Several commenters on the Internet have blamed the Regressive Left (RL), for contributing to Trump’s victory, asserting that working-class whites, who were Trump’s major supporters, were turned off by the identity politics of liberal young people and Regressive Leftists. This thesis appeals to me because I despise the RL’s hypocrisy and arrogance and would love for Trump’s victory to have one salubrious effect—that of dissolving the RL. But as a scientist and skeptic, I am wary of supporting theses that emotionally appeal to me, and I’ve always doubted whether white working-class Americans even read anything by RLs, including feminists and liberals who support oppressive Muslim ideology.
Yet the RL-created-Trump idea is adumbrated by the estimable Nick Cohen in this week’s Guardian, in a piece called “If liberals want to stop the right winning, we must change.” He first blames Democrats in general for running a poor candidate, one who didn’t appeal to the white working class:
If we were just talking about the United States, we could concentrate on the shocking irresponsibility of the Democratic party in running an establishment candidate in a country that was sick of the status quo. It is bizarre to see people who condemn cultural appropriation engage in political appropriation. But maybe US leftists are right to think that a portion of Trump supporters were secretly on their side and a more radical Democrat would have won them over.
Unfortunately, this is not just an argument about the wretched Clinton campaign. Not only in America, but across the democratic world, liberals and leftists are becoming used to waking up in the early hours and learning that they have lost. Again. They did not expect the Conservatives to win the British general election or the British to vote to leave the EU. They didn’t see Trump coming. They won’t see Le Pen coming. Poland may be the future. In a country that had a centre-left government within recent memory, not one member of the Polish parliament now calls himself or herself a social democrat or socialist. Debate is between the internationalist right in opposition and the authoritarian nationalists in power. Theirs may be our future too.
To suffer such calamitous defeats and not feel the need to change is to behave as irresponsibly as the US Democratic party. It is a myth that Trump and Brexit won because of overwhelming working-class support. Nevertheless, they could win only because a large chunk of the white working class moved rightwards. Debates about how to lure them back ought to reveal the difference between arguing with and arguing against your fellow citizens, which most middle-class leftists have not even begun to think about.
Here I think he’s right. I never was a huge supporter of Hillary Clinton, though I voted for her (and stop blaming me for being tepid in that support!), and the Democrats simply didn’t have an appeal to populism. It’s also true that many Americans who voted for Trump previously voted for Obama, probably because Obama offered hope for the working class, and indeed tried to provide it through initiatives like Obamacare. (Ironically, many of those who voted for Trump were voting for the elimination of their own healthcare).
But then I think Cohen goes too far in blaming the Regressive Left on the calamitous US election as well as the calamitous UK Brexit vote:
You can only argue against committed supporters of Trump. If they believe all Mexicans are rapists and Muslims terrorists, you cannot compromise without betraying your principles. Fair enough. But before you become self-righteous you must accept that the dominant faction on the western left uses language just as suggestive of collective punishment when they talk about their own white working class. Imagine how it must feel for a worker in Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown to hear college-educated liberals condemn “white privilege” when he has a shit job and a miserable life. Or Google the number of times “straight white males” are denounced by public-school educated women in the liberal media and think how that sounds to an ex-miner coughing his guts up in a Yorkshire council flat. [JAC: have a look at those links.]
Emotionally, as well as rationally, they sense the left, or at least the left they see and hear, is no longer their friend. They are men and women who could be argued with, if the middle classes were willing to treat them decently. You might change their minds. You might even find that they could change yours. Instead of hearing an argument, they see liberals who call the police to suppress not only genuine hate speech that incites violence but any uncouth or “inappropriate” transgression.
For too many in the poor neighbourhoods of the west, middle-class liberals have become like their bosses at work. They tell you what you can and can’t think. They warn that you must accept their superiority and you will be in no end of trouble if you do not.
Cohen offers two solutions, both involving abandoning RL tactics:
There are times when your opponents must be defeated, whatever the cost. Defeating them today involves nothing so violent as necessary murders. Thinking about class, not instead of but along with gender and race, would be a step forward. Realising that every time you ban an opponent you prove you cannot win an argument would be another. I do not doubt history will look back on 2016 and say “alas”. But it will not pardon defeated liberals who never learned that to win they had to change.
And here he’s partly right and partly wrong. RL speaker bans and identity politics that exclude class as a factor may have played a very minor role in both Brexit and the Trump victory; buit the real solution involves in running liberals who have a solid program to help the working class. After all, such a platform is the historical basis of liberalism, but has been abandoned in favor of Clintonian appeals to the rich and to the upper middle class. She had nothing to say to the working class except vague pieties, and while Trump had nothing substantial to offer them either, he represented an alternative, however odious, to the “rich people’s politics” of Hillary Clinton. Remember how much money Clinton made by giving speeches to Wall Street Banks. That was not going to instill confidence in the poor that she was on their side.
Any working class person who voted for Trump probably wasn’t thinking, for Trump is also rich, favors the rich (as does his party), and his pandering to the working class was largely an appeal to prejudice and nativism. But it was still an alternative to the status quo. We, the Left, need to offer something tangible to the poor, both black and white, and not just demonize Republicans or sneer at working-class whites, people who are generally seen by RLs as racist and sexist—and therefore unworthy of consideration.