The Blue Wave that Never Came

Photograph Source: Natalia Medd – CC BY 2.0

Some Democrats had been hoping that popular rejection of Donald Trump would lead to a clear Biden victory on election day, the taking of a majority in the Senate, and an increase in the Democratic majority in the Congress. But the anticipated Democratic landslide was not to be. Trump won the key up-for-grab states of Florida, Texas, and Ohio by strong margins. Biden is headed toward an Electoral College majority on the basis of narrow majorities in Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and possibly Georgia, and the results likely will face legal challenges from Trump. If the Democrats can muster a majority in the Senate, it would be through victories in two runoff races in Georgia in January, creating a 50-50 tie that could be broken by a Democratic Vice-President presiding over the Senate. And the Democratic majority in the Congress will be smaller than prior to the election. With high voter turnout by U.S. standards, Trump received nearly 48% of the popular vote, getting more votes than Barack Obama or any previous victorious presidential candidate.

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has written that “We have just experienced four years of the most divisive and dishonest presidency in American history,” yet it produced “no landslide — no overwhelming majority telling Trump and those around him that enough was enough: Be gone with you and never bring that kind of politics of division back to this country again.” Friedman quotes Doy Seidman: “Whatever the final vote, it is already clear that the number of Americans saying, ‘Enough is enough’ was not enough. There was no blue political wave. But, more importantly, there was no moral wave. There was no widespread rejection of the kind of leadership that divides us.’’

Why was there no overwhelming moral rejection of leadership that divides? I believe that the answer is that both sides speak only to their base. Both sides use divisive rhetoric. Both sides are incapable of reasonable appeals beyond their base.

I like the way New York Times columnist David Brooks has put it. He maintains that those of us who are anti-Trump ought to consider our own sins. “Over the past four years we’ve poured out an hourly flow of anti-Trump diatribes and in almost every case they rise to the top of the charts — most liked, most retweeted, most read. Even when justified, permanent indignation is not a healthy emotional state. We’ve become a little addicted to our own umbrage, addicted to that easy feeling of moral superiority, addicted to the easy affirmation bath we get when we repeat what we all believe. Trump-bashing has become a business model.”

The fundamental problem with Trump-bashing is that it is superficial, often focusing on his personal conduct, rather than critically analyzing the Trump political project, taking it seriously as a viable political project, albeit morally and scientifically flawed. The Trump project is a viable political project because it responds to the relative productive and commercial decline of the nation during the past forty years and to resulting popular anxieties and insecurities. Trump promises to end the decline, and to make American great again. With justice, he accuses the political establishment of having failed to defend the nation in recent decades; he presents himself as a defender of the people. He speaks not the language of identity politics but the more traditional language of patriotism. These components are the basis of his popular appeal, and criticizing his inappropriate behavior is not going to persuade his followers, who see such behavior as signs that he is with them.

The Trump project has a degree of logic, responding in a certain manner to the relative productive and commercial decline of the nation. It has sought: trade agreements with China, Mexico, and Canada that are more protective of U.S. manufacturing (and employment); to require Europe to pay more for its defense, reducing costs to the USA; to terminate U.S. involvement in costly endless wars in the Middle East, focusing instead on imperialist control of Latin America and the Caribbean, seen as the nation’s historic backyard; to reduce unnecessary environmental regulations, thus stimulating production (and employment); to increase military expenditures, thus strengthening the nation’s strongest industry and preparing the nation for defense of its region; and to enforce immigration laws and enable greater U.S. control of its borders.

To be sure, Trump has implemented the project in a crude and divisive way, without regard for civility and decency nor for standards of truth, sometimes using scapegoating strategies. And his erratic behavior appears to have prevented any possibility for creating a competent administrative team that supports his vision and is able to implement it. Moreover, the project is guided by mistaken assumptions, albeit assumptions that are commonly held in American political culture. But these defects do not negate the fact that the Trump project is a logical response to the abandonment of the nation and the people by the U.S. political establishment during the last forty years. The 48% that voted for Trump have enough common-sense intelligence to see the logic of the Trump project; their view is that, at long last, someone is addressing their concerns.

