Thursday, 5 November 2020

The Agonies of American Politics

We all know the pain of defeat. The polls were stacked against us last December, but on we gamely trudged hoping they were wrong as per recent history. Suspecting they could be right did not soften the blow then the bitch slap of electoral reality struck. It stung, it still stings, and for many thousands of activists who put themselves out day after shitty day coping with icy rains and the chill blast of the doorstep, that feeling is never going away. Yes, the left knows pain. And our collective experience allows us to appreciate, be cheered by and enjoy the agonies of Donald Trump and the freakish movement he brought into being. And so when good news comes though, such as the complete dismissal of his campaign's lawsuit to overturn the Michigan result, allow yourself a frisson of schadenfreude. I certainly am.

This said, one should temper a gloating countenance with undeniable political facts. This was supposed to be an election the Democrats walked. They didn't. This was supposed to be an election that saw Trumpism comprehensively routed. It wasn't. And this was to be an election where Trump's incompetent approach to the Coronavirus, along with a myriad of overt failures was to bury his chances for good. Instead, Trump's vote went up. Presently, his tally lies almost four million behind Joe Biden's but at 68.5m he is on course to sweep past Barack Obama in 2008 and score the second highest popular vote in a presidential election. It's not looking good enough to push him over the line this time unlike 2016, but amid the centrist backslapping and self-congratulation few in the Democrat camp are going to ask how Trump built on his support. They didn't after Hillary Clinton's defeat, and they sure as hell won't now their man is about to take the White House.

Consider it for a moment. The most anti-working class and corporate-friendly president in US history won big among trade union members in the rust belt states. This most anti-Mexican and anti-Hispanic of presidents saw his support improve among Latin American voters in places like Texas and Arizona. Among the disabled, the chronically ill, and others who've seen health care entitlements cut the voters turned out and dutifully put a cross (or punctured a chad) next to the Trump/Pence ticket. And let's not forget the complete bams who went to Trump rallies sans social distancing and face masks, caught the 'rona, passed it around to friends and family, put some of them in hospital and others in the ground, and still marked their ballot for the incumbent. How can such a flagrant disregard for the truisms not just of political science and its beloved rational choice assumptions but of basic common sense happen?

It comes down to alienation from politics. Biden's pitch was better than Clinton's, but to the casual Republican-inclined voter he appeared not to offer much. Saying he'd do a better job managing Coronavirus and getting America through the pandemic is easy, uninteresting, and does nothing to blunt Trump's message. Despite managing next to no accomplishments in office, apart from cutting taxes for the very rich back in 2017, the president's politics drip with the double whammy of victimhood and entitlement. Seeing jobs disappear, society rapidly change, the domination of media and entertainment by right-on celebrities, and a perception - not entirely unjustified - that the US political establishment looks down on the little people in the flyover states. Trump's approach, as masterminded by his reviled former strategist bundles up this inchoate alienation, its frustrations and impotence and, like all accomplished populists, condenses them in relatable stereotypes, hate figures, and scapegoats. Every problem has a human face to rail against. Globalisation? It's illegal immigrants stealing American jobs. Border wall blocked? It's the swamp and liberal interests thwarting the democratic will. Coronavirus? Definitely a biowar plot waged by China. Even the obvious injustices raised by the Black Lives Matter movement is rearticulated and reuperated as an attack on a conservative sense of self-security, as if the far left out to victimise the poor little police and subsume America under a wave of lawlessness. With Trump routinely, incoherently, and incontinently tossing out plots against him for four years, is it any surprise the absurdity of QAnon and Covid denialism was readily accepted by his fans?

Even then, not all of this support for Trump need be written off. Had Biden gone into this election witb legalising cannabis among his manifesto proposals, it would have got dismissed as far left, farcical, and asking for conservative voters to turn out to support Trump. And yet in four states, election day referenda on this very question saw propositions for scrapping prohibitions approved. New Jersey as a Democrat state neighbouring New York City is unexpected. Arizona with its pre-existing exemptions for medical marijuana? Okay. But solidly Trumpy Mississippi and South Dakota? Or how about a key demand of Bernie Sanders's programme, the call for a minimum wage of $15/hour? Outright communism for some on the American right, and yet in Florida, possibly the country's most anti-socialist state thanks to Cuban and recently-arrived Venezuelan emigres, the proposition for Bernie's plan got the tick box treatment from the voters. The point is when American voters have the chance to support something directly beneficial to them, they will support it. Such exercises in obviousness should have been a lesson the Democrats learned from four years ago where, entirely rationally, enough trade union members in the rust belt states voted Trump because he promised to bring their industry back while Clinton offered nothing. It might easily have gone the same way again and the Democrats should be thanking the heavens their pathetic ground game in these states did not reap another disaster.

Still, with the Trump campaign down and almost certain to be out, the question is now what happens to the American right. Some Republicans are happy to see the back of him. His crudities can be stomached for as long as he's winning votes for the GOP, and while he helped prevent the Democrats from taking the Senate they are going to show him gratitude by trying to forget Trump as quickly as possible. If only things were so simple. Trump's celebrity has never been as exalted. He'll carry on having his rallies, carry on exerting a pull on American politics, and - unless his shuffles off this mortal coil before then - be a big presence in the primaries and campaign ahead of 2024. Either some member of the Trump dynasty stands in his stead, or the other GOP wannabes have to cleave to the political space he's carved out. Sadly, neither is the mass audience for this politics about to disappear. With a Biden presidency stymied by the Senate, he's going to need those famed bipartisan skills to get anything past the Republicans' majority leader, Mitch McConnell. Or to put it like this: the polarisation in American politics is here to stay for as long as the material conditions feeding it go unaddressed. Trump could be done. But Trumpism? We could be set for a sequel, and should prepare accordingly.

