by Bryan Henry
Like many liberals and progressives, I was shocked and dismayed after the election of Donald Trump, and I went through a very real “grieving” process as I came to terms with what had happened. I thought I had accepted the reality of the election results and even felt reasonably self-assured about the future of the country and of the Democratic Party on Inauguration Day. And yet, on Day 3 of Trump’s presidency, I found myself entering a second “grieving” process having perceived the magnitude of the election in much sharper focus.
Trump hasn’t been in office for one week, and he has already issued executive orders to abandon the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, construct the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines, and begin further construction of the border fences that currently exist on the U.S.-Mexico border. One can only hope that these seemingly high-profile actions are intended to fill the space left by not following through on promises to “cancel” the Iran Nuclear Deal and Paris Climate Agreement on Day 1, which was a common campaign pledge. Nonetheless, Trump’s early actions are concrete manifestations of his Inaugural Address, which declared a new era of “America First” economic nationalism. The shift in rhetoric, and now in policy, is monumental and it is happening at a pace that is difficult to keep up with or wrap your mind around. When a Republican president is openly criticizing and canceling free trade deals you know, you are in a different political world, and it really drives home how transformational the 2016 election truly was and how much of a lost opportunity and tragedy it has proven for liberals and progressives. All of the practical political considerations that were commonly aired during the primary and general election campaigns now appear in a completely different light.
I was an enthusiastic Bernie supporter during the Democratic primary, but even I wondered if Hillary wouldn’t be a better commander-in-chief and overall president due to her experience working with Republicans and the fact that her politics were not tainted by the infamous “S” word (socialism). Reinforcing my reservations about the prospect that Sanders could actually win the Democratic nomination was the assumption that the Republicans would ultimately nominate someone who would be perceived as far more “mainstream” such as Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz who would have significant advantages as a young, Hispanic, change-agent with endless “anti-socialist” attack lines at their disposal for the general election. Personally, I was never quite sure how Bernie’s “socialist” label would play during a general election when hundreds of millions of dollars of Super PAC money would be spent to convince the public that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was upon us.
And yet, when I look at the 2016 Electoral College map now it is clear that Bernie would have won in a landslide and that the Democrats would most likely have a majority in the Senate and possibly making the House competitive. As I see it, there isn’t one blue state on the map that voted for Hillary that wouldn’t have also voted for Bernie even if some of the voters in that state were turned off by the “socialist” label. After all, for the most part, the “blue” states vote blue and the “red” states vote red. We saw evidence of that in how many states still voted Republican despite Trump being the nominee. The tragic irony of my concerns about Bernie’s viability in the general election is that there is no way the Midwest would have voted for Trump had a true populist, progressive like Bernie been on the ballot. In retrospect, it is crystal clear that Bernie would have won easily (and to his credit he made this case pretty passionately to the DNC right up to the national convention).
From the vantage point of January 2017, November 2016 is now a complete disaster. Bernie’s “democratic socialism” is no more or less a radical shift in rhetoric and policy than Trump’s “economic nationalism.” Trump’s victory is as “extreme” as Bernie’s would have been, but it is taking place nonetheless, and Trump’s party is largely falling in line behind him. It could just as easily be President Sander’s giving speeches about single-payer Medicare for All and the need for a carbon tax! The contrast in these two possibilities, now that one is a reality, is almost too much to process and cope with.
Neoliberalism just died. Something is going to actively replace it. It may be too late for the progressive, inclusive version of populism to triumph. The Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration could very well be the birth of a long-term movement that ultimately channel’s our populist shift towards a more egalitarian path, but that remains to be seen. I am hopeful and optimistic that the Democrats can create a grassroots movement modeled after the Tea Party’s resistance to Obama that will ultimately prevail, but for now, I am left trying to catch up to the reality of how significant an opportunity was just lost. Is the future of the Democratic Party that of the Labour Party in the UK? After all, gaining power is not simply about “messaging.” There are structural barriers in place that make the left’s task quite an uphill climb.
The House of Representatives has been gerrymandered quite successfully to give the Republicans an advantage, the Democrats control fewer state legislatures than any point since the 1920s, and the Republicans in power at all levels of government are aggressively restricting the opportunity to register and the ability to vote. Translating the energy of the Women’s March into concrete electoral gains will be very challenging. The 2018 midterms do not look good either: many Democrats will be defending seats in states won by Trump in 2016. Again, I do not recount all of these details in order to wallow in despair, but rather to fully take stock of where the Democratic Party is given where it easily could be. In other words, for me at least, the “grieving” process is not over. Perhaps I am just experiencing a delayed reaction of sorts, but I think it is important for liberals and progressives to fully feel what has been lost in order to strategize about how to resist and rebuild. If I have learned anything from the 2016 election at this point, it is that liberals and progressives should say exactly what they mean and unashamedly fight for it: higher taxes on the rich, single-payer health care, paid leave, a carbon tax, etc. Trump’s election and inauguration prove that we have nothing to lose in doing so.