ELECTION 2016: POGO'S REVENGE
"We have met the enemy and he is us". Pogo got it right. As the losing side plays the usual blame game with much wringing of hands, notwithstanding whether one attributes the Presidential election result to supposed failures of Hillary's campaign or her persona, racism, economic stagnation or any of the other possible explanations of the outcome, the bottom line is that the American electorate (including eligible non-voters) screwed up. Here are some takeaways and some thoughts on going forward.
1. Low Voter Turnout. This is nothing new, but this time we're really paying for it. Leaving aside questions as to whether it was better or worse than in previous elections, or whether Obama voters from 2012 turned out in the same numbers, total voter turnout was only about 58% of eligible voters, and only 66% of eligible voters bothered to register. Even taking into account Republican voter suppression efforts, that is disgraceful, particularly for a county that likes to pride itself on spreading democracy to the rest of the world. Whatever happened to civic responsibility? Isn't it time to institute compulsory voting and fines for people who don't register and vote, at least for elections for national office (even if the vote is write-in or for none of the above)? As of 2013, 22 countries had compulsory voting, including Australia and 9 other OECD countries. This is appealing not only on the merits, but also because it is comforting to think that if everyone eligible had voted there would have been a different result. Faith in the good sense of the American people, although naive and unsupported by the evidence, dies hard (think of the popular vote). However, there is also the growing suspicion that this is a sick country, that the ideals that we grew up with are, and always have been, illusions, that this election has revealed the underlying reality show.
2. The Deplorables. Hillary was right (if impolitic) when she claimed a substantial number of Trump voters were deplorables. They are. Whether it's half, or 40% or 60%, it's significant. These are the racists, nativists, homophobes, misogynists, anti-Semites, white supremacists, the religiously intolerant and xenophobes who came out of the woodwork in response to Trump's blatant appeals. Bigotry, predominantly in the form of racism, whether overt or implicit, and nativism, were the defining motifs of Trump's campaign. Even those of his supporters who don't fall into these categories ought to be condemned for voting for such an"indecent human being" as Tom Friedman characterized him. He's being generous at that; "despicable" and/or "disgusting" would seem to be more descriptive. His Bannon, Flynn, Sessions and Pompeo appointments show his true colors, if there ever was any doubt.
3. The Willfully Ignorant. This segment of Trump voters includes those who have legitimate grievances, and they comprise a substantial portion of his backers. For the sake of convenience, the predominant theme of these grievances can be summarized as income inequality and stagnation, although they are also manifested through resentment toward the "elite", which seems to include the college educated, feminists, academics, government employees (particularly federal government employees), white collar workers, elected officials (but what happens then to those they elect? do they immediately become part of the elite?), urban dwellers, people who live on the East and West Coasts, and presumably the rich and famous (other than Trump). Income inequality (which will be deemed to include joblessness and low-paying jobs, when available) and income stagnation are the biggest issues in this country for the working class and the poor. It didn't start with the recent recession, and has persisted through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Something needs to be done about this, and Trump supporters are right to cast their votes for someone who will try to do some thing about it. But they voted for the wrong candidate.
Trump's policies, such as they are, are only going to exacerbate the inequality. He promises to bring back manufacturing jobs. Those jobs aren't coming back. Most of them were lost to automation, not trade agreements. Opting out of trade agreements and initiating trade wars isn't going to bring them back, but the cost of goods we are importing will go up for everyone and export industries will suffer, which is certainly not going reduce income inequality or increase the availability of well paying jobs. Probably this will also cut back on economic growth. Globalization has been around for a long time and isn't going away. National economies, including ours, are too integrated and dependent on each other to just put up a stop sign and say no more. It won't happen. The immigrants that Trump speaks of deporting or blocking at the wall are not taking well paying manufacturing jobs from Trump voters. They are mostly taking jobs that Trump supporters don't want. Whatever Trump proposes to do with Obamacare is not going to make paychecks go further; in fact, just the opposite as fewer become insured and end up having to pay more for medical expenses. Trump can't do anything for coal miners; coal is a dying industry because natural gas is an abundant less expensive and cleaner fuel and mining jobs are disappearing because of new mining methods. An infrastructure program will provide construction jobs, but that was part of Clinton's agenda as well, and Republicans have been opposing similar programs throughout the Obama administration.
