CNN’s Fareek Zakaria’s recent explanation for why Trump won has been getting a lot of play. It’s similar to explanations most of the other pundits have been pushing for some time now, and it sets up the Democrats in general and progressives in particular for more loses in the future.
The conventional take on Trump’s victory
Most pundits see it something like this: The Democrats lost because Trump appealed to the angry white voter, and he used a demagogic mixture of xenophobia, racism, fear and hate to accomplish this.
Mr. Zakaria, the mainstream pundits and even the Democratic Party have also finally recognized what Thomas Frank warned about prior to the election – the fact that the Party’s abandonment of middle class and working Americans who formed the base of the New Deal for a strategy designed to appeal to the economically and educationally “elite,” set it up for the loss. In the words of Zakaria, "The election of Donald Trump is really a kind of class rebellion against people like us, educated professionals who live in cities, who have cosmopolitan views about things.”
"The real electoral gold in American politics doesn’t come from trying to appeal to the passionately ignorant few – it comes from appealing to those who’ve dropped out because they recognize the system doesn’t represent them."But while the problems with a strategy tied to elitism puts the pundits on firmer ground, even this insight fails to capture a critical part of the question of how an obviously unhinged and grossly unqualified candidate like Trump came to be president of the US. And until we get the diagnosis correct, we will not be able to fix the problem.
As I explain in my book, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track, Trump is merely a symptom of a more fundamental problem that has been building for nearly four decades now.
This election was less about who voted, than it was about who didn’t and why
The central fact of this election was that Trump won with only 26.1 percent of the eligible voters. There have always been a minority of disaffected, deluded, and hate-filled voters, but they have rarely been able to sway elections, precisely because they are a minority.
Now, this is not to say that a lot of folks aren’t angry and alienated – they are. And they’ve a right to be. Their voices aren't heard, and the uber wealthy are walking away with an increasingly greater share of wealth and income, while the bottom 50% have gained little or nothing since the late 1970’s. A small minority of these angry voters decided to throw a Molotov cocktail named Donald Trump into the system. The more rational ones decided to quit playing.
The real story here is that most people weren’t fooled by Trump. The problem for Democrats is that they weren’t fooled by Clinton and the neoliberal branch of the Democratic Party either.
One of the key pieces of evidence for this can be found in the fact that in fourteen states, candidates in down ballot races received more votes than candidates for president.
That is, people turned out to vote for down-ballot candidates but left the top of the ticket blank. And it would have been the case in fifteen states, but Nevada allows voters to choose “none-of-the-above,” an option 29,000 Nevadans chose rather than voting for Clinton or Trump.
"The pundits and the Democrats seem to think the solution to the Trump problem lies in convincing some segment of the 26.1 percent who voted for him to switch sides. In reality, the solution is to get a greater share of the 40 percent who have essentially dropped out of politics to show up."
And despite the press coverage about a large turnout, the number of eligible voters not voting has been trending upward for decades. The “large turnouts” the press and pundits talk about is, in part, a by-product of the fact that as the population increases there are more eligible voters, but it is not a sign of increased engagement.In short, non-participants have been growing as fast as voters have.
What happened in 2016 was the logical end point of this trend that allowed the passionately ignorant – the hate-filled and the deluded minority who have been with us always – to be in a position to decide this election.
The pundits and the Democrats seem to think the solution to the Trump problem lies in convincing some segment of the 26.1 percent who voted for him to switch sides. In reality, the solution is to get a greater share of the 40 percent who have essentially dropped out of politics to show up.
This disaffection was a result of a long-term trend engineered by a “Silent Coup” four decades in the making, designed to transfer power from the people to the Oligarchy
We will not be able to re-engage the people in the political process until we acknowledge the fact that as a result of the Coup, government no longer serves the people, it serves the plutocrats.
This Coup was not part of an organized conspiracy. There were no secret handshakes; no clandestine meetings; no spooky cabal, no plotting behind closed doors.But the bones of the takeover can be found in a memo drafted by Lewis Powell, dated August 23, 1971. In it, he outlined a systematic approach to turning the country to the right and making it more business friendly.
A few rich families and corporations, operating behind the scenes and largely ignored by the press (particularly after corporations purchased most of it), achieved the Coup by doing precisely what Powell recommended and investing in the following six areas:
- creating a conservative infrastructure to give far right extremism an intellectual basis beyond greed and self-interest, for the purpose of pushing law, policy, and economic teaching to the extreme conservative end of the spectrum;
- eviscerating any controls on the press designed to make it diverse, transparent, and accountable (for example, by weakening the FCC, eliminating the Fairness Doctrine, and allowing monopoly control of markets) and ultimately taking over the press by purchasing it outright;
- glorifying the free market as the source of all things good—investing in the Myth of the Magic Markets;
- discrediting government as a source of anything good—investing in the Myth of the Bumbling Bureaucrat;
- perfecting propaganda and messaging—distracting, deceiving, dissembling, and lying to obscure the takeover; and
- making it possible to buy politicians and elections.
By the 1990’s, the Democrats had essentially joined the Coup, by embracing neoliberalism which adheres to much of what we think of as “conservative”: small government; austerity; free trade; deregulated markets; and capital conserving policies rather than the New Deal policies focused on protecting the interests of labor, the middle class, and the working class.
The result has been that the Party has been hemorrhaging supporters since Reagan popularized the notion that government is the enemy and that the magic markets will deliver all good things by pure serendipity. The share of voters identifying as Democrats fell from 50 percent of declared voters in the 1960’s to less than 29 percent today. Republicans have hovered around 25 percent for most of that time.
This is the problem with the diagnosis Zakaria and the rest of the elite media are pushing – it leads to the wrong solution. The real electoral gold in American politics doesn’t come from trying to appeal to the passionately ignorant few – it comes from appealing to those who’ve dropped out because they recognize the system doesn’t represent them. And that requires a counter coup, grounded in progressive values that represent the people’s interests.
To win, Democrats will have to win back the dropouts by embracing progressive, New Deal values, and it can’t be cosmetic
Sanders showed that embracing a platform truly based on economic equity, social justice, environmental protection, peace, and a commitment to get the money out of politics could get the no-shows to show. That’s why he is the most popular politician in America today; that’s why polls consistently show he would have beaten Trump by double digits.
"The bottom line is that the majority of Americans are left of center on an issue-by-issue basis, but they didn’t think of themselves as progressive until Sanders articulated and defended progressive policies and positions in a coherent way."
This recognition is what prompted the neoliberals controlling the Democratic Party to launch their gimmicky “Better Deal” campaign, in which they tried to substitute slogans and tactics for values. But without a commitment to push universal health care, or to fix campaign financing, and with endless equivocating on a decent minimum wage, and trade policy, it had little credibility with the disaffected drop outs. It was, in the end, an attempt to take a Chinese menu approach to values, and as such, it dropped out of sight like a lead balloon just days after it was launched. And it was specifically designed to woo back the disaffected white voters who’d abandoned the Party.
The bottom line is that the majority of Americans are left of center on an issue-by-issue basis, but they didn’t think of themselves as progressive until Sanders articulated and defended progressive policies and positions in a coherent way.
The way to win elections is to do exactly that – to bring people back to embracing progressivism, not to bring the Party closer to the conservative minority. But the Democratic Party – in thrall to neoliberal dogma – has never done that in any systematic way.
If the Democrats continue to embrace neoliberalism and merely pay lip service to progressive New Deal values while depending upon the Oligarchy for campaign financing, they will continue to lose ground, and progressives will have no choice but to start the long process of creating a third party.
If that’s the case let’s hope there’s something left worth salvaging by time we succeed.