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6 comments:

Blissex said...

«The most anti-working class and corporate-friendly president in US history won big among trade union members in the rust belt states.»

He actually did something about H1-B visas, illegal mexican immigration, and imports from China. Not much, but for some trade union members a lot better than the usual "suck it up" from the Democrats.

«This most anti-Mexican and anti-Hispanic of presidents saw his support improve among Latin American voters in places like Texas and Arizona.»

My guess is that this is a huge misunderstanding, as he has been consistently friendly to Mexico and hispanics, even he has been against mexican imports and illegal immigrants. For many hispanics, especially the legalized ones, never mind those in the border states who have been native american citizens for 5-10 generations, more mexican and central-american illegal immigrants are the biggest competition they have for jobs.

The actual politics of D Trump have been quite different from the enormous lies that have been published by the "whig" media. They are still quite right-wing, but as to economic policy in several (small) ways to the left of the Democrats, which is not that difficult. That explains why quite a chunk of Trump voters would have voted Sanders if given the option, especially in 2016.

Blissex said...

«Bthe polarisation in American politics is here to stay for as long as the material conditions feeding it go unaddressed. Trump could be done. But Trumpism? We could be set for a sequel, and should prepare accordingly.»

It is not that new Trumpism, it is simply the expansion of Ross Perot's and Pat Buchanan's "populist" (tory, one nation, and nationalist) wing of USA politics. There is an amusing quote from Grover Norquist about Pat Buchanan as of 2006:

https://www.prospect.org/article/world-according-grover
«Pat Buchanan came into this coalition and said, “You know what? I have polled everybody in the room and 70 percent think there are too many immigrants; 70 percent are skeptics on free trade with China. I will run for President as a Republican; I will get 70 percent of the vote.” He didn't ask the second question … do you vote on that subject?»

What has happened is that some chunk of that 70 percent started to vote on that subject, indeed because “the material conditions feeding it go unaddressed”.

John Smith said...

This is why many of us thought that Bernie would have made a better candidate, and also why in the long run the centrists in the Labour party will fail.

Starmer will probably win the next election but if Boris is changed for a less objectionable leader and Starmer continues to just promise tinkering round the edges, we will see a similar scenario here in the UK and we have 4 years before the next election.

Labour has to offer radical policies or they will lose for the same reasons that Biden struggled, even if Starmer gets in, unless he offers more than he seems to want to give at the present, Labour will lose sections of England in the same way they lost Scotland to the SNP and the Tories will win another landslide at the following election and have perpetual power.

Centrism is bland and inneffective just like Biden and Labour will not have the benefit of peoples memorys of Covid influencing their vote

Blissex said...

«Starmer will probably win the next election»

Unlikely unless there is a house price crash. Note that the polls don't show New, New Labour getting significantly more support than with J Corbyn, and K Starmer's personal popularity is low, but show shrinking support for the Conservatives, that is this is just the effect of the unpopularity of the Conservative policies about COVID, which New, New Labour supports, only wants implemented more competently.

However it is turning out from USA polls that D Trump lost a lot of votes from poor (that is, not hard enough) handling of COVID, and the Conservative political strategists will take that into account. But then elections are 4 years away and COVID will be over by then.

«Starmer continues to just promise tinkering round the edges»

That's the "centrist" strategy: offer the same thatcherite policies as the Conservatives, because they believe both that swing voters are mostly thatcherites and they are willing to swing to a better offer, even if the current government is delivering enough for them.

«Labour has to offer radical policies or [...] Labour will lose sections of England in the same way they lost Scotland to the SNP»

That I guess would be fine with them, as long as the "trots" don't win. My guess is that the sponsors of the Mandelson Tendency don't care very much whether it is New, New Labour, the Conservatives or the LibDems who win elections, as long as the "trots" don't get in. For their "sponsored" representatives it does matter whether they do get ministerial careers, but then they are confident that their "sponsors" will take care of them anyhow,

David Walsh said...

An interesting piece by Mike Davis in the LRB (alas behind paywall) Two paras; "As the fantasy of great gains in Texas dissipated, Democrats were stunned to discover that a high turnout had instead propelled a Trump surge along the border. In the three Rio Grande Valley counties (the agricultural corridor from Brownsville to Rio Grande City), which Clinton had carried by 39 per cent, Biden achieved a margin of only 15 per cent. More than half of the population of Starr County, an ancient battlefield of the Texas farmworkers’ movement, lives in poverty, yet Trump won 47 per cent of the vote there, an incredible gain of 28 points from 2016. Further up river he actually flipped 82 per cent Latino Val Verde County (county seat: Del Rio) and increased his vote in Maverick County (Eagle Pass) by 24 points and Webb County (Laredo) by 15 points. The Democratic congressman Vincente Gonzalez (McAllen) had to fight down to the wire to save the seat he won by 21 per cent in 2018. Even in El Paso, a hotbed of Democratic activism, Trump made a six point gain. Considering South Texas as a whole, the Democrats had great hopes of winning the 21st Congressional District, which connects San Antonio and Austin, as well as the 78 per cent Latino 23rd Congressional District, which is anchored in the western suburbs of San Antonio but encompasses a vast swathe of southwest Texas. In both cases, the Republicans won fairly easily.

The explanation? As Congressman Filemón Vela (Brownsville) was quoted as saying in the Valley Morning Star, a Harlingen newspaper, ‘I think there was no Democratic national organisational effort in South Texas and the results showed. The visits are nice, but without a planned media and grassroots strategy you just can’t sway voters. When you take voters for granted like national Democrats have done in South Texas for forty years, there are consequences to pay.’

David Parry 999 said...

I agree 100%