The following is an excerpt from my book Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity, which was published on Inauguration Day in January of 2017. It’s taken from the concluding portion of the book, in which I try to make some constructive suggestions for how the left can fight back effectively against Trump. If some of what I say seems obvious, my defense is that it seemed slightly less so a year and a half ago. Since then, candidates like Abdul El-Sayed have done an excellent job demonstrating the kind of left politics I find worthwhile. A lot of extraordinary work is being done that I respect a lot, and nothing here should be taken as reproach of or advice to those, like the DSA, who already embody the kind of alternative practice I recommend.
The left should be focused on the issues that most affect people’s lives. Our job is not to oppose the right. Our job is to create a better world for people to live in. Because, ostensibly, we like people. And so we want them to have nice lives rather than rotten, violence-ridden, impoverished ones. In this respect we are different from Donald Trump.
In order to have a purposeful and politically successful agenda, first you need a set of underlying principles. Then, you need a set of political goals, designed to realize those principles in order to make a world consistent with them. Finally, you need a set of strategies for achieving those goals. But all too often, it seems as if the left (1) doesn’t really know what it actually believes and (2) has absolutely no idea what it is trying to do or how to do it.
What, after all, is the fundamental principle of the political left? The most obvious candidate is a preference for equality over inequality. But the left is about more than equality. After all, to ensure perfect equality, you could just make everyone equally miserable. If the left is about nothing more than “equality,” the quickest way to achieve its goals is by taking everything everyone has away and leaving them destitute.
What we’re really about, then, is making life better for people, eliminating human suffering and creating better conditions for people to exist in. We’re about taking the bad features of society, the pain and the torment and the exploitation, and replacing them with good things. A small sample list of things we should probably dislike, and spend most of our time talking about
War – War is a horror. It results in babies having their limbs torn off. It forces people to watch their children, siblings, and parents die in front of them. It exacts an incalculable cost in human suffering. If we are against anything, it is war. All wars. No more wars!
Climate Change – As the planet heats, millions of people will be driven from their homes. They will suffer drought. They will be killed by natural disasters. Their cities will disappear beneath the ocean. This seems like it should be issue #1 or 2.
Murder – All murder. Murder by police and the state, as well as murder by civilians. It’s very easy for the left to combine its opposition to police brutality with an opposition to crime generally. There is a common principle: We detest victimization.
Prisons – Since victimization includes throwing people in cages, we should also be skeptical of vengeful rather than useful rehabilitative punishments.
Rape and Sexual Assault – Women across the world are routinely brutalized, attacked, and harassed. Every moment we are discussing something other than this is a moment we are wasting.
Racism – Since all human beings are fundamentally the same, people shouldn’t be subjected to different treatment or given different life chances on the basis of their race. The black/white wealth gap is inexcusable.
Ill Health – When people die of preventable diseases, because they have no money, this is an outrage. Healthcare should be a right.
Ignorance and Want – Everyone should be prosperous (not rich) and have full access to the full range of knowledge and learning that humankind has amassed.
Discrimination, Cruelty, and Mistreatment – Nobody should be subjected to cruelty. Thus, where there is cruelty, the left should oppose it.
The Meat Holocaust – It is unfashionable to say it, but animal suffering is as real as human suffering. From a moral perspective, this is not an issue that can be put aside, no matter how difficult it is to get people to care about. Animals are beaten, starved, tortured, and brutally murdered by the hundreds of millions every day.
By organizing our priorities around people’s material wellbeing, we provide a unifying underlying set of principles to guide our political action. What is the left about? It is about making sure life has less suffering, cruelty, and exploitation in it. The world is a place where people must go through a lot of things they do not deserve. Parents are taken away from their children and deported. Mothers watch their children thrown into prison cells for decades for simple mistakes of youth. Girlfriends watch boyfriends bleed to death after being shot to death by the police. Factory workers in Bangladesh work long hours for miserable pay, and must live in constant fear of their safety. Miners die of black lung. Tomato-pickers live in tiny mobile homes, working dawn to dusk and never seeing their children. It is a world filled with heartbreaking occurrences, few of which are acknowledged or spoken of by people in power.
