If Donald Trump’s election as president was an earthquake that leveled progressive expectations, then his transition has slammed into the political landscape with equal force. Trump is staffing his administration with far-right billionaires, conspiracy theorist generals, and extreme ideologues, while upsetting relations with important powers like the United Kingdom, India, and China.
This obsessing blinds us to real political openings on the left.
It’s created a sense of doom. The unthinkable seems almost close at hand: mass deportations, privatizing Medicare, forcing Muslim Americans to register with the government, overturning basic civil and reproductive rights, assaults on public education and unions, even privatizing Native American lands for oil exploration.
But this obsessing blinds us to real political openings on the left—particularly ones that would not have been available had Hillary Clinton been elected. In fact, there are those who see the weakening of the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party and believe the left stands a historic chance at making new gains.
But to win broad support for their agenda, progressives will need to go beyond purely logical appeals and make a Trump-like appeal to emotions.
Leo Panitch is distinguished research professor at York University in Toronto and co-author of The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. He says one positive outcome of Hillary Clinton’s defeat is that it’s “the nail in the coffin of the Third Way,” referring to the idea, championed by Bill Clinton, that establishment left parties like the Democrats could blaze a path between capitalism and socialism. Panitch explains that Democrats supported trade deals that freed capital to maximize profits around the world while claiming they could reconcile this with their “historical commitments to social welfare and protecting the Western working class from the worst effects of capitalism.”
Some quick history: The Third Way is a phase of neoliberalism, the radical reboot of capitalism ushered in by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan decades ago. Neoliberalism refers not to American liberalism but to 19th century economic liberalism, which held that capitalism should be free of all government regulation. Like its Dickensian ancestor, it can be seen simply as class warfare by the rich.
This shift on the left from protest to electoral politics is another welcome development.
The neoliberals sidelined the Keynesian capitalism that had held sway since World War II, in which the state manages the economy and smoothes out rough edges for workers. And while neoliberalism is associated with supply-side economics, which claims cutting taxes to the rich spurs new business investment, Keynesianism focuses on boosting the demand side of the economy by using government spending and jobs programs to increase the spending power of workers and tweaking tax rates and the money supply to level out the boom-and-bust business cycle.
Trump’s election, Panitch says, has delegitimized neoliberalism “in terms of whether it can actually deliver the economic goods.” That has “been coming for some time.”
In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, he points out, the erosion of faith in neoliberalism’s arguments led to the emergence of Occupy Wall Street. Occupy burned bright—though it burned quickly, too—and helped pave the way for the climate justice movement, the “Fight for $15” low-wage workers struggle, and Black Lives Matter. Occupy also made it possible to talk about class in terms of the 99 percent and 1 percent, making Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign not only possible but nearly successful.
This shift on the left from protest to electoral politics is another welcome development. Panitch says movements from Occupy to the indignados in Spain recognized that “you can’t change the world without taking power.” That key understanding, he says, led to the reentry of the radical left into electoral politics through new parties, as in Greece and Spain, or through old parties, as in the U.K. and the United States.
Trump appealed to “the pleasure and satisfaction voters get through the American way of life.”
That shift was evident in Sanders’ spectacular run. But “I am thanking goodness” he didn’t win the nomination, Panitch says. Although he is agnostic on whether Sanders would have beaten Trump, Panitch says a Sanders loss would have been disastrous for the future of the left: “The Clintonites and the whole left-liberal establishment would have blamed the Sanders left—and socialists in much more general terms—for opening the way to Trump. We would be even more unfairly blamed, the way Communists were blamed in the early 1930s, for opening the door to fascism. It would have been absolutely disastrous in building a genuine alternative.”
Panitch thinks Trump’s victory will lead organized labor to back Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wing of the Democratic Party, which is critical of Wall Street and its power. He hopes this will mean “Democrats will not simply use unions in a purely instrumentalist way and will offer real labor protections and reforms” as well as support large-scale jobs creation programs, particularly in clean energy, through fiscal deficits and direct public spending on massive infrastructure.
To be sure, shifting Democrats to a party that genuinely seeks to resolve ecological and capitalist crises will be a Herculean effort. In Panitch’s estimation, this requires splitting the base of the Democrats—workers, people of color, feminists—from the party leadership that has “deep links ... to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the military-industrial complex,” he says.
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And he warns that the far right around the world has taken much greater advantage of neoliberalism’s stumble than progressive forces.
To turn that around, progressives may need to take a page from Trump and talk about politics through cultural and psychological lenses, not just economic. That’s according to Peter Bratsis, the author of Everyday Life and the State and an assistant professor of political science at the City University of New York.
To grasp why Trump won and how progressives can effectively respond, Bratsis says, progressives need to understand “libidinal politics.”
Bratsis explains. “The libido is simply energy focused on achieving pleasure, such as eating ice cream, listening to a favorite band, hiking in the woods.” Trump appealed to “the pleasure and satisfaction voters get through the American way of life” while raising fears that “power-hungry globalists like George Soros, lazy welfare recipients, and illegals” got pleasure in ways that denied so-called real Americans of their pleasure, says Bratsis.
This zero-sum appeal to pleasure was central to Trump’s message. He described the social groups he attacked and insulted as those “who cannot control themselves, who cannot wait their turn.”
So how can progressives use libidinal politics without stooping to Trump’s insults and lies?
Bratsis says Sanders was on the right path. “People got excited with Bernie in the same way they got excited about Trump. He provided an effective narrative—that the millionaires and billionaires have destroyed much of American society.”
But Bratsis says Sanders did not go far enough. “No matter how strict campaign finance is, I don’t think it would have any significant impact on how capital has maintained control over the American political system.” Bratsis says Sanders did not challenge “the constitutional system designed to keep power in the hands of the status quo. At no point did Bernie say we need new institutions, a new constitution, a much more democratic system of government.”
Progressives may need to take a page from Trump.
In hindsight, Trump’s campaign counterposed competing pleasures very effectively, even when it seemed ridiculous. This was the case with a Latino campaign surrogate who warned that unless something was done about his “very dominant culture … you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”
“You have to show the other side achieves their pleasures in a way that keeps you from having your pleasures,” Bratsis explains. “The enemy can’t be rank-and-file workers, people who live outside urban areas, people who go deer hunting. You have to go after elites, those on the golf courses, the lazy bankers who buy and sell paper all day. … Clinton could never do that since she is part of that elite.”
A strong emotional appeal can be constructed from progressive politics. Bratsis says, “You can say: We are completely servile and have to wake up and take power; we are in a consumerist slumber from aloe vera toilet paper to Coke Zero; we live in a decaying society; the food we eat is all artificial; the environment is getting worse by the day; the schools are getting worse; rather than sit by passively, we have to seize control of the political machine.’”
The trick will be learning the right lessons from Trump while not imitating him.