Symposium | America After Trump

What Next for Liberalism?

By Daniel T. Rodgers

Tagged Barack ObamaDonald TrumpHillary ClintonInequalityLiberalismmediaPopulismprogressivismRepublicansvoters

The Americans who brought the Obama era so suddenly to an end were a mixed lot. Many were straight-ticket Republicans who would have voted for any nominee the party put forward. Others were moral traditionalists for whom the chance to vote on the Supreme Court’s composition was the only thing that counted. Some were racists, empowered by the taunts of the nominee and the fury of his rallies. But what impassioned the core of those who swung the Electoral College balance, it is clear in retrospect, was a sense of being outsiders in their own land.

Those alienated voters saw themselves as the bone and sinew of the nation: white men who did not have college educations but who made things and were loyal to the nation, who thought they had acted out the American dream only to find themselves shunted aside by an African-American President whom they had come to loathe, by women who are more successful than they are, by nonwhite and immigrant competitors for jobs and public favor, by global capitalists, distant government officials, and cosmopolitan intellectuals who scorned them, and by the poor who lived on their tax dollars. They had been waiting in line for years for their time to arrive only to see others cut in line ahead of them, what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the “deep story” they tell themselves. They are the resentful because whiteness and patriotism no longer pay out as they used to. Although they live in an echo chamber of self-confirming social messages, they feel themselves voiceless. That is why, in spite of their anger at the global capitalism that made Donald Trump’s fortune, they felt empowered when a man of his super-wealth and media stardom spoke the words they know they are not supposed to say in public themselves.

A reckless right-wing media gave them a crucially important boost to victory. So did the utter trivialization of issues as the lines between politics, news, and entertainment virtually disappeared. In hindsight it is clear that liberal mistakes also mattered. The most important success of the Obama Administration, stemming the potentially catastrophic effects of the 2008 Wall Street crash by co-opting its major players, fed into a story that the Democratic Party and big money had become all but inseparable. Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speaking fees only reinforced a narrative in which the big institutions called the tune and other people paid. Obamacare, so hopefully begun, turned out to hold vastly more political liabilities than any of its architects imagined. The speed at which gay rights moved through the courts generated far more backlash than almost any liberals anticipated, alienating not only those unnerved by the threat to the family ideal they themselves were struggling to hold onto but those who felt there was no room for conscientious dissent from a centrally imposed juggernaut.

The family leave and welfare policies that Hillary Clinton championed so passionately couldn’t salve Trump’s supporters’ sense that the family as they knew it was under siege: that the culture wars had finally come home. Many of the economic planks in the Democratic Party program were not pitched for them. The new high tech, energy-efficient, solar-powered economy that liberals promise to promote didn’t have obvious room in it for workers like themselves.

Liberals’ assumption that their political destiny lay assured in the demographic remaking of the population turned out to be a self-wounding illusion. White rural and small town Americans with high school degrees but not a college education may be a diminishing fraction of the population. But there were enough of them to turn the election. And every whiff of evidence suggesting that the Democratic Party had written them off to care more about minority lives than their own added fuel to their resentments.

The result was a vote in which anger overrode optimism, a corrosive sense of failure overrode hope, and in which the very impracticality of a Donald Trump presidency proved one of his strongest drawing cards. He would not improve politics, his supporters told interviewers. He would blow it up.

What will liberalism do in the new, terrifying world these resentments have made? At the congressional level there is urgent work to be done to block the most reckless, punitive efforts of a Trump presidency. Obstruction is essential, but it must also be combined with liberal alliance with enough Republican Party centrists to shape an agenda that could possibly forestall the economic and social disaster that Trumpism portends. For the short run, a temporary centrist coalition in Congress is an imperative, hard as it may be to achieve.

For the long run, liberalism will have to moderate some of its ambitions. Donald Trump’s America will be more insular than any since World War II. It promises a fortress nation, drawn back from hopes of alleviating the turmoil of the world, back from the global economy, back from concern for what others, outside America, might think. The cosmopolitan, globally ambitious liberalism that has been a backbone of Democratic Party policies since 1942 will have to readjust. Liberal internationalism was already in trouble before 2016, torn between reliance on force and reliance on diplomacy, unable to make the dream of universal democracy and human rights take root in a world of recurrent chaos and perpetual war. “Make us safe” was the Trump campaign’s radically simplified answer.

Liberal ambitions to manage and reengineer a society as complex as the United States may need to be tempered as well. The nexus between liberals, academic experts, and policy think tanks is one of liberalism’s great strengths. The much more ideologically policed conservative “think tanks” have nothing comparable. But for too many voters in this election, the liberal-expert connection had grown too close; it gave too little voice to others. The gap between academic economists’ consensus that freer trade works for the greater aggregate good of all and the experience of those caught in the creases of the global economy’s dislocations was a particularly striking example: a wedge issue waiting for someone like Trump to ride it to victory.