It is the job of the left to make life better, to care about improving people’s conditions in tangible ways. This means helping people achieve decent wages. Making sure they have good schools. Making sure they’re not tangled up in red tape as they try to get healthcare. Making sure that they’re not lonely, or depressed, that they have a sense of community and purpose. Our job is to bring everybody the good life, to make sure they are able to eat good food, have great healthcare, have fulfilling and rewarding work, and maximize their potential. We don’t want people stuck in dead-end tasks that they hate, we don’t want them having to worry about whether they’ll be able to pay for their children’s medical needs, we don’t want them blown to pieces in a needless war.
Yet consider how people on the left frequently talk: in abstractions, generalities, and theories, in ways that don’t put our principles in intelligible terms. Partly because so much left-wing thinking originates in the academy, the language of the left frequently doesn’t lend itself to mass appeal. Instead of talking about suffering, cruelty, and deprivation, the left now frequently talks about “marginalization” and “exclusion.” These terms don’t really make the stakes clear; they sound like bad things because of their connotations, but aren’t especially vivid. So instead of saying we need to bring prosperity, health, and happiness to poor people, we will say we intend to “center the needs of the marginalized.” But it’s not obvious what you have to do in order to “center” something; we need terms that make clear to everybody what the problem is and what it would look like if the problem were solved. We should be careful about using language that is unclear or vague, because this makes our goals fuzzy.
It’s important to believe in things that are real. Left-wing principles are often stated in abstractions. For example, “fighting oppression” or “creating equality.” But the precise definitions of oppression and equality are difficult to specify. What would a world without “oppression” look like? What does true equality mean? These are difficult questions, ones whose answers are not obvious. But the word “oppression” and “inequality” are used so frequently on the left that they are assumed to be meaningful, without a careful inquiry into what the actual reality of these terms is.
This is not to say that our underlying concerns or values should shift. It’s not to say we should be any less concerned with the people who are marginalized. It’s to say that we should have clearer and less abstract ways of thinking. Sometimes, left-language gets so wrapped up in talk of “oppression,” “domination,” “symbolic violence,” “privilege,” etc., that it loses track of the underlying events that these terms have been created in order to describe. The more one uses shorthand terms (like “systemic injustice”) rather than descriptors of the actual problems in people’s lives that this shorthand term refers to (like “women being fired for becoming pregnant” or “factories closing and leaving hundreds of dads unable to pay for their children to visit the doctor” or “black men on the way home from their jobs being thrown against police cars and frisked” or “transgender people being bullied and beaten up and then crying all night believing they are totally hated and alone in the world”), the less we help people who are not leftists understand what we are actually concerned with. The majority of people are fairly apolitical; they do not even vote, let alone make politics part of their daily lives. This is perfectly understandable, because thinking politically often involves taking on profound feelings of hopelessness and despair, due to a recognition of the enormity of the world’s problems and the difficulty there will be in solving them all. But in order to get people to feel a sense of urgency around matters like “systemic injustice” or “institutional racism” it is necessary to constantly be reducing these terms to the life-events that they are trying to capture.
Thus there’s no need to get lost in a debate over whether “class-based politics” or “identity-based politics” should define the left’s agenda. Both can be accommodated, simply by prioritizing repairing the real harms and mistreatment people suffer in their daily lives. If we continue asking ourselves the questions “How much does this matter? And, given that every moment we spend on one thing is a moment we do not spend on another thing, do we have our priorities in order?”, we will hopefully spend more time talking about the nuclear threat, climate change, our racially discriminatory immigration policies, the bullying and violence suffered by young transgender people, Native American poverty, domestic violence, healthcare access, the incarceration of millions of people, and violence in Chicago. And we’ll spend less time talking about Trump’s feud with Arnold Schwarzenegger over Apprentice ratings, Mike Pence and the Hamilton musical, how eating certain foods from around the world may be a form of “cultural theft,” or the difference between Karl Marx’s early work and his mature thought. This is not to say none of this can be interesting, or even relatively important, but that if one is spending more time writing about the symbolic politics of Beyonce’s music videos than about the threat of global nuclear destruction, a reassessment may be in order. When left politics devotes itself too much to high-level social theory, or the analysis of representation in pop culture products, it removes itself from the real world, and the serious issues affecting millions that urgently need dealing with.
This does not mean that there are no interesting debates to be had over cultural issues, or that films and television do not significantly affect the way we understand the world. If one goes too far in the direction of the material, to the neglect of the symbolic, we miss something important. It’s not that people should never speak about the fact that, say, movies rarely have Asian lead actors (even when the film takes place in Ancient China!), or cultural depictions of Native Americans tend to reduce them to crass stereotypes. It’s just that if we focus largely on the cultural, and don’t care as much about, say, the steady self-immolation of the human species, we will be squandering important resources of time and political energy. Cultural appropriation debates may begin to seem somewhat beside the point if Donald Trump blows up the world.
