Amidst Defeat, An Opening
Trump’s selection of Steve Bannon to be part of his transition team confirms everyone’s worst fears about the role race played in the campaign, and portends the worst about the role it might play in his administration. The so called “white nationalist” movement to which Breitbart news gives voice is– like the “men’s rights movement”– a transparent attempt to cloak a history of being the oppressor in the cloak of being oppressed. Still, the implications of an election are not determined mechanically by the team that the President elect chooses to bring about the transition of power. On going political action matters: no one is powerful enough to resist mass action for ever (witness the overthrow of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe through concerted workers’ struggles.
In that light, perhaps the biggest story of the American election is not that Donald Trump won, or that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote, but that 45% of eligible American voters did not cast a ballot. As of November 12th, Clinton had won the votes of 26.5% of eligible voters, Trump, 26.3%, about 3% to third party candidates, and the remaining 44 % did not vote. One can interpret these numbers as signs of political apathy, or as signs of a tremendous opening for new political argument, mobilization, and party building.
Apathy comes in two forms, let us call them negative apathy and positive apathy. In either case one cannot be moved to perform some task, but in the case of negative apathy it is because one really does not care at all about the task one does not perform, while in the positive case one might in principle care, but for whatever reason does not like what they are being asked to do on a particular occasion, and uses apathy as a form of protest. I do not know what the distribution of negative and positive apathy is in the case of the 2016 election, and it does not really matter: both positive and negative apathetic voters represent an opportunity on the Left for the construction of a new political movement and party.
Think the matter through. Whether one could not be bothered to vote because one thinks the task a waste of time, or whether one was actively protesting the choice between Trump and Clinton, (as many Sanders supporters seem to have done), one is rejecting American politics as it is currently organized: an either or choice between two massive political machines, both of which are deeply in the pockets of corporate donors and lobbyists, both of which have presided over the expansion of a totalitarian surveillance state, increasing inequality, economic crises, and military adventures abroad. Any dispassionate analysis of American politics would lead to the conclusion that with rare exceptions, for the past forty years, the range of policy options pursued has not changed the conditions of life in any positive way in any fundamental respect for working class Americans of whatever race or gender. Inequality has continued to grow, precarious labour has continued to replace secure full time work, and working class Americans form the bulk of the foot soldiers sent off to foreign wars in a failed effort to subordinate the world to American interests. Race and gender make these economic and political problems more intense, but this difference is one of kind, not degree. I will return to this important point below.
If we treat apathy as a political position and not a political failing (as too many Clinton supporters are doing, railing against those who did not vote as the reason why she lost rather than reflecting with the appropriate degree of self-criticism on the problem of why she did not move those people to vote for her), then the task for the American Left over the next four years is clear. Nearly half of eligible voters rejected the choices on offer: figure out how to build a movement and party that they will vote for and back in movements beyond the White House and Capitol Hill.
No doubt my math is overly crude: 45 % of eligible voters is about 80 million people and in a set of 80 million people political positions are bound to vary widely. Nevertheless, as heterogeneous as the positions might be, they have one important feature in common: they rejected both the Republican and Democratic parties. Assuming that it is almost impossible to not care at all, in any conceivable way whatsoever, about political problems (which are, after all, just problems about how we organize the public and collective aspects of life in which we are enmeshed as individuals), this silent 45% is not a lost cause but an opportunity to take American politics in a new direction.
Don’t Pontificate, Organize.
The old Wobbly slogan “Don’t mourn, organize!” is a propos of the given moment. The phrase comes form a telegram sent by Joe Hill to Big Bill Haywood while Hill was awaiting execution. His point was that what matters in life is what we do for the future: we do not honour the dead by memorializing them, but by carrying on the valuable tasks to which they devoted their lives.
Clinton is no Joe Hill. She certainly did not devote her life to mobilizing the working class to improve its conditions of life and free itself from domination by capital. Nevertheless, her loss is being portrayed as a loss for progressive social forces. It is certainly a loss for polite liberals, and, in so far as the polite liberals lost to a campaign that consciously stirred up racial anxieties, deliberately targeted immigrants and Muslims (and the establishment politicians who have purportedly abetted them) as the primary cause of America’s decline, and portrayed African Americans as ghettoized objects of failed Washington politics, the loss is significant. At the same time, the question should be posed: if Clinton was the progressive alternative, why did she not motivate more young progressive people to vote for her?
