Building A New Populism In The Era Of Trump

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Above Photo: Reid Rosenberg / Flickr

With a little good faith, liberals and conservatives can work together to tackle the real issues putting the American Dream out of reach.

Imagine you’re standing in line for the American Dream.

You work hard, sometimes in dangerous jobs. You lead a moral life. But the line is stalling, even moving backwards. Yet you see newcomers up front — some of them immigrants and people of color.

Maybe you’ve worked all your life alongside African Americans and Latinos — more than most northern liberals have — but when you complain about people cutting you, those liberals call you racist. Worse still, they seem to look down on you because of your Christianity, or your Southern culture.

That’s the worldview sketched out by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, a liberal professor who spent five years interviewing Louisiana Tea Party activists. She made friends with them and stayed in touch as they got involved in the Trump campaign, an experience detailed in her new book Strangers in Their Own Land.

When Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “deplorables,” Hochschild’s Tea Party friends heard a put-down they suspect liberal elites say about them behind closed doors all the time. Trump, on the other hand, never dismissed them as racists or rednecks. Instead, he blamed their problems on the line cutters.

Unfortunately, neither Clinton nor Trump got at the real reasons the line isn’t moving.

The fact is, over the last three decades, both Republicans and Democrats have helped shift America’s wealth to a small segment of rich people and global corporations. They’ve each supported a corporate “free trade” agenda and failed to do anything more than tinker with tax rules that accelerate inequality.

The resulting economic insecurity has given rise to both progressive and regressive forms of populism.

On the one hand, the Bernie Sanders campaign focused on how the rigged rules of the economy benefit billionaires and transnational corporations. On the other, Trump deflected blame away from the real holders of power and onto less powerful groups.

In the general election, when Hillary Clinton became pegged as the status quo candidate, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Trump’s regressive populism won out.

But Trump’s plans to deport immigrants while cutting rich people’s taxes will almost certainly fail to address the underlying concerns of the non-wealthy voters who elected him. That leaves room for a more progressive populism to get the stalled-out line moving again.

That means building coalitions between urban and rural workers to raise wages and expand opportunities at the state and local levels. At the federal level, campaigns to tax the wealthy, create jobs by building new infrastructure, and provide debt-free education could win allies among Trump supporters.

Meanwhile, progressive populists should engage with Trump’s white supporters to explain that millions of black, Latino, and Native workers are stuck in line for many of the same reasons they are. Together they’ve all been held back by the 1 percent, though racism has made things far harder for people of color.

Fighting racism is essential. But liberals shouldn’t assume that Trump supporters are too racist, too dumb, or too manipulated by the Koch brothers to vote in their real economic interests.

Instead, like Hochschild did in Louisiana, they should take the time to understand the deeper economic and cultural reasons people might distrust the Democratic Party establishment and the broader liberal agenda.

Because we’re only going to get the line moving again when we realize we’re stuck in it together.

  • mwildfire

    Well, I have a couple problems with this. First, what it advocates amounts to a Bernie Sanders candidacy–and we HAD one this past election. Why didn’t that save us from Trump (AND Clinton)? Because the 1% are enormously powerful–they own the media that still forms most Americans’ opinions. They control both parties, and can keep any others marginalized. They surely preferred Clinton, but they preferred Trump over Bernie; he was allowed to run to perform his sheepdog role, then every possible trick was pulled to shove HRC ahead of him into the nomination. If they “learned anything” from this election, it would be a) give up on HRC, everyone hates her and b) don’t allow someone like Bernie to run as a Democrat, he created a real problem at the end.
    But secondly, the idea that an economically populist movement could save this country and give everyone a good shot at the American Dream is at least 20 years out of date. It’s really no longer possible, because of a combination of resource depletion (especially oil) and the environmental harm already done, and about to be done, by too many people living that Dream. Had we tried the transition Carter advocated way back in the late 70’s we could have transitioned to a renewable energy infrastructure, in time to avert severe climate change. Now? It’s really too late, especially given the lack of interest. Even Occupy, like this article, was primarily about the need to ensure that all Americans can live an upper middle class lifestyle, not hampered by debt. There was some talk in Bernie’s campaign (and some Occupy encampments) about international injustice and about environmental crises–but that was always secondary to the economic rights of current Americans to a good middle-class life.

  • DHFabian

    Back to the old “cooperate and compromise.” Right. Consider how great this has worked since Reagan, as the overall quality of life in the US went from #1 (in spite of many shortcomings), down to #48 by the time Obama was elected. Meanwhile, the liberal bourgeoisie remain as oblivious as ever.

    There are no progressive populists evident in today’s the media discussion. We’ve been through another eight years of maintaining a pep rally for the more fortunate alone, the middle class — a solid affirmation of “liberal” support for our deregulated capitalism. Stay the course! It’s a new morning in America! USA! USA!

    Words have meanings. “”Efforts to alleviate the effects of poverty among working-class and poor families through direct action and government reform are known as progressivism.” This is not what is advocated in today’s liberal media. The proverbial masses have been deeply split apart by class and race. Progress would require dealing with this reality.

  • DHFabian

    Strongly disagree that there is nothing that can be done. There is simply no will to do it. Since Reagan, we’ve seen a massive upward redistribution of wealth. At the same time, the US shipped out/shut down a huge chunk of our working class jobs. This could be reversed.

    We would need to shake up our budgets, changing our priorities from world conquest (or at least, conquest of the oil-producing nations) and protecting the advantages of the rich, to investing in the people and in rebuilding this country. We did it before, from FDR to Reagan. With Reagan, we ended the programs and reversed the policies that had taken the US to its height of wealth and productivity, embraced laissez-faire capitalism, and now suffer the consequences.

  • mwildfire

    All this is true, but you are not taking into account that we no longer have the fossil fuels and the mineral resources to build a whole new, sustainable, advanced economy, nor do we have the “sinks”–our oceans are full of various kinds of toxic crap, the atmosphere is full of greenhouse gases. Theoretically, we could, with a massive program, transition to a still-civilized if lower economic arrangement, something like, say, the world of the 1920s. And it could be, in many ways, a better world than the one we’re stuck in today. But to do this we’d have to have a great deal of cooperation and good leadership. Including things like jettisoning the Pentagon–not cutting back a little but essentially closing it down, closing the military bases around the world, converting all that wealth and all those people to productive use. Think that might happen? Our “leadership” keeps getting worse. And the sociopaths running things have set up arrangements to guarantee their own hold on power. So I see no chance of the desperately needed policy changes. I see only people working at the household and community level to create more resilience.