Our fundamental principle, then, is that we want everyone to have the meaningful and fulfilling lives that they want, and to take away the various external obstacles that prevent people from having such lives. This principle can be consistently applied across scenarios. Why do we want nuclear arms control? Because if someone’s city gets blown up and their children die, their life is less fulfilling. Why do we want to reform the criminal justice system? Because it destroys lives, too. Why do we want maternity leave and adequate child care? Because motherhood should be a rewarding and fulfilling and joyful experience, not a struggle for subsistence. Simple universal principles can therefore create a compelling moral framework for left-wing political positions. They do not involve fancy “dialectics” or social theory. All we need to do is reflect on what it means to have a good life, and those economic and social factors that stand in the way of people having good lives.
Of course, there are plenty of disagreements over what constitutes the social good. It’s worth having serious debates over the nature of our values, of interrogating them ruthlessly and seeing whether they are consistent and make sense. But the progressive left can nevertheless hopefully reach some consensus sets of goals, e.g., preventing the environment from falling apart, preventing nuclear war from obliterating humankind, trying to dismantle the prison system without causing new unintended harms, making it so that people don’t have to toil and suffer, making people healthy, happy, sociable, and free, and keeping people from being discriminated against, mistreated, bullied, harassed, raped, and murdered.
It’s easy to actually develop principles. Focus on the real world. Go back to what the basic principles are. For example, the central belief of the left seems to be roughly as follows: Nobody should be subjected to cruelty, deprivation, and suffering, and everyone should be able to flourish and be happy.
The left has not done a very good job of communicating its ideas to people. Perhaps that’s because, at heart, we don’t know our own ideas very well. In the 19th century, utopian socialists like William Morris and Edward Bellamy wrote elaborate fictional visions of what ideal future societies would look like. Today, we know the future society we are fighting for largely in terms of what it is not (it is not sexist, it does not have white privilege in it) rather than what it is.
Perhaps it’s a good idea, then, to think more about what our ideal world looks like. What is the best schooling like? What should jobs be like? (Should there be jobs at all?) What should cities look like? Should race and gender exist as meaningful categories? Should national boundaries exist? How should cultural divisions be dealt with? Should there be prisons? Tax collectors? Should we colonize space?
Utopian thinking is often seen as the height of uselessness, because it necessarily speculates on worlds that don’t exist rather than dealing pragmatically with the world that does exist. But this misses a crucial purpose of these dreams: They help us understand what the end goal is, what the underlying vision is toward which we want to keep moving. By envisioning the promised land, you can chart a path toward it. You may not get there. But you will at least be heading in the right direction. (This is one reason why Martin Luther King’s dream was such an effective image; it offered a vision of a seemingly impossible world and gave people something to look forward to and begin to build together.)
It’s important, then, to have a clear idea of the world you wish to see. Otherwise, it will be difficult to explain clearly to people what you’re fighting for. You might be able to tell them what you’re fighting against. But proving that you’re on the right side involves more than proving that the other side is bad: You have to prove that your own side is better. This is the fundamental problem Democrats have been making in their political pitches: They run on the grounds that they are not Republicans. Hillary Clinton tells you she is not Donald Trump. And this is an extremely compelling argument. For, as we have seen, Donald Trump is a monstrosity. But you still need an answer to the obvious follow-up question “Well, if you’re not Donald Trump, then what are you?”
Progressives therefore need a meaningful vision. Why should people want a left-wing world? What does the left actually stand for? And what would it actually look like to have a world in which the things the left wants are implemented? If nobody gives people a clear answer to these questions, then we cannot expect people to sign on to our program. The first thing to figure out is what we are fighting for in the first place. Becoming successful requires becoming self-critical, understanding why people are not leftists rather than simply lambasting them for being so.
The good news for progressives is that Trump can be defeated. The bad news is that it requires them to do things they have never done before, like think about how to be politically successful. Fundamentally, it requires having a clear set of objectives and deciding one’s actions on the basis of whether they actually get us toward those objectives. This means that progressives need a serious agenda, and need to have a strategy for actually getting it put in place.
Developing Effective Politics
Once we know the sort of thing we stand for, we can start thinking about how to stand for it. We can go from believing that the world ought to be a more just and humane place to actually having a few ideas for how to make it so.