Taxes are going to be cut - for the wealthy, thus expanding the wealth divide. For blue collar workers, the contemplated tax cuts are going to provide peanuts. The super wealthy will no longer have to deal with estate taxes. A lot of good that is going to do for blue collar workers. Corporate taxes will go down, but where do those benefits go - to bloated company management salaries and capital, i.e., shareholders, through share buybacks and increased dividends. He is going to cut back regulations which will help the big banks which he railed against in his campaign while curtailing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which protects consumers against predatory financial organizations, further enhancing the very institutions with which his supporters are so infuriated.
So what were they thinking? Or were they thinking? Probably not. They got taken in by a clever charlatan. He made big promises of everything they wanted. He didn't say how; he just said unequivocally that he would do it, that he would change things. He made the better offer. So they took it. They bought the snake oil. They should have known better, but they were so desperate and frustrated and angry that they voted for what they wanted to hear. They were convinced they were voting for change for the better. As one Trump supporter said, they would have voted for Captain Kangaroo if he were running. And they were getting even with what they think of as the elite who they blame for all of their travails. They didn't associate Trump with the elite, because the so-called elite were against him (and that probably contributed to their voting for him). So he couldn't be one of them. And he was saying all those spiteful things that many of his supporters were feeling, but would have been ashamed to say themselves. He legitimated their basest feelings. That's probably why the polls were wrong - they kept it to themselves until they reached the sanctity of the voting booth.
One of the greater ironies here is that this anger was vented against the one political party which has been trying to come to their rescue. The Republican Party has tenaciously obstructed every legislative effort of President Obama and the Democratic Party to address the issues which so frustrate those Trump supporters who are motivated by their economic distress. The Republicans fought against and weakened Dodd-Frank which targets big bank and other financial institutions; they opposed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, they opposed and limited the stimulus program; they opposed Obama's proposed infrastructure bank; they opposed the public option in the Obamacare legislation which probably would have reduced healthcare costs; they opposed increasing the minimum wage. They oppose a commitment to pre-K education, expansion of Pell grants, equal pay for equal work for women, and paid family and sick leave. All of these measures would ease the economic burden of working class families. They propose to make Medicare and Medicaid less generous, and in most States in which they are in control they have rejected Medicaid expansion even though the Federal government would pay almost all of the additional costs. This is the Party which shut down the Government and some of whose members were willing to have the US default on its debt. This is the Party which has caused the federal government to be dysfunctional for the past eight years, which has created the "swamp" that Trump promises to clean up. Trump supporters are right to want change, to "throw the rascals out", but instead they voted to elect the presidential nominee of the Party that created the mess and to maintain its majority in the Senate and House. They voted for a Party that calls for small government when it is only government which can protect them and provide the stimuli and incentives to the economy which will improve their lot. Echoes of "Keep the Government's hands off my Medicare". This anger at government flows from both ignorance and the race-based misconception that all government programs benefit only blacks and other minorities, which demagogues such as Trump and many others in the Republican Party are only too happy to exploit. After all, what else do they have to offer.
4. The Forces of Reaction. There are perhaps some fundamental issues reflected here that go beyond the problems of the day. These are the forces of political reaction. As Mark Lilla has pointed out in "The Shipwrecked Mind", "Reactionaries are not conservatives. They are ... in the grip of historical imaginings. ... [A]pocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary." The Republican Party today is not the party of conservatives but the party of reactionaries. Lilla goes on to say that the reactionary in his historical myth making blames everything on modernity, whose nature is to perpetually modernize itself. The reactionary builds on the resulting anxiety with political nostalgia, proclaiming the perpetual continuity of all things. Make America Great Again!
So, going forward - What is to be done? Two thoughts.
