Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during presidential election 2016
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With the news cycle taken over by the latest madness emerging from the mouth or Twitter feed of the childish "orange one" in the White House, could we step back from the circus to reflect like adults on the social and historical forces that produced the clown presidency? Haymarket Books' new collection of essays by leading left political analysts, "US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty: Essays on a New Reality," is required reading for anyone interested in such reflections on Donald Trump.
All the contributors rightly place the Democrats at the center of the story of what went wrong. "The horrors and challenges presented by the Trump administration," writes Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in the book's seventh essay, "should not obscure the very important discussion of how the administration came into power. You cannot understand the emergence of Trump without taking account of ... the failure of the liberal establishment to provide a real alternative to the reactionary populism ... of Trump."
Each contributor to "US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty" brings his or her own distinctive slant to this core thesis. In the volume's opening and sixth essays, Sharon Smith ("Chickens Coming Home to Roost to the Democratic Party") and Lance Selfa ("From Hope to Despair: How the Obama Years Gave Us Trump") show how the Democrats opened the door to Trump's right-wing pseudo-populism with their dedication to neoliberal orthodoxy and their failure under Obama to meet the needs of working-class Americans.
In the fifth essay, sociologist Neil Davidson sees Trump's victory as part of a global phenomenon -- the unsettling rise of right-wing nationalist populism in the vacuum left by the decline of a serious anti-capitalist left. By Davidson's account:
"The victories of neoliberalism have left the working-class in the West increasingly fragmented and disorganized, and, for some workers, appeals to blood and nation appear as the only viable form of collectivity still available, particularly in a context where any systemic alternative to capitalism [has] collapsed. ... The increasing interchangeability of mainstream parties, including those on the social-democratic left, gives the far right an opening to voters by positioning themselves as outside the consensus in relation to social policy."
According to historian Nancy Fraser in the book's final essay, first published just more than a year ago, Hillary Clinton's ignominious defeat marked "The End of Progressive Neoliberalism" -- the defeat of "an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, antiracism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end 'symbolic' and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other." This "real, if perverse political alignment," Fraser explains, "developed in the United States over the last three decades and was ratified with Bill Clinton's election in 1992" (and then reauthorized with Obama's two terms, she might have added).
Under its terms, "progressive forces are effectively joined with" financial capitalism, lending "charisma" and "gloss" to "policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives." While trumpeting outwardly progressive ideals like diversity and empowerment, the Clinton-Obama formation "bears a heavy responsibility for the weakening of unions, the decline of real wages, the increasing precarity of work, and the rise of the two-earner family in the place of the defunct family wage."
By Fraser's account, "progressive neoliberalism" was "rejected in toto" by Trump's deindustrialized and rural white voters. For these "left behind" Americans, including not just "industrial workers ... but also managers, small businessmen, and all who relied on industry in the Rust Belt and the South, as well as rural populations devastated by unemployment and drugs ... the injury of deindustrialization was compounded by the insult of progressive moralism, which cast them as culturally backward. Rejecting globalization, Trump voters also repudiated the liberal cosmopolitanism associated with it."
While acknowledging that "there is much to fear from a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-ecological Trump administration," Fraser refuses to "shed tears for the defeat of progressive neoliberalism" -- for "the implosion of neoliberal hegemony" and the "shattering of Clintonism's grip on the Democratic Party." Trump's victory may have been a dangerous atrocity, but it marked a "welcome defeat for the alliance of emancipation and financialization."
How true is it that Trump owed his victory to the economically exploited and culturally alienated "white working-class"? In the volume's second, third and fourth essays, sociologist and activist Charlie Post, Labor Notes founder Kim Moody and author Mike Davis demolish the ubiquitous media storyline that attributed Trump's election to an uprising of enraged white "heartland" proletarians. None of these writers denies that a vast swath of "the white working-class" (WWC) -- loosely and problematically defined as "whites without college degrees" -- voted for Trump (as most WWC voters did for Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney) or that this reflected the Democrats' neoliberal flight from working-class issues. Still, as Post, Moody and Davis show, it is lazy and factually incorrect to identify the WWC as Trump's "base" and to see his election as the reflection of some great wave of white proletarian wrath.
There are four basic problems with what Smith calls the "blame the white working-class narrative." First, as Davis notes, Trump won the overall white vote by only one percentage point more than did Mitt Romney in 2012 -- hardly what one would expect if Trump had ridden some great wave of white proletarian rage.
Second, Trump did better than Hillary Clinton with high-income voters. His overall base was relatively affluent. "Trump's victory," Moody observes, "was disproportionately a middle-class, upper-income phenomenon." White workers were not Trump's electoral engine.
Third, as Post and Moody note, the category of "white without college degree" includes droves of voters who are not proletarians. "There are millions of Americans," Moody writes, "who don't have a college degree, who are not working-class, and who are actually more likely to vote than the 'left behind' industrial workers." Moody reminds us that there are 17 million-plus small business managers without "the allegedly class-defining degree," along with "1.8 million managers, 8.8 million supervisors, and 1.6 million cops whose jobs don't require a college degree. ... The proportion of those without a college degree who are petty bourgeois or genuinely middle-class, who are more likely [than working- and lower-class people] to vote and to vote Republican is quite large," Moody writes, "and the equation of the missing degree with working-class status [is] misleading."
Fourth, most Americans without a college degree don't vote. This is particularly true among the lower- and working-class segment of the majority non-degreed U.S. populace. As a result, "any measure of [political] patterns among those who do vote is a measure of a relatively high-income minority." Voter turnout, Smith notes, "is strongly correlated to class position -- extremely high among the wealthiest Americans and falling steadily as incomes decline." When we realize that "the many millions of people who did not vote ... far outnumbered those who voted for either party in 2016," it becomes clear that the biggest electoral story about the U.S. working-class in 2016 is that it sat out the contest between the two dismal capitalist candidates and parties, not that it made some (imaginary) wild shift to the white-nationalist right.