Fortunately, it is easy to find political ideas that flow from progressive principles. Compassion means making sure that people have adequate healthcare regardless of their means. Hence the need for a comprehensive national health insurance program. Having a decent life means not working long hours for crappy wages, hence the need for workplace democracy (i.e., having more of a say at your job). It means not having to work when you are elderly, hence the need for protecting and expanding Social Security and Medicare provisions. It means not having to be afraid that any time you meet a police officer, they might shoot you in the head, hence the need for serious reform of the way policing occurs, especially in black communities. It means not being harassed, mistreated, or discriminated against because of your race or gender identity. And it means being assured that the world won’t be boiled to a crisp by the time your children reach adulthood, hence the need to coordinate serious global action to reduce emissions and stall the effects of climate change.
It’s a relatively simple matter for the left to offer an appealing agenda. A good social-democratic program can win people over: single-payer healthcare, better labor protections, fixing criminal justice, and ensuring access to good schools when you’re young, and a secure retirement when you’re old. Such a program should emphasis the universal, “we’re all in this together” aspect of left politics. Because these policies disproportionately benefit people who have the least, they are able to resolve the problem of balancing broad appeals with special attention to particular excluded groups.
In beginning to think about how to remake ourselves and become politically successful, people on the left should have a few broad goals on our mind:
Reformulate a serious progressive platform – No more Clintonism, no more technocratic politics. Politics should be based in a set of values that are clear and defensible. Those values should be articulable to everyone. We should not just focus on what policies we want, but explain why we care about them.
Offering Compelling Narratives – Have clear goals, but don’t get too wrapped up in policy details. It’s important not to dwell in total fantasy, but it’s also true that if you become too “wonkish,” people aren’t going to know what the hell you’re talking about. To win political campaigns, you need to lay out broad principles and plans.
Moving Beyond Presidencies, Recapturing state and local power – While the Democratic Party has been relatively competitive at the presidential level, the Democratic Party has been roundly thrashed at every other level of government. It’s important to remember the U.S. presidency, while extremely important, is only a small part of the existing world. The President is often described as the most powerful person on Earth. This is true. But the most powerful person on Earth isn’t necessarily all-powerful, and you’ve got to be broadly competitive in order to get anything done. Your party can’t consist of one person at the top, and a bunch of other people whose only job is to get that person elected. We have to have a serious presence at all levels of government.
Build independent media outlets – The existing large institutions are not enough. Fundamentally, they can’t be fixed, because they have a direct financial incentive to continue promoting the spectacle that comes from Donald Trump. It’s necessary to dismantle the dominance of corporate outlets obsessed with the horse race. While some media outlets still produce excellent work, we also need new voices. These should combine left-wing moral values with a commitment to empirical rigor, integrity, empathy, and joy. They should bring attention to serious issues that matter to people. We must figure out why previous efforts at producing left-wing media (Air America, Current TV) have been such failures. (I suspect it is less to do with the fact that there is no audience for those ideas than with the fact that they were boring.)
Trying New Things – There needs to be a willingness for the left to do things it has never done before. For example, on the issue of climate change, it is very clear that the message of climate scientists is not being absorbed by the public with a sufficient sense of urgency. Thus climate scientists and experts should be going around to schools, churches, public libraries, inviting skepticism and taking any and all questions from the public. We shouldn’t simply disdain those who refuse to accept the consensus; after all, it’s perfectly rational to be a skeptic. Instead, we must think strategically about new ways to get people to understand the stakes, and try our best to understand why the message is failing.
Rebuilding the Labor Movement – There is no future for progressivism without a functional labor movement, and the fact that Democrats have forgotten this is one of the reasons they are mystified at seeing their power erode. Unions are important, both in helping people negotiate better working conditions for themselves (in a world of unequal power between workers and bosses, it is impossible for workers to improve their fortunes unless they band together), and in getting people politically active.
Fixing Prejudice – One question rarely asked by those who lament the racism they see in Trump voters is: “How do you actually make people less racist?” It’s not enough to deplore racism. We actually have to end it. That means thinking about the processes in people’s lives that cause them to develop bigotries, and intervening at those points.