1. No Making Nice. There is the temptation to say, give Trump the benefit of the doubt; maybe all his threats were just campaign talk (more locker room talk?); maybe he'll turn out to be a pragmatist; maybe we can work out deals with him, make reasonable compromises. Forget about it (how do the Bannon, Flynn, Sessions and Pompeo appointments work for you?) That was the mistake Obama made when he was first elected in 2008 - that he could work with the Republicans. We know how well that turned out. Trump and the rest of the Republican Party are obstructionists and destroyers, not creators, and are not interested in governing, only in tearing things down for their own benefit. You might think of them as right wing revolutionaries. The only way to deal with them is to play hardball - to oppose them every step of the way. This is not just another lost election. It may sound Manichean, but this can be looked at with little exaggeration as the closest thing to Armageddon this country has faced since the Civil War, at least with the Republican Party in its present iteration and with Trump as its leader. If given the opportunity they would take down all progressive legislation and Supreme Court decisions (yes, the Court is now a political institution) going back to the New Deal (maybe even before), clearly an apocalyptic possibility. McConnell, at the beginning of Obama's first term, stated that his overriding objective was to make Obama a one term President. He didn't succeed, but that set the tone for all of Obama's legislative initiatives and judicial appointments (think Merrick Garland). To a great extent that strategy was successful. The Republicans never paid a price for it - witness the recent election in which voters supported the Party which largely created the mess in Washington with which they are so fed up. Democrats are the Party of reason, but reason only works when both Parties are playing by the same agreed ground rules with a sense of moral purpose and common decency and recognition of the pluralism of this country. The Republicans and Trump have rejected the prevailing rules and the ideal of a pluralistic society and have no moral sense. Reason is out the window. The only recourse is a policy of total resistance, including using the filibuster, as detestable as that may be in principle, for extremist Supreme Court and Cabinet nominations and regressive legislation. This is not to say that if opportunities arise whereby progressive policy objectives, such as the infrastructure stimulus proposal, can be achieved by reasonable compromises they should be rejected. By all means, the Democratic Party should take what it can get if the price is right, but keep in mind that any wavering will be seen as a sign of weakness, particularly by a school yard bully like Trump. Only strength, even if arbitrarily exercised, and especially if so, is respected by him.
2. How to Make It Work. The case has to be made to the public, and most specifically to those described herein as the willfully ignorant. Every action by Trump and the Republicans, whether in the form of proposed new legislation or amendment to or repeal of existing legislation or regulations or judicial decisions, needs to be analyzed specifically in terms of how it affects blue collar non-college educated workers and brought to their attention on a constant basis. It has to be done in layman's language in real life terms with the bottom line being jobs and effect on income and other material benefits, and conversely the effect on high earners' income and wealth. This should not be in the form of think tank style policy papers. The analysis needs to be politically focused and voter oriented.
In addition, the Democrats in Congress should be pro-active and not just react to Republican initiatives. They should come up with their own progressive legislative program even before the Republicans come up with theirs, and publicize the benefits of the Democratic proposals to the average voter. It needs to be communicated to members of the working class at the grass roots level. It doesn't matter that it will never pass. Let the Republicans reject it. And then make them explain why.
It may be obvious, but no less important is the need to expand voter registration efforts and to resist voter suppression tactics in the courts and at all levels of government. Changing demographics can't help if people don't vote.
The Democratic Party has historically been the party of the working man and woman, and in fact still is, but this reality has been lost on the average voter. The message is not getting through. The story is not getting told. The past eight years has not been great for the working class, but there have been many progressive achievements that have not been sufficiently promoted. This does not mean ignoring or diminishing concern with traditional Democratic social issues such as abortion, gun control, poverty, health care, affordable and quality education, equality of opportunity, discrimination, police over-reaction, the environment and gay rights, but they should not be addressed in the form of identity politics but as of benefit to the entire population; economic issues which emphasize broad economic growth for all need to be brought front and center. In other words there needs to be an effective appeal to the best side of populism. Why not a super PAC established exclusively for this purpose? And start immediately. There are only two years until the next election. It's still the economy, stupid!