The urgent task of progressives in this election is to defeat Donald Trump. But even if we succeed, we have a long-term responsibility: to understand why Trump happened and to face up to how failures on the left and center-left have contributed to the flourishing of a new far right, not only in the United States but also across Europe.
The left, you might fairly protest, has enough problems without being blamed for the rise of a dangerous figure who is, first and foremost, a creation of the conservative movement’s radicalization and the Republican leadership’s pandering to extreme views over many years. When I watch GOP leaders bemoaning their party’s fate under Trump (or belatedly jumping off his ship), I am reminded of John F. Kennedy’s warning that “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
But progressives should resist complacency bred by the idea that the anger on display in this election will soon subside as older voters uneasy with change decline in numbers. Throughout the West, social-democratic and left-liberal parties are facing defections, divisions and decline. Their economic model — combining a market orientation with welfare states, strong unions and regulations — is no longer delivering the broadly shared prosperity that was once its hallmark. Yes, part of the problem, particularly in the United States, comes from a weakening of social protections thanks to conservative policy victories and the resistance of congressional Republicans to social reform. Nonetheless, even if Trump loses big, the left and center-left have a lot of work and rethinking to do.
The grievances of Trump supporters have been well-covered this year (although it should not have taken both the Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns to bring them to the fore). Many voters fear that the social and economic world that has defined their lives is irretrievably passing away.
The left is in trouble precisely because it has not responded adequately to this fear or managed to tame the forces that produced it. This is not just a political mistake but also a moral failing.
It is tempting to discount the Trump movement as primarily a backward-looking reaction among less-well-off white voters who can abide neither the cultural changes of the past half-century nor the increasingly diverse country that has come into being since we changed our immigration laws in the mid-1960s. And it’s true that racism and nativism have taken particularly vicious forms in this campaign — remember, Trumpism was born in birtherism.
But we can condemn prejudice and still understand the adversity afflicting Trump supporters. And we should acknowledge that those who are angry about what’s happened to their lives are not all delusional bigots.
Technological change has undercut incomes and living standards for a significant share of our fellow citizens. An influx of immigrants has shocked certain communities, leading them to experience a genuine sense of displacement and powerlessness in the face of change they cannot control. There are struggles for power as new groups gain political ascendancy and older groups, once a majority, become minorities. There are also battles over material resources as newcomers are perceived as taking jobs (sometimes for lower wages) from groups that once dominated particular fields.
Supporters of immigrant rights need to be sensitive to who pays the highest cost for a more open society. Some remedies are obvious, including additional federal funds to communities whose local budgets have taken a hit as they provide services to large numbers of new residents. Broad egalitarian measures, including a higher minimum wage, can lift the incomes of lower-skilled immigrants and the native born alike. Those who — rightly, in my view — support a generous refugee policy can take care to help those fleeing oppression and violence locate in areas with the capacity to absorb them, and not expect a small number of communities to take an outsize number of those in need. And advocates of immigration reform need to do a far better job of making the case that the rights of the native born are strengthened, not weakened, when millions of undocumented residents are allowed to earn equal rights themselves.
Also feeding populist rebellions on the left as well as on the right is the fact that supporters of an open global economy have simply not been attentive enough to the costs of change. Every trade deal is defended in the same way: There will be a majority of “winners” and a minority of “losers,” and the losers will be assisted and compensated. But the assistance and compensation are never adequate, and the trade deals have focused far more on protections for investors than for workers.
We have added hundreds of millions of new workers to the global labor market. This has created a downward-trending bidding war for less-skilled labor, which is particularly tough on the least advantaged workers in the most advanced economies. A much-cited study by three well-known economists, David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, found that import growth from China cost 2.4 million American jobs in the 2000s. It must also be stressed that deindustrialization has undercut the opportunities for African Americans in inner cities, as the sociologist William J. Wilson has written. Progressives have an obligation to underscore that angry white Trump voters have grievances and interests in common with their fellow citizens of color.