Not Having Billionaires Be In Charge of the World – Upon being elected, Donald Trump immediately stuffed his cabinet with billionaires. As if to slap workers in the face as hard as possible, Trump chose the CEO of the Carls Jr. hamburger chain, who has prominently opposed raises in the minimum wage for restaurant workers. But here’s the irony: When Hillary Clinton’s own cabinet choices leaked in January, it turned out that her own choice for Labor Secretary was…Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. One could not imagine a more perfect symbol of the current state of the Democratic Party. Republicans will give you the billionaire CEO of a hamburger chain, Democrats will give you the billionaire CEO of a coffee chain. Under Clintonism, the difference between left and right is the difference between Carls, Jr. and Starbucks. But a sincere left politics aims for a world in which billionaires aren’t in charge of everything, rather than a world in which the “good” billionaires are in charge.
Radical Democracy – Democracy means that people should have a say in those things that affect their own lives. That means that they should have more control over their schools, workplaces, and legislatures. Instead of simply aiming for the policy that maximizes people’s aggregate wellbeing according to the judgments of a set of experts, we should be aiming for inclusive institutions. The Democratic Party itself should be a membership organization where membership means something. It’s bizarre that people don’t know anything about how their state party officials are elected, or have any real say in this. Fundamentally, power within parties needs to come from the bottom (the members) rather than the top (the wealthiest donors).
Don’t Move To the Right, Move to the Good – When Democrats lose, they sometimes have a tendency to believe they should act more like Republicans in order to win. This is true in one sense, in that Republicans know how to accomplish their political agenda while Democrats do not. But it shouldn’t be taken to mean that Democrats should adopt more right-wing political positions in order to attract a broader base of support. If you try to be both progressive and conservative, you’ll end up being nothing at all. People are far more likely to respect sincere progressives who are truthful about their values than politicians who take the public’s temperature via focus group and adopt their political positions accordingly. Liberalism does not need to be more watery, it needs to be more principled and genuine. People dislike liberals not because their ideas are too radical, but because they are frequently hypocritical (say by flying around in private jets while preaching about inequality) and because they are perceived to be elitist (say by insisting that people who disagree with them are dumb and uneducated). We don’t need to get rid of our commitments, we need to be persuasive in presenting them.
There is hope for progressive politics. One need only look to the activities of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, which has built a diverse multi-racial coalition to fight against both racial and economic injustices, and has achieved impressive political successes in a state that did not seem naturally ripe for left-wing organizing. Or look at the Bernie Sanders campaign. Millennials, who were thought to be lazy, apolitical basement-dwellers, came out in droves to support a candidate who inspired them, offering a hopeful and constructive promise of major political change and an authentic (as opposed to merely rhetorical) rejection of “politics as usual.” Sanders raised a fortune in small donations and managed to make a highly credible bid for the nomination, coming from total obscurity. When you’re serious about fighting for your values, you can be very successful.
But what can people do personally in order to help rebuild the fortunes of progressive politics? How do we act in our lives to bring about change? This kind of question requires a far more serious examination than is possible here. But below are a few suggestions for progressives, on how to think about being a human being.
Care about politics – It is no longer acceptable not to think about politics, and not to act. Obviously different people have different capacities for political action. But what we must recognize is that, whether we participate or not, politics will go on around us. If we sit still, the country could elect Donald Trump. Both the Democratic primary and the general election had moments where small things made a big difference (a few more organizers in Iowa might have given Bernie Sanders a victory and a significant boost, and Hillary came extremely close to beating Trump). Everyone matters, and inaction is itself a form of action. If were care about issues, we have to ask ourselves what we are doing about them.
Talk to people who disagree with you – It’s a dead-end to talk only to people who already share your politics. People are lured to ideas because they hear those ideas coming from people they like and trust. Even if you think they’re racist and sexist, try to figure out why they think that way.
Take the lead – Don’t wait for politics to come to you. It’s not going to show up at your doorstep. Nobody is going to call. The “what can I do?” question often paralyzes people, who want to be shown where to sign up for a social movement. But things get started only through initiative. People have differing desires and abilities when it comes to taking charge, but we should consistently try to be more active and less passive in our politics.
Commitment to Truth and Integrity – Integrity means freely acknowledging when someone on our own side does something wrong. If we have actual principles, we must apply them consistently. If we would condemn an act when Republicans did it, we cannot take great pains to defend it when our side does it. It’s necessary not to be “partisan,” not in the sense that we must be wishy-washy centrists, but in the sense that we must not allow our moral commitments to warp our factual understandings. Abuses of power by left-wing regimes are just as objectionable as abuses of power by right-wing regimes. And our own side is never going to be perfect.
