Oh My God. Your reaction and ours in the UK in the early hours of our November 9 as the words “President Trump” moved beyond a headline in The Onion.
All of the solutions to the world’s grave problems look much further away—from climate change to the Middle East. And risky new dangers stalk the globe: What will happen to the Iran deal? How can we fashion a coherent approach to Russia, never mind address the agony of Syria? How exposed are we with four years of Donald Trump being in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal?
We must do our best at home and abroad to resist the worst of Trumpism. For Britain, it means not burning our alliances with Europe, even as we leave the European Union. Those who believed Brexit could mean “going it alone” with America—always a dangerous fantasy—now face tying themselves to something deeply unpredictable and worse.
But it is in contemplating what all of it means for progressive politics that perhaps the hardest thinking needs to be done. Unlike in the past—Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43—there is little danger of Europe preening itself with moral superiority, believing it is immune to the hurricane that propelled Trump to win the presidency.
In the UK, it is true, hypothetical polls of our public showed that Hillary Clinton would have beaten Donald Trump in a landslide. But the same forces that propelled Trump have their own context-specific manifestations in every part of Europe. The world that Trump represents is your reality now. But it is ours too.
Part of the uncanny thing watching this U.S. election unfold is that it felt so eerily like the unfolding of Brexit. The initial confidence that it could not happen and would not even be that close. The elites flocking to one side—Remain and Hillary. The irrelevance–or worse—of those voices to most voters. The campaign fought on one side with little passing acquaintance with the facts or reality. The sense above all of an economic and cultural revolt against globalization from an electorate seemingly invisible to the political and polling establishment.
So what is to be done? First and foremost, to separate out the nasty forces that feed on this discontent from the voters who are drawn to them. Of course, race and identity cannot be ignored for the role they played in Trump’s victory. But 60 million Trump voters were not racists, nor 17 million Brexit voters. Nor are many of the people who have turned to Nigel Farage and UKIP in the UK, or I would guess even Marine Le Pen in France.
For many, what they are expressing is a cry of desperation and frustration. Like the Brexit voter in my constituency of Doncaster North whom I met the day after. Her immediate response was that she had voted Leave to deal with the problems of immigration. Her considered response? “I voted for a new beginning for my grandchildren.” She may have lived in Doncaster, an ex-mining town, but equally I suspect it could have been Youngstown, Ohio or Scranton, Pennsylvania.
But why have Trump and Brexit mobilized those voters in a way that progressives (me included) did not? The difficult truth is that we, the center-left, own the settlement in the eyes of some voters as much as the other folks. The economy of stagnant wages, diminishing prospects, deep inequality. The political world that doesn’t seem to listen and seems to care about someone else. The globalization that we have defended and partly authored.
The immediate response of some progressives is to scoff or scold. How can you buy into the notion that we are all the same, they ask? Look at the good we did in government. Don’t you realize how complex and difficult change is? And, of course, they’re right. Each day of a Hillary Clinton presidency would have done more good than 1,000 days of a Donald Trump presidency. But that is too easy a way out.
The progressive movement of the 1990s and 2000s was too relaxed about inequality, too bought into neoliberalism, too sanguine about the effects of the winds of economic change, and too slow to react to what we were hearing. The only response to catastrophe is to make this a strategic inflexion point.
Above all, from here on, we need to understand this lesson more than any other: Either we own the change or we own the problem. That means thinking big about what the progressive solutions look like for the 2020s and beyond, not hidebound by old thinking or defending what we did in the past. With due humility, I will not seek to try and pretend I have the answers, least of all for different countries facing different problems, but it seems to me that the solutions must wrestle with the whole spectrum of economics, politics, and nationhood.
The heart of the offer of the future must be around economics. There needs to be honesty that there is hard thinking to be done. Our analysis is big: deep inequality, de-industrialization and wage stagnation, out-of-control CEO pay, the failure of trickle-down, the danger of technology making these trends worse. But our prescriptions don’t match up.
The challenge is that Brexit and Trump offered big answers to these issues. Get out of Europe. Drastically change the approach to immigration. Of course, we should not try and match simplistic, false Gods of theirs with our own. But the complexity of governance is not an excuse for the inadequacy of our answers.
We must reconstruct a new economic security for new times. Not pretending that the jobs of the 1950s and 1960s can return, but recognizing and addressing the core problems of insecurity and inequality with deep thinking. What does a fair trade deal look like? How do we cooperate internationally to prevent a race to the bottom in corporate taxes and a race offshore to avoid paying taxes at all? And how do we really build a broad coalition, including progressive business, to tackle inequality and share the benefits of new technology equitably?
But what we learn is that these programmatic questions are vital but not sufficient. You can have all the policies in the world, but if you look like part of the establishment or the status quo, you will struggle. Our attitude to politics may be the permission slip to be heard in this debate. Are we the insiders who simply defend a broken system or the people who are willing to have distance and shake it up? The point is that this is not the number one, on-the-surface concern, but it is a litmus test of where you stand—and deservedly so.
In America, it is about the role of big money and vested interests in shaping politics—a theme of Bernie Sanders and Trump. In the UK, it is also about who funds politics, albeit at a much smaller scale, about where power lies in our centralized country, and about an electoral and parliamentary system that looks like an anachronism.
Wherever we are, we should learn from and not deride the insurgents from the left who are attempting to build a new participatory politics. The crisis for social democratic and center-left parties is partly one of its base: a working class no longer tied to it by tradition and by unions. The only alternative is to rebuild the base with a different form of politics—organized in and mobilizing communities.
Just as we need an answer on economics and politics, so too on nationhood. If there is one area where the left has been truly left behind, it is this. The appeal to belonging is all the more potent when people have such a strong sense that power and control have left them, their communities, and their country. We see it in the allure of the Leave campaign’s slogan “Take Back Control” and, in its own way, in “Make America Great Again.”
This is the hardest nut to crack, but unless we present a vision of who we are—a story of us—to our own public and the world that is consistent, believable, and attractive, we will struggle. If we are not on this pitch, then the right clearly will be—at worst, presenting an anti-immigrant, race-based, xenophobic, narrow-minded view of who we are. But what is our alternative?
It must somehow be about combining a sense of fairness at home with relative openness to the world. A globalization narrative that emphasized the latter but seemed too often to forget about the former won’t do. We must be the people who combine both and see them as mutually reinforcing. And the former must precede the latter; otherwise, we are reduced to being technocrats or worse.
This combination of economic fairness, political change, and national vision is a tough combination to get right. But they are the fundamentals of answering the world after Brexit and Trump.
These are dark days for America and the world. There can be little solace right now. If there is hope it comes from the lesson of history. Out of past crisis has come opportunity. The achievements of FDR and the post-war welfare state in Europe were borne of a period of turmoil. In the end it is in our hands to build anew.
A few days before the presidential election, in an era that now seems from another world, I went back to give a seminar, at The Nation magazine, where I had been an intern nearly 30 years ago. One of the older participants asked me why people were turning to “socialism” when it was such an old-fashioned idea. Before I could answer, a 22-year-old Nation intern answered: “It’s not old-fashioned to me—it’s brand new. I grew up under the New Democrats.” Whatever the label, it is in the hope, determination, and idealism of young people like her that lies our best hope for the future.