More wrenchingly still, liberalism must come to terms with the fact that the base on which it has rested since the 1940s in this election fell almost completely apart. The effectiveness of the Republican Party’s Southern strategy of the late 1960s in peeling off Southern whites was the beginning of the New Deal coalition’s breakup. The desertion of the northern, white, working class in the 2016 election, should it persist, would leave liberalism without a viable electoral base. Unless the Trump victory literally splits apart the Republican Party, liberalism threatens to become a permanent minority of the educated, the bi-coastal, the urban, the nonwhite, and the poor. Despite changing demographics, national elections cannot be won on that basis alone.

Where will liberals turn? A tempting possibility will be to retrench to their territorial homelands and build there the kind of society and politics they imagine. Perhaps it is time to abandon the idea that all of America will respond to the ideas of equality, decency, inclusivity, respect, justice, and care for one another to which liberals are committed. Or perhaps an awful blow-up, economic or global, will precipitate yet another momentous realignment in which liberalism, this time, emerges with the better hand.

More realistically, liberals must find ways to win back some of those who swung to Donald Trump’s camp. Populists, the press routinely calls them. But aside from their distrust of distant experts and cosmopolitan elites, Trump’s core voters have little in common politically with the People’s Party of the American 1890s. The 1890s Populists, like today’s Trump supporters, sometimes fell for terribly oversimplified answers. But the Populists hurled their political fury at the forces of organized money: the bankers, the monopolists, the railroad magnates, and the politicians who wrote the back-room deals of the money-men into law. The conviction that powers Trump voters’ imaginations is just the reverse. Theirs is a world in which not capitalist institutions but the political establishment hogs the seats of power. In their minds, government rigs the game for its own advantages, tying up the potential expansive force of business with rules that only serve to keep the regulators in jobs and the poor as their clients. Only through this story is it possible to redirect anger at plant closings from the corporations who order them to the liberal establishment that is said to be covertly responsible.

To bring back this election’s swing voters, liberals will need to dramatically change the narrative line in these voters’ heads. They need to find new means of talking truth to the American people—sources of information that can breach the communication silos of our fractured age and return political debates to some recognizable terrain of facts. The newspaper age is virtually over. More blog posts alone will not bring its assets back.

Liberalism also needs a clearer a story line about itself that can more effectively counter the government-is-about-to-swallow-us-all story that conservatives began honing long before Trump. That liberal narrative needs a much more vigorous sense of power. It needs a much clearer explanation of how organized money acts in modern law and politics, and how, under the cover of releasing excessive restrictions or emancipating “speech,” organized money so often prevails.

The sharp rise in inequality needs to become a permanent fixture of liberals’ program and rhetoric. But talk of inequality alone will not bring those who feel themselves outsiders in modern America back to the Democratic Party. If higher taxes on the rich had been Trump voters’ core concern, Hillary Clinton would have won in a landslide. The liberal story must also be about power. It must promise change: the asset that Trump’s admirers came back to so insistently. Above all, it must not only promise to make life better for those whom a slow-growth, globally uncertain economy has treated poorly. It must promise to hear them: to give them voice in the rooms where the experts and the college-educated now use up so much of the air space. This does not mean that liberalism must turn its back on its past. Attention to power, commitment to change, and respect for the voices of the less powerful are deeply fixed liberal and progressive values. Liberals need to make those commitments vivid, practical, and unmistakable.

Finally, with Congress in disarray and the presidency gone amok, liberals will need to turn still more of their attention to the local, the regional, and the state levels of politics. This is where the legislation and policies that affect most people’s lives originate: property taxation, police procedures, school outcomes, the fates of neighborhoods, the administration of health and social services, the meting out of criminal justice, sane gun control measures, the apportionment of legislatures, and the defense of voting rights. This is where the racism re-enabled by the Trump campaign will rear its head and must be confronted. This is where toleration and rights must be secured. This is where everyday justice is done.

Conservatives ran up a string of spectacular statehouse victories during the Obama years. If liberalism is to hold more than intermittent possession of the presidency, this is a contest it cannot concede. There is more room for democratic debate and deliberation outside Washington, D.C., than in it, as James Fallows has recently emphasized. The fury of the national right-wing media cannot be as powerfully focused at the local level. Counter-forces can be more effectively organized: stronger parent-teaching associations and forums, much more active dialogue between police and neighbors, strengthened socially conscious religious groups and charitable organizations, new roles for town and civic coalitions, more intensive recruitment of public-spirited candidates for state legislative office. Some of these are venues where angry Donald Trump supporters might find a more constructive voice and a less one-dimensional political message than what streams into their lives now.

Not coincidentally, it is the place where progressive politics began in the United States a little over a century ago. Cities were the seedbeds of democracy, progressives preached in the early years of the twentieth century. States were heralded as laboratories of public policy. Liberal policies in the Progressive Era filtered up, as they still do. But presidential primary elections—costly, noisy, spectator-riveting, and emotionally wrenching—soak up almost unlimited amounts of energy. If liberalism is to survive the kind of challenges that Trump’s voters threw at it, it will have to come back, with energy, imagination, and still greater investment, to its origin points. It will have to think and act locally as well.

From the Symposium

America After Trump

An introduction to our Issue #43 symposium.


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Read more about Barack ObamaDonald TrumpHillary ClintonInequalityLiberalismmediaPopulismprogressivismRepublicansvoters

Daniel T. Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His most recent book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, was published earlier this fall by Princeton University Press.

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