Be clear, meaningful, and simple – Communication must be effective if it is to be of any use at all. That means you need plain language. Preserving the social safety net. Getting tough on the 1%. Saving the middle class. We do not like cruelty. What is cruelty? Intentionally causing a person feel to feel pain and being indifferent to or enjoying that pain. Why is Donald Trump cruel? Because deporting people inflicts terrible pain on families, and sexual assaulting people traumatizes them.
Use Your Resources – If you are wealthy, and a liberal, then you are probably not living up to your values as much as you could. After all, money is power, and the possession of money is the possession of the power to help people. Every dollar we keep is a dollar we don’t spend, and every dollar we don’t spend has costs in human wellbeing. So many people in this world struggle to simply feed themselves and find shelter. They struggle to pay for medical treatment. If we have money to spare, we are choosing not to help these people. Nor are resources limited to money: The time we could spend on helping make a better world is time we should be spending on it. None of us can be perfect, but all of us can be better.
Think strategically – What matters is what actually happens. Much political talk is cathartic without necessarily being strategic. If you join a group, make sure the group is actually accomplishing things, not just having a lot of meetings in which it talks about accomplishing things (this is most groups). Link political action to goals, not the mere expression of moral rightness. Certain things seem like resistance to Donald Trump, but aren’t (for example, Keith Olbermann’s online television show, The Resistance, which is, like most things Keith Olbermann does, more about letting Keith Olbermann make a lot of pompous noise than about actually moving a progressive agenda forward). “What will this actually accomplish? and “Where is this leading?” are questions that should be asked at frequent intervals.
Try to find resolutions to seeming ideological conflicts – Many ideological differences are not mere “misunderstandings” and it will be impossible to find common ground. Sometimes values are simply in conflict. But where resolutions are possible, we should try to find them before dismissing a clash as intractable. (For example, it is almost certainly possible for progressives to combine their opposition to race-based injustices with an opposition to economic injustices that go beyond race, and to address the concerns of both the black working class and the white working class.)
Don’t Be Elitist – This doesn’t mean affirming false ideas that blue collar white pickup-truck America is somehow the “real America.” Nor does it mean a disdain for knowledge and learning. What it means is not assuming that you necessarily know what’s good for everyone else. And it means that policy should be made accessible. A 900-page healthcare law is no good (Even a comic book that tried to explain the Affordable Care Act to laymen ended up running well over 100 pages). People should be included in decision-making, which means abandoning the “trust us” model of governance.
Distinguish Between Empathy and Sympathy – The question of whether progressives should “empathize with Trump voters” is easily resolved. Of course they should empathize with them. Empathy is just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to understand them better. We should be humanists who empathize with all people. That doesn’t mean one needs to be sympathetic to someone’s views. I can try to understand what made someone a racist without compromising my complete lack of sympathy for racism. Interestingly, progressives know how to do this. We are constantly insisting on this distinction when it comes to, say, terrorists and criminal defendants. You don’t have to believe it’s acceptable to join ISIS in order to try to understand why disaffected young Muslim men may do it. You don’t have to think murder is justifiable to understand a murderer’s background. It is absurd and hypocritical not to offer the same level of understanding to someone who voted for Donald Trump that we would extent to someone who committed a heinous crime. And it’s perfectly possible to argue simultaneously that immigrants and people of color are the ones most in need of greater empathy in America, without suggesting that Trump voters are unique among all human beings in not deserving an ounce of human understanding or compassion. The key here is to be willing to listen to people and care about them, without ever sacrificing your fundamental values or condoning the indefensible.
Question yourself without getting wrapped up in guilt – It’s important to listen to other people’s critiques and to stay humble. People who have different experiences from ourselves are likely to know things that we ourselves do not know, or have not noticed. At the same time, it’s unhealthy to get totally consumed by worrying about what other people think. If you get too caught up in critical self-examination over your own role (am I contributing to X social problem by existing?) you’ll end up paralyzed by inaction, which helps nobody.
Don’t spend too much time shitting on people who are on our side. – We’re all flawed. We need to be generous to one another. If you find yourself in a screaming match with someone who roughly shares your political orientation, something has gone terribly wrong. Vigorous criticism of our own side is important. But the more we fight within ourselves, the less we fight for the realization of values in the world.
