Fighting Faux Populism


By Joseph M. Schwartz

Brexit has come to the United States. For 30 years now, in Europe and the U.S., a bipartisan neoliberal consensus has embraced the benefits of globalization and the rise of the “knowledge economy.” If only workers would go back to school, retrain, and send their children to college, the good jobs that disappeared would somehow return. But those good jobs did not arrive, and voters have opted for a faux populism that promises to reverse globalization. The rise of mass parties of the far right coincides with the failure of both conservative and neoliberal-led social democratic parties to offer a viable alternative to austerity for the many and unrestrained affluence for the few. The same is true for Democratic Party elites.


The Need for a Class Politics

What motivation did Hillary Clinton’s campaign provide for working-class voters of all races to turn out? Her ads stressed her “competence, experience and expertise” and the deep character flaws of her opponent, including his horrific misogyny. No doubt misogyny played a role in Clinton’s defeat. But, Clinton failed to emphasize her platform’s call to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, create jobs through public investment in infrastructure and alternative energy, and oppose “free trade agreements.” She never fully embraced the platform imposed on her by the forces behind her social democratic rival, Bernie Sanders. Yet Sanders’s message did resonate with white working-class voters and millennials of all races. In addition, the symbolism of a woman running for president failed to win enough white working-class or college-educated women.

Many working-class-voters view the Democrats as the party of white, socially liberal, bicoastal elites who look down upon the non-college educated. Both Republican and neoliberal Democratic politicians have embraced a racial politics that attacks antipoverty programs as creating dependence, while supporting with varying degrees of ambivalence universal social welfare programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Narrow Victory for Trump

We should not exaggerate the size of the Trump victory. Elections are often won on the margin. Clinton won the popular vote by at least 2 million votes (or over one percent out of over 137 million votes cast), and if we didn’t have the Electoral College system (created to give increased political weight to the slave states), she would be president of the U.S. The deciding votes were approximately 97,000 or just enough to fill a large stadium. Clinton lost Pennsylvania by 68,000 votes, Michigan by 11,000, and Wisconsin by 18,000. None of these states had gone Republican since 1988. But small margins can mask seismic shifts. Trump’s support from white, college-educated voters dropped 10% from Romney’s 2012 total, while his non-college-educated white vote rose 10% higher than Romney’s. Clinton’s projected final vote total of over 65 million is about two million below Obama’s popular vote total of 2012 and about five million below his 2008 total. Trump’s vote rose slightly above Romney’s total, with an important uptick in small town and rural America, particularly in the Rust Belt (more among irregular voters than Obama-Trump switchers). Clinton lost in part because she failed to energize the Democratic base, particularly among working-class African Americans and socially liberal white working-class voters, many of whom stayed home.

As of this writing in mid-November, we still need to see actual electoral data, but exit polls indicate that Clinton probably lost whites without a college education by 70-30; and this ten-point swing away from the 2012 Democratic total explains Trump’s margins in rural and small-town white America. Trump’s victory did not depend solely on the white working class, as a good chunk of non-college-educated white voters are relatively affluent small business owners or contractors.

Clinton won the votes of the one-third of the electorate making under $50,000 a year by about 12 points; Obama won that cohort by well over 20%. (Close to half of voters making $50,000 or less are voters of color.) If the Democrats are to make gains against the Republicans in the 2018 and crucial 2020 elections (which will determine reapportionment), they have to make decreasing social inequality the centerpiece of their political appeal.

The left and labor must redress the hole in the U.S. electorate caused by the class divide in voter participation. Only 35% of eligible voters who earn below the median family income vote in presidential elections, whereas over two-thirds of individuals earning above the median income do. Overall, only 50% of people eligible to vote participate in presidential elections (only 30% in non-presidential congressional year elections). Elites in both parties collude to prevent the less wealthy from voting via onerous registration requirements and by keeping Election Day on a weekday rather than on a weekend or national holiday. Republicans are more aggressive suppressors of voting by people of color.

Voter suppression definitely cost Clinton Wisconsin and most probably Michigan. In Wisconsin, more than 300,000 registered voters were dropped from the rolls for not having adequate forms of identification or for not having voted in recent elections. African American turnout in Milwaukee County and in Wayne County (Detroit) was down far more than the national 10% drop in African American turnout from 2012. And the closing of scores of early polling stations in North Carolina undoubtedly cost Clinton tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of African American votes. As it is, 13% of African American men cannot vote because of felony exclusion; 25% in Florida. Thus, the movement against voter suppression remains central to the struggle for equal rights.

Still, there was some good news on Election Day. The increasing participation of Latino voters means that Georgia, Arizona, and Texas will soon be competitive states. Voters in Maricopa County, Arizona, defeated the racist incumbent sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and progressive black district attorneys were elected in Cleveland and Chicago. Latinos, particularly union activists, are the leaders of progressive politics in California, Nevada, Arizona, and soon Texas. Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington voted to raise their minimum wages, and Arizona and Colorado approved measures to require businesses to provide employees with paid sick leave. Thanks to the deep organizing of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, Richmond, California, passed significant rent-control initiatives. And California voters approved measures to extend the current income tax surcharge on wealthy residents to pay for public education and to repeal the 20-year ban on bilingual education.

