I, like many of you, have spent the past month taking a deep dive into what the heck is going on with American politics. I am going to write something longer in due time, but for now, below are five ideas, inspired by the best takes I have read so far. My hope is they can help shed light on where to go and what to do next.
#1. We should understand the border war as the new culture war
American politics since the 1970’s has stabilized around two party coalitions. The quick way to describe the two has always been: a Republican Party that paired (1) economic liberalism with (2) cultural traditionalism and a Democratic Party that paired (1) economic regulation and public benefits with (2) cultural modernism. The domestic fights were generally culture war fights (gay marriage, English Only, flag burning, etc.) and regulation and public benefits fights (the Endangered Species Act, welfare reform, Obamacare, etc.).
A more nuanced take is to look at who won the day on each of these debates and see how the parties responded to those ascendancies.
By the 1990’s, economic liberalism had become dominant. A Democratic President had declared “The Era of Big Government is Over,” corporate-driven free trade was being promoted by both parties, and expanding Medicare to cover everyone was pushed out of the national debate. To those on the Left, the Democratic Party, as Roberto Unger once put it, ceased to have its own economic program — say, muscular unionism, anti-monopoly policies, serious welfare programs — and began solely providing a humanizing face to the corporate capitalist program of its Republican adversaries.
By the 2010’s, cultural modernism had become dominant. Fighting against women in the workplace became bizarre, powerful institutions – in tech, Hollywood, and business – became bulwarks of gay rights, and appealing to a multicultural America became the interest of future-thinking leaders in both parties (remember, the Spanish-speaking Bush family attempted to make inroads into the Hispanic vote in the 2000’s). To traditionalists, the Republican Party ceased to have a muscular cultural program and began solely providing a nationalist face to the cultural modernist program of its Democratic adversaries.
So, during the Obama era, the party coalitions were organized as follows: most Republicans advancing a muscularly liberal economic program and figuring out what to do with its losing cultural program and most Democrats advancing a muscularly modern cultural program and figuring out what to do with its losing economic program.
However, this situation created a vacuum, for there are millions of Americans that are not ready to give up the culture war and, in fact, can become very passionate about being the underdog fighters in it. Plus, there are tens of millions of Americans who are less in favor of muscular economic liberalism than Republican party elites are.
Seizing this vacuum is, in fact, how the last Republican President won. George W. Bush ran on a program of (1) fighting vigorously for the religious side of the culture war and (2) tempering the cruel elements of Republican economic liberalism. He even branded the two sides together into “Compassionate Conservatism.” This revved up evangelicals, won over suburban moms, and – because he chose to emphasize the religious aspects of the culture war and not the ethnic aspects – even won him a serious share of Hispanic voters.
This is exactly what Trump did, too, except with a 2016 twist. Instead of emphasizing the religious aspects of the culture war, he emphasized the ethnic aspects, trading a culture war for a border war. This way, he was able to fight the losing side of a culture war without quixotically fighting, say, gay rights or women in the workplace explicitly. (Meanwhile, he could wink at remaining religious conservatives by picking Mike Pence as his VP). Similarly, he tempered Republican economic liberalism, but instead of talking about faith-based programs for the poor (like Bush had), he talked about trade deals, infrastructure-based job programs, and preserving entitlemens, like Social Security and Medicare. Just like Bush, he was able to brand his cultural radicalism and economic heterodoxy together into one message: “America First.” This revved up white nationalists, did not scare off suburban moms, inspired those who had lost their manufacturing jobs, and even won him a serious share of secular voters.
Two things happened with Bush’s coalition after Election Day: (1) Bush eventually gave up on his economic moderation (continuing, rather than mitigating, Reaganite defunding, deregulation, tax cuts, and military spending) and (2) Bush used the culture war as a lever — through, for example, state gay marriage ballot initiatives — to rev up his coalition and win re-election in 2004.
We should look to Trump also (1) giving up on his economic nationalism and (2) surfacing a losing border war — through, say, border walls, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and reviving “English Only” policies — to rev up his coalition.
#2. We should engage and empower blue collar youth of all races
Much ink has been spilled on how the Democrats lost power because they lost the white working class vote. It’s true: Trump beat Clinton by a much wider margin than Romney beat Obama among white voters without a college degree. 34% percent of the Obama coalition was white voters without a college degree — a larger portion of the coalition than black voters, Hispanic voters, or well-educated white voters — and Clinton was not able to reassemble that column of the Obama coalition. Much of this is due to young Northern white voters without a college degree: Obama beat McCain by almost 20 points among 18-to-29-year-old Northern white working class voters while Clinton did not even beat Trump among that group.
However, the white working class was not the only group to relatively disengage from the Democratic Party in 2016. There was also a considerable decline — 5-10% — in black voter turnout. Restrictive voter ID laws do not account for this decline: turnout dropped consistently across the country, including an 8% drop in turnout in majority black wards of Philadelphia and 47,000 fewer voters cast for Clinton in Detroit (which is 82% black) than for Obama four years earlier.
Two groups within the demographic especially account for the decline: young black voters and black voters without a college degree. Young black voters made up 46 percent of black registered voters who did not turn out to vote in 2016. This is likely driven by favorability: Clinton’s favorable rating was 10% lower among the youngest black voters as among the oldest. In majority-minority communities with high education levels, Clinton beat Trump by wider margins than Obama beat Romney. But in majority-minority communities with lower education levels, Clinton won by an average of only 7 percentage points, three points less than Obama’s margin of victory in 2012.