Be kind. Always kind. – Too many leftists are mean. We have to be a source of comfort, love, and compassion in these times. We are fighting for a nice world, one full of love. Be the change you wish to see in the world, and if the change you wish to see in the world is that the world is less mean, then we can start by being less mean ourselves. Hugs aren’t, in and of themselves, a politics. But they are nice. So there’s nothing wrong with giving more of them. The systemic injustices of the world make a lot of people lonely and afraid. And small acts of kindness will not eliminate the systemic injustices, but they may make living with them somewhat more bearable for a day.
Remember that the real world exists, and it’s where politics happen – So much political conversation occurs online nowadays that it’s easy to forget that hardly anything that happens online actually affects the arrangements of political power in the external world. It’s also easy to lapse into the delusion that by keeping up with the news and discussing politics a lot, you’re an informed citizen doing politics. But of course, you’re actually entirely passive, your effect no greater than those who don’t read the news. Looking back on my own activity during the election cycle, I’m appalled by the amount of time I spent on social media. I’d like to think it wasn’t much. But it was a lot! I, like many others, confused talking about politics with doing politics. Politics happens in the street, the voting booth, the town meeting, the legislature, and the workplace. We need to remember that when we’re not in those places, we might be passionately expending energy thinking about and discussing an issue without affecting it in any serious way.
The key lesson from the election of Donald Trump, for progressives generally, is that we simply have to persuade people to join our cause and fight for it, or we will lose. It’s not enough to know that you’re right, or smarter than the other guy. It’s not enough to know that you’re very well-credentialed, or to be on the “right side of history,” or to regularly check your privilege, or to read the newspaper and feel informed. One must translate these things into success.
This is, uncomfortable as it may be, going to involve speaking to and attempting to persuade some Trump voters. If one’s politics are not winning elections, then one has a couple of choices: join the other side, or persuade some people on their side (or some indifferent, apolitical people) to join you. (Actually, there’s a third choice, the one opted for by Bill Clinton in the early 1990s: adopt half of the other side’s platform, but tell the people on your own side that you still care about them. This actually works reasonably well politically until people figure out what you’re doing. It just happens to be immoral.) Thus, if progressives are committed to progressive values, they are going to have to bring new supporters to their cause. Persuasion is far more difficult than talking to people who already agree with you.
For Democrats, this means that instead of telling people that everything is alright, they need to acknowledge that for many, many people things aren’t alright at all. Then, instead of offering terrifying doomsaying like Trump, they need to inspire people to believe things can get better. They need to run a campaign of hope rather than a campaign of complacency. If they want to successfully win Trump’s voters over, they will need to stop treating such people as nothing more than delusional racists.
Many recoil at the idea of having to reach out and persuade Trump supporters. This is partially because they believe Trump supporters are incapable of being reasoned with, and partially because having productive political discussions is extremely difficult to begin with. There’s also a popular line on the left, that the oppressed shouldn’t have to be the ones to educate their oppressors. Unfortunately, in a world where political power has to be built rather than wished into existence, there is no alternative to having discussions designed to help people see your side.
Not all Trump supporters are the same, however, and progressives don’t need to persuade everyone to agree with them, they just need to persuade enough people. Distinctions need to be made between those who should be part of a broad coalition and those who are totally hopeless. In fact, it was a failure to make these kinds of distinctions that caused Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns to be so poisonous to progressive politics. Clinton actively courted white racists, trying to forge a coalition between “Reagan Democrats” and the Democrats’ traditional racially diverse base. In doing so, he ended up adopting a terribly regressive set of racial politics that ultimately harmed black lives.
It’s pretty easy, though, if you have good sense of the values you care about and the values you won’t compromise, to figure out who can be courted to the progressive cause. One online commentator offered the stories of two fictionalized Trump supporters, Michelle and Jon, to illustrate the difference:
Michelle and Jon both like Trump.
Michelle lives in a rural, working class, historically non-diverse town that has faced significant unemployment thanks to neoliberal financial policies and been devastated by the opioid epidemic. She feels like politicians have forgotten about her.
Jon grew up with money and reads Breitbart. He thinks that first-trimester abortions are people, and that queer people are science experiments who should be electrocuted until they’re straight and ‘normal.’
Michelle, let’s talk. Jon, go fuck yourself.
This seems the right approach. We empathize with people who are suffering or confused. We should be patient and listen, knowing that we ourselves likely have things to learn. Yet we are nevertheless willing to tell hatred and bigotry to go fuck themselves.