In a November 5 telephone caucus, Congressional Democrats assessed the disappointing results. Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia chastised progressive Democrats for embracing the “defund the police” movement and for not making forceful arguments against accusations of socialism. Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina said that Democrats have to overcome racial animus in the electorate and to avoid supporting certain far-left policies that alienate key sectors of the electorate, such as “Medicare for all or defunding police or socialized medicine.” Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas warned against antifracking talk, which voters hear as taking away jobs. Some progressives, however, warned against turning away from a progressive agenda, inasmuch as it galvanizes youth and brown and black people.

It is true that embracing a progressive agenda to some extent galvanizes youth and brown and black people, but as it is presently framed, it also alienates an important element of white society as well as some Latinos and blacks. The lesson from the disappointing results is not an avoidance of the progressive demands and hopes but a reframing of the progressive agenda in a form that speaks to persons beyond the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.

In part, it is a question of far greater attention the political education of the people. In today’s world, the protection of the environment and the rights of the people to health care and affordable education are among the fundamentals of democracy, and the government must play a central role with respect to these issues. But such a necessary conception of democracy has to be explained to the people; it cannot be expressed as a soundbite, a tweet, or a shout in the street.

In addition, some issues have to be reframed. Calls for defunding the police are idealistic. And accusations of systemic racism constitute a simplistic and ethnocentric reductionism with respect to a complex historical global problem; and it is inconsistent with the personal experiences of white people. The question of the political empowerment and the economic development of the black community can be formulated in a manner that invites the support of popular sectors in white society, particularly if it were to be proposed as a dimension of a comprehensive plan of action that attends to the rights and needs of all the popular sectors.

Progressives need a discourse that explains and invites. And they need a political theory and practice that challenges the political establishment and the corporate elite.

The success of Trump, in spite of his considerable defects, is rooted in the fact that Trump dared to take on the political establishment, calling it out for its abandonment of the nation and the people for the past four decades. Initially opposed by the Republican political establishment, Trump took control of the Party through the support of the people, and then brought sectors of the elite on board in support of the project, who were persuaded of its consistency with their interests. The Democratic Party, if it wants to have the popular support necessary for a governing consensus, has to move in a similar anti-establishment direction, with a unifying discourse. Progressive democratic politicians, with the support of the people, have to take control of the Party from its corporate sponsors; or bolt from the Party to form an alternative political party and movement.

A politically intelligent response by the Left to the Trump project has to formulate an alternative project that responds to the irresponsibility of the political establishment and both political parties during the last forty years; and that delegitimates the false assumptions of both the Trump project and American political culture. It has to reframe the American narrative, building upon the people’s movements and revolutions, including the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian revolution and the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century; the anti-trust movement of the progressive era; and the African-American movement of the twentieth century. It has to address issues of ecology and peace in the context of a comprehensive long-range plan for the economic development of the nation. It has to formulate the principles of the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious beliefs; yet without appearing to favor sectors historically victimized by discrimination; and with appreciation that issues like gay marriage and abortion are complex cultural questions, which can only be resolved through constructive discussion and education and not through imposition.

The rampant disinformation in public discourse is a serious problem. It has historic cultural roots, including a popular anti-intellectualism as well as post-modern philosophical tendencies. The left has to formulate explanations concerning standards of truth and of the role of science in public affairs, educating the people toward the fundamentals of reasonable public discourse, and leading them toward reasonable and informed public discourse in practice.

The unacknowledged original sin of the nation is conquest and imperialism. Even as it recognized the contradiction between slavery and democracy and moved from the beginning toward the limitation and eventual abolition of slavery, the nation nonetheless took for granted that the North American continent consisted of freely available land, and it assumed that it had the right to conquer the indigenous nations, an assumption that was never debated. With the same mindset, the nation since the beginning of the twentieth century has assumed that it has a right to control the politics and the natural resources of other lands. With its cultural blindness, the nation does not see that the neocolonized peoples of the earth today are demanding their right to be sovereign, and it cannot see that its global imperialist project is no longer politically, ecologically, nor financially sustainable. The alternative project of the left has to educate and lead the people toward a foreign policy of cooperation with the nations of the world, affirming the principle of the right of all nations to sovereignty and control of their natural resources.

The left has the duty to propose an alternative to the Trump project, addressing the concerns and anxieties of the people that fed the rise of the Trump project. The left must avoid the temptation of arrogantly dismissing Trump supporters for their supposed racism. The nation can move beyond Trump only by taking seriously the concerns of Trump’s followers, and leading them in an alternative, better direction.

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).