Three questions in the wake of the 2016 election

In order to understand Trump’s victory, we must analyze why Trump won and why Clinton lost. These are two different inquiries necessitating separate analysis. The first question begets an answer to the second, to be sure, but they must each be taken in turn. Doing so furthers insight into the state of contemporary American politics and society, and points towards a third question: what is to be done?

Why did Trump win?

Although post-election analyses abound as commentators and pundits scramble to explain Trump’s victory, we must look beyond exit polls and voter turnouts; we must even ignore, for a moment, the role of the media and attitudes towards it. Something more fundamental is at issue here.

Trump won the presidential election because he spoke to the interests and ideals of a large group of Americans who have been disenfranchised and distraught by the quickening pace of a global economy beset by neoliberalism. Across the US, communities are hollowed out as life opportunities have evaporated and left millions of people with little hope, much anxiety, and an increasing sense of dislocation in changing world. A thirty year onslaught of globalization, deregulation, and privatization, coupled with tax cuts, limited social spending, and policies that give primacy to market forces over planning, has challenged old structures, from the global economy to local communities. Those who were once part of a tight, strong community, where everyone had a place and a future with a good-paying job and healthy benefits, now find themselves cut out of a fast paced world of finance and perpetual innovation.

These changes have rattled people. Individuals and communities have lost control of their lives. They have been disempowered, and they search frantically for something to hold onto to give a sense of self and a semblance of control. They reach out for an explanation of their situation and their surroundings, asking why is the world the way it is and how does their own experience fits into that reality. They seek to understand first how the world has changed, and then to graft onto that explanation a solution. This explanation could be immigration, terrorism, demographics, government regulation, or Obamacare. These explanations almost always point to either the lack of a solution by the political establishment, or the active infringement upon their lives by the establishment.

Trump offers simultaneously an explanation to the problem and a solution, and in doing so returns to people a sense of control. They begin to feel not only that they understand the world changing around them, but also that it can be stopped; that everything can be put back in its right place again. If the perceived problem is demographics and the dilution of our communities by outsiders, then a wall will be built to keep others out. If the problem is the lack of security and a militarized society due to extremists in our communities, then we will make sure no one from certain areas of the world or holding certain religious beliefs will be allowed in. If the problem is the lack of jobs, then annul all regulations and rip up trade agreements. The explanations, no matter how simple they may seem, make sense of the changes in local communities and the world at large, and Trump, by invoking his charisma and character in the position of the presidency promises to give people a bit of control again in their lives. He promises to return the downtrodden to the forefront of American life.

This construction of the problem and the manufacturing a solution facilitated his victory.

Why did Clinton lose?

Clinton lost the election because the Democratic Party does not have a program. In order to assess the failure of Clinton’s bid, we must put aside her shortcomings as a candidate and look at what the Democratic establishment had to propose in the face of the issues and problems now besetting American men and women.

Clinton and the Democratic Party have policies, to be sure, but these policies do not add up to a comprehensive program. To the extent that there is a program, it might be called a humanization of neoliberalism. The position rests on an unarticulated acceptance of the quickening process of globalization, privatization, and deregulation with a strategic attempt to make it more bearable and alleviate the suffering that it causes. In this way, the Dems’ grab-bag of policies aim to address the immediate concerns of different constituencies, as if they could patch together a coalition by catering to immediate and specific needs. The existing institutions are the right ones, it is believed, and the establishment that runs them are competent. What is needed, they say, are some minor tweaks in order to smooth things out and make it easier for people to participate in the economic system. When people fall outside of the economy, the power of the state should be mobilized to compensate them with a small handout to help alleviate their suffering. There is an overall assumption here that things are not so bad; more so, we are on the right track, as if history were converging on the best practices in a progressive march forward.

It has become clear to Americans, however, that this non-program does not work. Our social, political, and economic institutions have become detached from the majority of men and women. The Dems say they understand the reality of the economic problems; they say they see the hardships of regular people, and the growing economic inequality; they say they recognize the social problems incurred. But, they say, it is not that bad. In fact, they say the changing world is a good thing and must be embraced. They say it brings greater diversity and opportunities; that globalization gives us more choices and initiates more connections. To make it work, they say, the best technocrats need to be in office. They offer concessions to constituencies and compile laundry lists of small policy prescriptions.

At the most basic level, this position does not empower people. It tells people to leave the politics to the politicians and merely consume the results of the enacted policies and practices. The Dems may explain the policy, and do so at great length, as was Clinton’s wont, but they ask people to believe in a system that alienates and grants neither voice nor control. All the hope that Obama offered and the empowerment he promised turned out to be but a prescription for passive acceptance and the consumption of certain policies.

What is to be done?

This analysis leads to the conclusion that there must be a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party. The establishment wing of the Democratic Party that champions a humanized form of neoliberalism must be denounced, and in its stead must arise a faction with a comprehensive program for America. This program must guide the Party in fighting for a remaking of the political, social, and economic institutions and practices of America in ways that work not to authorize a few politicians and technocrats in the stated interests of the many, but rather to empower each citizen to participate in the making of community and country. It must be a program with a vision of people as the producers of their world, not consumers of articulated rights.

Such a program necessitates understanding things like universal health care, minimum wage, education, civil liberties, and economic opportunity, not as rights that can be distributed and protected, but rather as a means to empower individuals and communities to not only partake in the world changing around them, but also to harness that change and recreate the world.