As is almost always the case, this presidential election result is giving rise to lots of soul searching and self-flagellation on the side that lost. All across America, Democrats and progressives (two overlapping, but hardly identical groups) are asking themselves what went wrong and how they can turn things around going forward. Thousands of individuals are taking new vows to become active and engaged in the political process and the effort to combat Trumpism.
That these are positive developments is, of course, beyond dispute. Despite the President-elect’s relatively conciliatory tone in recent days, there can be no doubt that there will be many dark days ahead and it is absolutely essential that caring and thinking people prepare to fight like never before if they are going to mount a successful resistance to the impending conservative onslaught.
The Right may be divided and lacking in a completely unified (or even coherent) platform, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t already preparing to assault the social safety net, deport millions of immigrant families, abolish anti-climate change efforts and roll back important personal freedoms. As North Carolinians have learned in recent years, it will take fierce, pitched battles – in the legislative halls, in the courts, online and over the airwaves and in the streets – just to save some of what has been accomplished in recent decades and to limit the damage going forward.
And here’s another important thing to remember: It will take a lot more than better candidates and talking points, improved polling and focus groups, or a few marches to turn things around. While each of these items would be helpful, where progressives continue to trail their conservative fellow Americans most glaringly is in two critically important categories: passion and pragmatism.
The passion gap
For the millions who’ve found themselves alternating between tearful crying jags and noisy fist slams in recent days at the repeated reminders of an impending Trump presidency, the notion that conservatives best them when it comes to passion may come as a bit of a surprise. But upon taking a step back, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.
To see confirmation of this reality, take a minute to think about how the two competing sides in national (and North Carolina) political debates approach the issues of the day.
With the Right, the list of things that its rank and file members are for – really passionately for – is easy to name. Conservatives are, by and large, for slashing taxes, shrinking government spending, extinguishing reproductive rights and LGBT equality, privatizing public education, restricting environmental protection, ending regulation of guns, expanding police power (except with respect to guns), ending limits on corporations and hawkish foreign policy, just to name some of the most obvious items. There may be wild inconsistencies in their positions and arguments – that one can be against “big government” and for restrictions on how a woman chooses to control her own reproductive system or “against welfare” and for Social Security and Medicare will always remain absurd contradictions – but, ultimately, none of that is particularly important when it comes to millions of hardcore Trump voters. Years of incessant propaganda from the unholy alliance of Fox News, talk radio and reactionary preachers have served their purpose of building a loyal, monolithic conservative bloc.
For what qualifies as the “Left,” such a list is much more difficult to compile. Part of this is simply a function of the gray areas and complexities that progressives are willing to acknowledge. Part of it is a function of the diversity of a movement that seeks to combine frequently well-off environmentalists and social policy activists with poor workers demanding economic justice, immigrants and civil rights activists headquartered in the church.
Whatever the cause, however, it simply must change. Sure, progressives can and will still win elections if the current environment continues. As noted in this space last week, Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. Here in the historically conservative state of North Carolina, the incumbent conservative governor is about to be sent packing in a year in which the GOP presidential candidate won an easy victory. And demographic trends remain encouraging.
But if progressives are ever going to truly prevail and establish a political majority that ushers in a lasting era of genuine hope and change, the movement must be about much more than convenient election year alliances, poll-tested messages and candidates who are simply against what the Right is for (or even marches and protests).
It must be a 365-days-a-year movement in which large swaths of the public become as passionately attentive to the news and the issue debates as the Trumpists and the so-called “alt-right.” Say what you will about the mangled version of the truth that pollutes the right-wing media, but when millions of people claim to have been motivated to vote against a presidential candidate based upon their understanding of a disastrous embassy attack in a far off country, those people are paying attention to some pretty specific information – however distorted it might be. When was the last time millions of progressives were so attuned to such a specific issue?
Simply put, vastly larger numbers of progressives must enlist full-time in the “battle of ideas,” start paying attention and become conversant in the debate over specific policies like health care, the safety net, taxes and the future of the environment. We don’t necessarily need 30 million policy wonks, but we do need vastly more people to know and understand the vital importance of a progressive income tax and a living wage.
The pragmatism gap
Interestingly, the flip side to the passion gap is the pragmatism gap. Here, the obvious models are the so-called Christian conservatives, who were willing to take the extraordinary step of passionately supporting a crude, philandering, misogynistic and irreligious casino owner for president so long as he pledged to support their social agenda (or, at least most of it).
Compare and contrast this approach with that of the self-defeating inhabitants of the left (i.e. thousands upon thousands of young people and older former Sanders supporters) who simply stayed home. A classic example here is the nearsighted decision of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick – the man who courageously initiated the “take a knee” movement during the playing of the National Anthem to protest racial oppression – not to vote in the election.
While progressives can certainly be forgiven for skeptically questioning many aspects of the Clinton candidacy and viewing her as a much-less-than-ideal standard bearer, the notion that she is indistinguishable from Trump or that the country will be no worse off or more oppressed under his rule than it would have been under hers is truly delusional.
And speaking of progressives from whom much more pragmatism is demanded going forward, one must also include those for whom social issues (LGBT equality, reproductive freedom) and the environment are the top priority. The hard truth is that inhabitants of these groups tend to be disproportionately affluent and white and frequently missing in action when it comes to core racial and economic justice issues. This too must change. If the religious Right can march in virtual lockstep with the conservative plutocracy on such matters as the corporate income tax and climate change, then surely the single issue progressives can get on board much more enthusiastically and consistently with the Black Lives Matter, living wage and tax justice movements.
The bottom line
In recent days, many progressives across the country have been planning and organizing marches and demonstrations to protest the Trump victory. This is fine, of course, but as with the late and not-so-great “Occupy Wall Street” movement, such actions will amount to little if they are not married to real and concrete policy ideas and demands. As the election showed in so many ways, it’s not enough just to be against something. Progressives have to be for a coherent policy agenda organized around a commitment to economic justice, equality and freedom for all, a sustainable planet and a system of robust public structures that can make these things possible. Let’s hope the lesson is starting to sink in.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research for NC Policy Watch.