Clintonian-centrism was defeated in November, but attempts to repeal Obamacare show the Republicans are weak and divided. Now is the time for the left to craft a populist alternative
Owen Jones: The Guardian posted 01/21/17
Donald Trump is now the most powerful man on Earth. You would expect the American left to be despondent; it’s not. The left is stronger than it has been for decades. They are up against a president who lost the popular vote, who assumes office with the lowest approval rating on record, and whose party is riven by divisions. In November, Clintonian-centrism – whose compelling selling point was the ability to win – was defeated, plunging the American republic into its gravest crisis since the war.
Waleed Shahid is 25 years old, from Arlington, Virginia. At the inauguration I met him in a Washington fast-food restaurant with his fellow activist, Max Berger, a 31-year-old Jewish American from “a town of 15,000 people and four Dunkin’ Donuts” in central Massachusetts. Both are involved in All Of Us, one of the many new progressive organisations committed to taking on the Trump ascendancy.
Shahid’s father moved to the US from Pakistan four decades ago. “He’s literally been working in the same parking garage since 1973.” There were four books in his home growing up: the Qur’an, a collection of Punjabi poetry and two biographies: one of ex-Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the other of Hillary Clinton.
Obama had politically inspired both his parents for the first time, but their lives have not got any better. “My father had his wages and hours cut since 2008,” Shahid tells me, “and my mother’s healthcare has gone up even though Obama campaigned on this stuff.”
Both were part of the Bernie Sanders surge – and both are preparing to mobilise and fight. “We have to oppose normalisation,” says Shahid. “That won’t happen by the Democratic party alone. They need a countervailing political force to hold the Democratic party accountable to their voters, who are largely working-class people, and immigrants and people of colour.” For Shahid and Berger that means taking on the Democratic establishment.
“It includes change through elections if the Democratic party leadership aren’t going to stand for us and bring new leadership in.” For Berger, Trump’s victory cannot only be explained by a racial backlash on the part of a significant chunk of white working-class Americans. “Look at Trump’s last ad and what he articulates: there’s a global power structure, a global elite that has trillions of dollars at stake in this election.”
Yes, the antisemitic undertones of a political advertisement that focused on the likes of George Soros were clear, but it tapped into a powerful anti-establishment mood. “If we’re going to articulate a real alternative, we have to be as angry as the American people are, and we have to name the class, the individuals, who have screwed us over.”
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A battle for the soul of the Democratic party now beckons. There are siren voices who claim that the Democrats were too radical, too vociferous in their support of women and minorities. But a powerful new movement is determined to transform the Democrats into a party that unapologetically challenges vested interests. Ben Wikler – Washington director of MoveOn, a key progressive network – was among those who desperately wanted Senator Elizabeth Warren to run for president. “I think if Elizabeth Warren had run she would have won the nomination and won the presidency,” he says without even flinching. But despite Sanders’ failure to win the nomination, he showed it was possible to run for president “as a progressive populist not beholden to the donor class, who challenges a Wall Street-dominated economy that is unbalanced, broken and corrupt”.
Wikler is determined that the Democrats learn from their past mistakes, but also from the Republicans’ success. Under George W Bush, he notes, Democrats attempted to cooperate with him: when tax cuts for the rich were proposed, they would attempt to weave in a tax cut for middle-income Americans then vote for the package. When Obama became president, on the other hand, even with record popularity, the Republicans were uncompromising in their opposition.
“The Democrats don’t need that level of political bravery to oppose Trump, and they will hear that from their constituents when they do anything that seems vaguely like cooperation,” he says.
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The Republicans believed they would repeal Obama’s healthcare legislation instantly – “like a band-aid” – and that the legislation would unify their own party and divide the Democrats. The opposite has happened. The Republicans cannot agree on what to repeal and what to keep, what to replace the existing coverage with – and thousands of Americans are protesting, not just to keep their healthcare provision, but because they could inflict Trump’s first defeat.
As trade union leader David Rolf tells me, the only hope for the Democrats is “progressive economic populism – they have to stand up for what’s good for the majority of Americans even if it’s not good for the donor class of the Democrats”.
There is no path to victory for the Democrats in reverting to pro-establishment centrism. That doesn’t mean abandoning attempts to build broad coalitions. Greisa Martinez – advocacy director at United We Dream, which fights for undocumented workers – tells me: “I need to connect my experience to that of the white working-class person in the rust belt.” But she is very clear: she will not allow the Democrats “to throw us under the bus”.
The US left has learned the lessons from a centrist project that disastrously failed and a Republican party that never accepted the legitimacy of a president who – in stark contrast to Trump – twice won the popular vote.
Trump represents the most dramatic victory yet for a populist right that appears to be sweeping the western world. But he is far weaker than he looks. Can the US left craft a populist alternative that convinces the millions of Americans who are angry and despondent about a society rigged against their interests? The future of the American republic is uncertain – and it may depend on the answer to that question.