How Can the Left Fight Back?

What is the left to do in the face of far-right Republican control of the executive, legislative, and (soon) judicial branches of the federal government? We must exploit the contradictions between Trump’s faux pro–working-class populism and traditional Republican support of free trade, hostility to public safety-net programs, and opposition to workers’ rights. Democrats in the Senate must filibuster far-right judicial appointments as vigorously as the right delayed and denied Barack Obama’s federal court appointments. Although Trump wants to deport millions of immigrants, Republican elites know that agribusiness, the food and meat processing industry, construction, fast food, and child and elder care rely on the exploitation of millions of undocumented workers. The defense of sanctuary cities and the creation of sanctuary religious networks and safe campuses should be a crucial immediate task for the left. If registration of Muslims is ordered, we must organize all people of good will to register as Muslims. In addition, anti-Trump forces must unite to demand that white nationalist promoter Stephen Bannon be fired as chief White House counselor and that the Democrats in the Senate filibuster the appointment of racist Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as attorney general.

Trump will go after worker rights and appoint reactionaries to the National Labor Relations Board and Department of Labor, as well as back Republican legislative plans for a federal right-to-work bill. The labor movement must engage in aggressive forms of democratic, bottom-up organizing (increasingly outside the framework of the hobbled National Labor Relations Act) and stop supporting those Democrats who are not true friends of unions. Trump will fail to deliver “jobs, jobs, jobs” to economically deprived communities, because the Republicans will oppose any major public investment in alternative energy and mass transit. Even if he could bring back basic steel production from South Korea, China, Brazil, and elsewhere, massive increases in productivity in that industry and in coal mining mean that most of those jobs are gone forever. And that’s not even considering the disastrous environmental costs of deregulating pollution controls on coal-fired power plants.

The Republican caucus will likely oppose any renegotiation of past free trade deals and will oppose Trump’s protectionism. The Democrats should lay down guidelines for future fair trade deals that have vigorous enforcement provisions for labor and human rights and environmental protection and that eliminate the pro-corporate investor dispute resolution courts that trample on a state’s right to regulate corporate behavior.

Major infrastructure investment might bring some jobs to depressed areas, but Trump’s and the Republicans’ desire for massive tax giveaways to the rich and corporations will deplete the federal coffers. The Democrats should filibuster any infrastructure proposal that calls for tax credits for corporations to repair infrastructure and then take private ownership of it. Trump’s promise of “jobs, jobs, jobs” is a repackaged version of the failed military Keynesianism of past Republican administrations. He would create massive stimulatory deficits by mammoth tax cuts to the rich and corporations while boosting government expenditure on useless, but somewhat job-producing military hardware. If the left can link opposition to tax cuts to his climate-denying environmental policy through mass opposition in the streets, Trump might be forced to opt for less extreme policies. 

We must be wary of a return to bipartisan neoliberal attacks on Social Security and Medicare. The Reagan and Bush II tax cuts each deprived the federal coffers of 2.1% gross domestic product. Thus, today the federal government has more than $700 billion dollars (or nearly 20% of the federal budget) less to spend on basic human needs. The proposed Trump tax cuts would deny the federal government another 3% or more of GDP in revenues, accentuating pressure for massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare (which Republicans and many neoliberal Democrats want to privatize). Trump’s faux populism provides the left with an opportunity to rally around Bernie Sanders’s plan to increase Social Security funding by removing the cap on incomes subject to the Social Security tax. Only by enacting Sanders’s plan for massive public investment in infrastructure, alternative energy, and mass transit can productive jobs be brought to the deindustrialized heartland and our inner cities.

But the most immediate threat of a Trump administration will come from the xenophobic, homophobic, and racist executive orders he may make the day he assumes office. He could well place #BlackLivesMatter on the domestic terrorist watch list. His attorney general is likely to accelerate mass incarceration and defend racial profiling by police. As the DSA NPC statement emphasizes, the first task of the left is to defend the rights of those threatened by deportation, by Islamophobia, and by repression against those fighting for racial and economic justice. The movement that opposed U.S. intervention in Central America created a “pledge of resistance” to protect the rights of undocumented refugees who came to the United States. We must create a new “pledge of resistance” against all racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and misogynist acts inspired by Trumpism.

The Sanders campaign demonstrated that working-class people of all races can be drawn to a democratic socialist politics that speaks to their needs. In the 2018 and 2020 elections we must work not only to defeat Republicans, but also neoliberal Democrats. The most pragmatic way of accomplishing the latter task would be to run insurgent left primary candidates (including avowed democratic socialists) against mainstream Democrats, though in some places independent candidates may be possible. Only if the left builds multiracial independent political capacity to punish pro-corporate Democrats can we build an electoral force that can defeat Trumpism. At this writing, a week after the election, more than 2,800 new people have joined DSA. As we build mass resistance to Trump, we also have to build a socialist organization capable of transforming the political conversation in the United States.

Joseph Schwartz teaches politics at Temple University and is a vice chair of DSA. For more in-depth analysis and an outline of DSA’s plans to resist Trumpism see the DSA National Political Committee’s statement at here.

This article will appear in the Winter 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine, due in mailboxes this week.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.