The question can only be meaningfully addressed by getting out into local communities everywhere and asking it. But not only asking it. Political mobilization presupposes political argument. Of the many troubling features of this campaign, the seeming impossibility of conducting a political argument, i.e., a more or less structured attempt to prove the truth of a conclusion through reason and evidence, which the opponent must either accept or reject by appeal to superior reason and evidence, is perhaps the most worrisome. The only alternatives to political argument are ideological sloganeering and overt violence. We have seen much ideological sloganeering and some overt violence in the wake of Trump’s victory.
The empty sloganeering has affected the anti-Trump side as well. It is fantastic to see young people demonstrating across America and people criticizing his tactics on social media. But demonstrations peter out and Facebook chatter changes nothing at the level of fundamental social structures. Ultimately, new political movements require people to commit time and energy to finding ways to institutionalize a set of values not adequately served by the established political parties rather than just re-assuring those they already agree with that they are free from the most odious traits of their opponents.
It is certainly the case that Trump’s campaign was odious. It is also certain that Trump was able to effectively tap into a section of white working class America that has not been well-served by the changes to the capitalist economy over the last forty years. They too must be listened to if effective political arguments in support of a new political movement and party are to be marshaled.
The most difficult thing about political argument is that it requires us to engage with people with whom we disagree. The more meaningful a political argument gets, the more heated it becomes. There is nothing wrong with the heat, in fact, it a proof that the argument concerns problems of vital importance. Nevertheless, because they get heated, these arguments are uncomfortable. It is easier to talk to people with whom you agree, and confirm for each other the superiority of one’s own beliefs and values. However, where there are real divides and conflicts in society, where lines are drawn, those who worry that those on the other side of the line are motivated by racist or other forms of demonizing thinking have an obligation to cross over the line and engage with their opponents. How else will people come to see that low wages and insecure work are not caused by illegal immigrants but changes to the way in which capitalism was organized and governed since the 1970’s. How else to make the case that immigrants from Latin America are the victims, not the beneficiaries of those same policies, if people do not go into the truck stops and bars and neighbourhoods where Trump voters live and make the case?
Every effective argument starts with listening to your opponent, proceeds by finding common ground, and concludes with the opponent seeing that what they initially took to be the solution to their problem and in their interests really is not a solution and not in their interests. But the first step must always be to listen. It is impossible to work out effective counter-arguments if you do not listen carefully to what the opponent has to say. In the case of Trump supporters, one will undoubtedly hear hard core and probably unshakeable racists beliefs. But those positions will be in a very small minority. More likely one is to find people who are frustrated, scared, angry, and feeling isolated from social forces that seem, from that position of isolation, uncontrollable. Over and over again in political history (Plato was the first to theorize the phenomenon in the 5th century BCE) powerless and voiceless people throw their lot in with demagogues who promise to solve their problems for them. They have always been disappointed.
Workers and the oppressed have improved their lives when they rely upon their own collective agency. The labour movement was the primary political and economic vehicle for the improvement of working conditions and standards of living, the civil rights movement overthrew Jim Crow laws in the US South, the women’s movement in its multiple manifestations has enfranchised women and given them control over their own bodies. But these movements were not the mechanical result of social forces but were built through political organizing. Political organizing requires political argument: with conservative members of the constituency one is trying to mobilize, and the enemy one is trying to defeat.
Ultimately, stable solutions require convincing enemies as well as friends. So, unless one thinks that human society is better when it is in a permanent state of disorder and conflict, (and the people who do believe this tend to be able to live outside of the conflict they endorse as good) argument in support of values which really would ensure access to the goods and institutions people require in order to become social self-conscious, self-determining agents, are necessary. Success in political argument is never guaranteed, and cannot be expedited. It takes time. How much time, no one can say. But more than a bare start should be achievable in the next four years if progressive Americans take up the task.