi-proletariats, in order to cast them as natural enemies. The effort has paid off. They managed, especially during the primary season, to expand and weaponize the race factor. (In the election itself, geography, urban vs. rural, had the most consistent match to voting behavior.) But the coalition we anticipate is starting in ideal territory: the comprehensive American National Election pre- and post-election survey of over 4,000 respondents found that the voters most likely to base their vote on economic factors were the independents. As a coalition starter, they are there for the taking.
The conservative author Max Boot, author of The Corrosion of Conservatism, a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and senior foreign policy advisor to Mitt Romney and John McCain, writes that “there are more independents now than there are either Democrats and Republicans… There is the potential for the Democratic Party to seize a lot of the dissatisfaction that’s been fed by Donald Trump… There are a lot of people who are potentially open to a new political identity, and if the Democratic Party can seize the moment I think it has the chance to do a generational realignment of the kind that occurred during the New Deal.”
The mention of the New Deal is apt. Does the coalition we are imagining, a coalition so great as to make of the GOP a permanent minority until it returns to the path of dialogue rather than killer warfare, seem at all possible? Those who find it unlikely should examine the composition of the coalition that produced the great Democratic victories of the mid-twentieth century. Grouped into this politically-effective alliance were minorities and immigrants, Southern racists, organized labor, much of the farm community, urban intellectuals (and, of course, several big-city political machines). Now they had some truly competing interests. Compared with that Democratic coalition, the joining of hands of today’s disappointed should be easy.
Where should one begin? Not with empty “Trump must go” sloganeering, nor the dauntingly difficult approaches to impeachment or removal via the 25th Amendment, which, in the unlikely case of success, would deliver to us the prize of… Mike Pence, and all of which would leave the Republican Right entrenched in much of the country’s state and local government. Our political malady can have nothing but a political cure.
This essay is not a cheering section for any particular candidate or faction within the Democratic party. The Democrats who might lead a groundswell have probably not yet emerged nationally. But it is not early in the 2020 game: Trump has signaled that the campaign is already under way. The first round will be fought next month. The Democrat who has put herself at the forefront of the issues that hold the key to a new coalition is obviously Senator Elizabeth Warren, the voice most heard today on the subject of our extreme, and worsening, economic inequality. There will surely be others. Some accuse Warren of being a one-issue candidate. And there are, in fact, other attractive possibilities that are emerging, although without the current name-recognition of Warren. Another senator, Kamala Harris, is a strong progressive voice on a series of crucial social issues. These issues are those about which urban Democrats care most but are exactly the issues that have brought defeat in the heartland. (The best analyses of the 2016 election show that neither gender nor race were the most salient dividing factor of our current political gulf. It was whether the voter was urban or rural. In many states, Trump did very well with white women voters. Exit polls showed they were voting other issues. )
The issue with which Warren is identified, however, is the over-arching, make-or-break issue that can shape the great coalition of the disappointed and signal the true end of the divisive and cruel politics of the Trump Moment. It is the issue that can unite the disappointed, giving birth to the great coalition that is lying in wait.
There are probably three time frames at work here. We have discussed what we believe to be the reality of the long term, which is, if the republic can be salvaged, the shorter-long-term. If the electoral furniture can be re-arranged sufficiently to pull us out of the current desperate survival mode, then we will have a chance to educate our young to the spirit and norms of a liberal democracy, to interdependence and underuse of available power, rather than the murderous zero-sum game they see today on television.
Will we even get the opportunity to act on our long-term interests? Has the system been fatally captured so that “normal” political functioning is a hopeless enterprise? That is the question posed by next month’s crucial mid-term election and, after that, by the ability of Democrats at the state and local level to engage in the political grunt work at which Gingrich Republicans excelled, but which also brought us John Kennedy and Barack Obama.
Here is the central political fact of this historic moment: in the most recent voting for the White House and for each of the two houses of Congress, the Democrats have garnered more popular votes than the Republicans. Yet the Republicans now control all three. They are hard at work to keep it that way.
The Founding Fathers laid the cornerstone with the electoral college. Egregious gerrymandering has now stacked the odds to make change almost impossible. When incumbents draw the lines they need only be insecure if they have botched it. And now the voter-suppression effort in some states has become, to use the word one scholar used to characterize Georgia’s assault on black votes, massive. By latest count, election officials in that state are refusing to process 53,000 registration applications and have, since 2012, purged more than twenty percent of the state’s registered voters from the rolls. The 1.4 million victims are mostly black or are found in precincts showing dangerous liberal tendencies. Georgia is only one state among many where the fundamental act of our democracy is under siege. When he was trailing in the polls, candidate Trump declared that the system was rigged. The facts haven’t changed, only the look on his face, or so we can imagine, when he says it.
The long-term solution for a return to political health is there, not just waiting to emerge, but perhaps even inevitable. But will we be allowed to get to the long term? November may hold the answer to that.