Yes, trade creates jobs, but it can also destroy them. Those who lose out dramatically will notice trade’s impact more readily than those who gain ground gradually.
The global economy is not going away, and the United States draws some real advantages in the worldwide competition it fosters. But unless there are what Jared Bernstein and Lori Wallach have called “new rules of the road” on trade deals, advocates of an open economy will face ever more ferocious opposition. Just as it has often fallen to capitalism’s critics to save the system, so might critics of free trade push its advocates to more sustainable approaches.
Progressives and moderates alike also need to recognize that arguments can be sensible as far as they go but still send signals of indifference to those who are losing out. Take a group we might call the “schoolers.” They say again and again that there’s nothing wrong with our economy that can’t be solved by giving more education and more training to more people. The core insight here is certainly right: We must do far better in preparing workers for the economy as it exists.
But especially for older white workers, a lot of this talk sounds like a put-down. They can be forgiven for thinking they’re being blamed for following the rules that applied when they first entered the workforce: A high school degree and hard work would be enough to allow them to live well and their kids to live even better.
Trump is blowing smoke when he claims he can reopen the old factories and mines. But his promise, however empty, sounds more sympathetic than technocratic talk about “the skills gap.” And the education argument should not be used to draw attention away from another problem, the declining bargaining power of workers in a world where unions are weaker. Progressives need new approaches to empowering workers, as David Madland argued recently in a paper for the Center for American Progress.
Then there is the paradox of “cosmopolitanism,” a word that captures another aspect of the reaction. Attacks on “rootless cosmopolitans” are the stuff of old forms of anti-Semitism. Trump, whether consciously or not, veered toward a classic anti-Semitic trope on Thursday, when he declared that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.”
But there is a another, positive understanding of the idea of cosmopolitanism, offered by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. He writes that “two strands . . . intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.”
This should be an aspiration for all of us. And it means that those who live cosmopolitan lives must go about “taking an interest in the practices and beliefs” of those whom the late Rev. Andrew Greeley called “neighborhood people.” Being “citizens of the world” is not high on their priority list. They love the particular patch where they were raised or that they have adopted as their own.
I suspect that many of Trump’s backers are neighborhood people. Economic change, including globalization, is very hard on them. It can disrupt and empty out the places they revere, driving young people away and undermining the economic base a community needs to survive.
Liberals and conservatives alike insufficiently appreciate what makes neighborhood people tick and why they deserve our respect. Liberals are instinctive cosmopolitans in the citizens-of-the-world sense. They often long for the freedom of big metropolitan areas. Free-market conservatives typically say that if a place can’t survive the rigors of market competition, if the factories close, the people left behind are best off if they find somewhere else to live.
Let it be said that there are no simple answers for the plight of neighborhood people who find themselves under siege. Ghost towns are another old story. There are limits to how much a local economy can be propped up when it is pummeled by globalization’s gales.
But if there are limits to what can be done to help such places help themselves, this does not mean that nothing can be done. Neighborhood people are the forgotten men and women of an integrating planet. Their affections and loyalties are civic gifts. We should nurture them, not cast them aside.
The far right is still a long way from winning majorities. The center-left’s constituency is younger and more diverse and thus much more like the United States of the future. My reading of the polls is that unless we repeal both women’s suffrage and the remaining parts of the Voting Rights Act, Trump will lose. The video portraying his disgusting misogyny and the latest round of harassment charges against him have further tilted the electoral playing field Clinton’s way.
But to roll back the far right, progressives need fresh thinking about how an innovative economy can make those innovations work on behalf of the many and not just the few. We also need to tend to non-economic matters such as patriotism and a sense of belonging. Citizens worry not only about their pocketbooks but also about how to build community and how to rear children in a challenging time.
Progressives regularly preach empathy and insist that the best way to solve a problem is to deal with its underlying causes. These principles apply as much to the struggles of our political opponents as they do to the problems faced by our allies. Defeating Trump is the first step. Giving an ear and a heart to the legitimate concerns of his supporters is the next.
Liberal elitism will never pave the way for liberal egalitarianism.