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Reframing the Issues and Taking Direction of the Nation

In El Paso, Texas, twenty-two persons were killed in a Walmart store, allegedly by a white supremacist gunman who had posted online a manifesto that railed against immigrants and an “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The attack has been described by Richard Parker, in an editorial in The New York Times, as the worst massacre of Latinos in the history of the nation. It has given rise, and correctly so, to denunciations of the inflammatory discourse of Donald Trump with respect to immigration.

The issue of immigration, however, needs to be reframed by defenders of the rights of immigrants, if they are to attain a majority consensus in support of their proposals. It is a question, in part, of recognizing the right of governments, by international law and custom, to regulate and control migration. And it ought to be acknowledged that the U.S. government, supporting the interest of employers in cheap labor, had been lax in the enforcement of immigration laws for decades, indifferent to the negative consequences for the nation of unregulated immigrant labor. The defenders of the rights of immigrants have to be careful to not imply that immigration should not be regulated or that immigration laws should not be enforced; rather, our focus should be on the obligation of the government to fully respect the human and legal rights of all persons, regardless of their migratory status. At the same time, in reframing the issue, the defenders of immigrants have to expand the frame of reference, making clear that the migration of masses of people to the nations with stronger economies is a symptom of, and not a solution to, the problem of global inequality. We must educate our people on this theme, explaining that the source of uncontrollable migration is underdevelopment, poverty, and violence in vast regions of the planet, a consequence of centuries of conquest, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. We must demonstrate that the necessary road for our nation is participation in a global project that seeks economic and social development of the poor nations of the world. By reframing the issue, we would be able to take a politically balanced position, acknowledging that immigration has not been sufficiently controlled, yet affirming the obligation of all to fully respect the rights of immigrants, and at the same time, taking a radical position that fundamentally reorients U.S. foreign policy toward North-South cooperation.

The nation is profoundly divided. On the one side are the defenders of the rights of blacks, women, gays, immigrants, nature, and science. On the other side stand the people of mainstream America, who believe that the post-1968 public discourse had been taken over by those who have disdain for them. The profound division emerged in the 1960s, provoked by demands for civil rights, black power, peace in Vietnam, and an end to poverty in the nation and the world. Important changes in the nation’s laws and customs emerged from that period of conflict, but a consensus with respect to a reformulated national narrative did not emerge. The nation remained divided, with certain limited but important changes for the most part accepted, but with resentment and anger festering in mainstream America. Nixon, Reagan, and Bush II were able to attain a level of popular support by exploiting these lingering resentments through discourses that revitalized traditional American narratives, in spite of their historically and scientifically outdated character. Such an approach could win national elections, but the majorities were not great, and the national polarization continued. Trump continues and escalates this tendency, bringing the nation to a deeper division.

The defenders of the rights of blacks, women, gays, immigrants, nature, and science are right in essence; we stand on the side of progress in the historic human quest for the true and the right. But we are politically limited, incapable of formulating our vision in a form that could attain a majority consensus. We must reformulate the American narrative; we must retell the American story in a new form that takes into account and overcomes its historic contradictions between, on the one hand, the proclamation of liberty and equality for all, and on the other hand, the practices of territorial conquest, genocide, slavery, racial and gender discrimination, imperialism, and neocolonial world domination. We must seek a popular consensus in support of a necessary national project that affirms the historic and contemporary virtues of the nation as it overcomes its vices.

In retelling the American story, progressive voices must seek a politically intelligent discourse that defends the rights of some without alienating many. The key here would be proposals for the protection of the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or class. Dr. King moved in this direction, in the aftermath of the gains of 1964 and 1965 with respect to civil and political rights, with the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Jesse Jackson further developed the idea through a proposal for a Rainbow Coalition in his presidential candidacies of 1984 and 1988. But the significant implications of these steps were abandoned by a turn to a form of identity politics that undermines the politically necessary task of building an inclusive popular coalition that seeks political power in order to defend the rights of all to education, health, housing, and security.

The new progressive national project, in addition, ought to acknowledge the valid base of Trump’s economic nationalism and trade wars, even though he pursues the nationalist economic agenda inconsistently, and in a form that is unnecessarily conflictive and disruptive. Trump’s nationalism reacts to the abandonment of the nation by the power elite, which responded to the structural crisis of the world-system with the global implementation of neoliberalism, a project that ensured the expanding profits of the elite as it ignored the needs of the people. Condemnation of the globalization policies from 1980 to 2016 as a betrayal of the nation and as callousness toward humanity, laying the economic and social foundation for the various global problems today, must be an integral part of the new progressive narrative.

At the same time, the new progressive narrative has to reject the militarization of U.S. economy and society, explaining to the people that overspending on the military and making the economy dependent on the arms industry does not make our nation stronger, but weaker. In this regard, Trump merely continues what has been a major tendency since the launching of the Cold War by President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, only partially and temporarily interrupted by the peace initiative of JFK in 1963 and the human rights policy of Jimmy Carter. Explanation of the negative consequences for the nation of the militarization of the economy and society must be integral to a new progressive narrative.

The New York Times columnist David Leonhardt maintains that the lesson of the elections of 2018 is that the Democratic Party can defeat Trump in 2020, if the Democrats avoid attacking him and focus instead on pocketbook issues like affordable health care and good jobs. However, they must avoid “progressive dreams like single-payer health care,” and focus on the daily problems that the people confront. He agrees with Theda Skocpol that democratic candidates should avoid “ultra-left issue stands — like calls to abolish private insurance and give free health care to migrants.” For this reason, Leonhardt favors the approach taken by the more moderate candidates.

I would submit, however, that the problem is not radical proposals per se, but radical proposals that are offered in a form that is isolated from a larger vision of a new direction for the nation, and thus they appear to the people to be unrealistic. A comprehensive package of proposals, integral to an alternative national project and a retelling of the nation’s story, is the necessary road to the taking of power by the people. To all who believe that this is not possible, I would note that it is the approach that generally has been taken by the leadership of popular movements in various nations who were successful in leading the people to the taking of political power, and they did so in the context of conditions that made their political triumph appear to be impossible at the time that the march to power was initiated.

Leonhardt is probably correct that a more moderate nuts and bolts approach to issues that concern the people is the best way to unseat Trump in 2020. However, the newly elected president would win by a relatively narrow majority, and she or he would face governing with a divided Congress and a divided people. The polarizing rhetoric of Trump would be avoided, but the new president, aware of deep ideological and social divisions, would have to tread carefully.

For the long term, the goal must be the attainment of a governing consensus through a progressive reformulation of the national narrative, in which our nation’s history and heroes are treated with respect, even as contradictions are recognized, analyzed, and explained. A national narrative that is comprehensive, historical, and global; and that combines theoretical and historical explanation with concrete practical solutions. A national narrative that seeks to guide our people to the taking of political power, based on a premise of belief in the essential goodness of the great majority of our people. That great majority only lacks leadership that is historically and scientifically informed and politically intelligent.

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Charles McKelvey is Professor Emeritus, Presbyterian College, Clinton, South Carolina.  He has published three books: Beyond Ethnocentrism:  A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science (Greenwood Press, 1991); The African-American Movement:  From Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition (General Hall, 1994); and The Evolution and Significance of the Cuban Revolution: The Light in the Darkness (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). 

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