Now that I’ve caught your attention, I will admit that I don’t have any magic answer to this question, which undoubtedly is gong to be foremost in the minds of progressives for the next four (hopefully no more than four) years. Trump, and the party he leads, if they are to be beaten, are going to be beaten by Democrats, and so the question how to beat Trump and his enablers raises the further question that I posed in a post almost three years ago: “Whither the Democrats?”
In a later post, I described two competing tendencies in the Democratic Party, which eventually formed the basis of the competition that played out in the Clinton/Sanders contest for the presidential nomination. Adherents of the populist tendency, whose causes Sanders championed, are outraged by the growth of economic and political inequality in American life and want to challenge the business interests that they see as the sources of those trends. The centrist tendency, which achieved clear dominance under President Bill Clinton, is more comfortable with business power and in fact looks actively for allies among the more moderate and enlightened sectors of the business community. The differences between these two tendencies are real, even though they tend to be submerged in the face of the more radical divide separating both from the Republican right. My sympathies are with the populists, both because they represent my own policy preferences and because I think they offer a more effective and convincing alternative to the radical right populism that is now ascendant.
I’ll make my case by putting down four basic propositions:
On some level, Donald Trump understands all of this. He acted on that understanding by demagogically exploiting popular disaffection, with phony attacks on unnamed “special interests” and on well-selected scapegoats—immigrants, Muslims, and the many countries who allegedly have been exploiting America thanks to the stupidity of our leaders. Bernie Sanders also understands those four propositions. Hillary Clinton, to all appearances, does not, or if she does, she didn’t act on that understanding in her campaign. (Barack Obama is hardly better.) No, I am not going to argue that Sanders could have beaten Trump—Bernie had his own liabilities. But going forward, I think that Democrats who fail to appreciate the above propositions are going to be ignoring the lessons of 2016.
A particularly striking example of centrist cluelessness came this weekend in the form of an op-ed by former British PM Tony Blair. Understandably troubled by the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and America, Blair argues for an invigorated centrism. (He thinks leftist populism is wrong-headed, but he doesn’t explain why.) The populist phenomenon, he thinks, is mainly cultural: the alienation of those who feel displaced by a globalizing world that erases the old familiar boundaries of nation, race and culture. Now, I don’t deny that socio-cultural resentment is an important part of the explanation for right-wing populism, but an over-emphasis on culture is a convenient way to evade issues of power and inequality. And, except for a passing suggestion that tax and welfare systems should be reformed to encourage a fairer distribution of wealth, inequality doesn’t enter into Blair’s picture of our troubled times.
How does Blair propose to beat the populists? What is needed, he says, is a new policy agenda, formed through an alliance “between those driving the technological revolution, in Silicon Valley and beyond, and those responsible for public policy in government.” Hooray, technology to the rescue! Just get enlightened people in government together with some rich digital geniuses and they’ll figure out how to assuage the grievances of the less fortunate. (Wanna bet Blair has been talking to Bill Gates?) Blair would like to think that a technological fix can substitute for a confrontation with inequality. Sorry, Tony: not the way to go.