This storyline is not covered by the media as much, because these black voters did not switch their allegiance to Trump– they simply disengaged from casting a ballot for Clinton. Because this storyline is not covered, Democratic strategists are centering their future plans on appealing only to young blue collar voters who are white, without considering what they can do to better appeal to young blue collar voters who are balck. So, I raise this all not to say anything critical of either of these groups– it is the job of a party to engage voters with it’s program, not the job of the voters to get in line. I raise this because who a party identifies as disengaging from them is who that party chooses to adjust themselves to the next election cycle. The Democratic Party thus should adjust itself to better engage all young blue collar voters — white and black — in the next election cycle. A revival of Bobby Kennedy’s “black-and-blue” rhetoric — appealing to black and white, urban and rural wage workers with neighborhood values (family, church, community) and practical economic power (minimum wage, benefits, unionization) — might do the trick.
#3. We should opt for hitting Trump directly, rather than technically
14% of the electorate in 2016 — 18 million voters — found both candidates unqualified for office. This group — the fully disillusioned — broke heavily for Trump: 69% to 15%. Trump and his cronies are mud kings — if the game is tit-for-tat, they win. That’s why they love muddying up the waters: if they are attacked for something, they attack back relentlessly until there is so much chaos that people do not know who to trust.
This is why I am very skeptical of Trump criticism that hits him on minor technicalities, like his improper procedures, his breaking of decorum, his spelling, his bizarre style choices, his manner of speaking, or his misunderstanding of history. When we hit him on minor technicalities, we play into his game. First, by criticizing minor aspects of his proposals — for example, the countries he has chosen for his refugee ban — we appear to be endorsing the general thrust of his proposals. Second, by criticizing his style choices, we play into his narrative that he is the forgotten man’s hero who disturbs elites by breaking stupid rules for the sake of helping the people. It would not surprise me if we found out that he intentionally misspells words or misquotes history just to bait his opponents into getting into the tit-for-tat mud pit with him.
The better way to take him on is to just clearly and consistently hit him at the deeper level: the immorality and misdirection of his leadership. Trump is not bad because he is boorish — we would love a goofy President who supported good policies. Trump is bad because he is (1) leading our country in the wrong direction; and (2) he is lying about it.
That’s why we should hit him at these deeper levels, by consistently and powerfully repeating (1) a diverse nationalism based in patriotic solidarity is better than a walled-off nationalism based in chaotic fear and (2) economic and political power should be decentralized among the many rather than concentrated among the few, while repeatedly reminding everyone that (3) Trump is a con artist who only cares about himself.
So, the next time Trump mispells a word in a tweet, ignores a procedural precedent or even posts a picture of a taco bowl, we should resist the urge to play into his hands and correct his technical mistake. Rather, we should repeat the big messages: Down with Fearmongers, Up with Solidarity; Down with Oligarchs, Up with Democracy; Down with Con Artists, Up with Patriots.
#4. We should see the acute emergency as the face of a long emergency
It is understandable that some see Trumpism as a uniquely sinister force that has come out of nowhere. Some think the strategy should be to paint Trump as an acute emergency for America that stands outside of normal politics.
However, no matter what might be strategically best, the truth remains that the acute emergency of Trumpism is a symptom of a longer national emergency. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush also appointed corporate insiders to lead the departments of government tasked with overseeing corporate regulation. The Republican Party has been unable to build an internal coalition to partner with Democrats to pass immigration reform throughout the 2000s. When the world was called on to help Syrian refugees last year, 30 governors called for the U.S. to turn them away. The 114th Congress had 182 climate change deniers in it. The Senate Majority Leader has made it his life work to dismantle any campaign finance barriers to converting economic wealth into political power. The Speaker of the House rose to power because he drafted a tremendously unpopular and unfeasible budget that would cripple Medicare, end federal medical research, stop federal food inspection, cease college tuition aid, and cut support for the health care of the quarter of American children in poverty, all for the sake of lowering the taxes of millionaires and billionaires. Indeed, Trumpism is not the first powerful menace in recent American politics.
If we solve the acute emergency, we are still left with the long emergency, which will assuredly produce more powerful acute emergencies in due time. Just as “a house divided against itself” could not stand 150 years ago, a house so lacking in solidarity — between the races, between the parties, between the haves and the have-nots, being the cities and the country — cannot stand today. If Trump does not destroy us, the next, more suave con artist will.
As those recently mobilized by the thuggish and shocking face of our collective isolation begin to see that solving the acute emergency will not solve the long emergency, they will lose their fervor. That’s why it is imperative that we use this moment to not just fight Trump, not just fight Trumpism…but to fight the sickness itself and plant the seeds of the antidotes to the long-emergency: the seeds of more solidarity, the seeds of more sustainability. the seeds of more democracy.
#5. We should turn mobilization into institutionalization
Mobilization might just solve the acute emergency. Twitter and Facebook can, as we saw in Tahrir Square a few years ago, turn out crowds at a moment’s notice. As Trump continues to misfire, the waves of crowds and calls to Congress will only grow. But as we also learned from Tahrir Square, mobilization might have been enough to topple a dictator but was not enough to prevent another from rising up.
That is why we need to turn mobilization into institutionalization: we who show up to ralliers need to get onto lists and into weekly meetings. We need to get to know each, build trust, and establish routines of engagement. We need to mix the large group work of turning out for big rallies with the small group work of learning about particular issues. All of the groups we are praising in the Era of Trump — Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, CAIR… even the federal judiciary itself — are the product of civic leaders who turned the spark of mobilization into institutions that are so lasting that they show up 100 years later. We must fight the long emergency with civic institutions built for the long-run.
So let’s not just tear down the wall this year… let’s build the foundation.