A recent USA TODAY/Rock the Vote poll of 1,541 voters aged 18-34 found that younger voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton is overcome in a theoretical Clinton v. Trump general election race. Across all demographic groups specified, young voters only get excited about Clinton as the lesser evil.
The lack of enthusiasm for Clinton in the primary may be the result of her record as one of the most effective champions of neoliberalism from the center-left. And neoliberalism, the politic of privatization, unfettered free trade (NAFTA, TPP, etc.), and small government, is one of the drivers of the conditions, including a crumbling white middle class (originally created with racially exclusive big government programs), that is driving up Trumpism on the right, and, ironically, the remarkable legions of young white voters who #feelthebern on the left. Both candidates appear to be lofted by white rage over their increasing precarity.
So why are young progressive voters willing to put their preferences, and their rage, on the back burner? Fear. And that’s a shame, whoever you’re for in this election. A fear-driven politic is conservative, offering little or nothing in the way of real solutions.
But, in this situation, fear isn’t irrational. Trump is a scary guy. Be afraid. Right wing demagogues like him are always dangerous, and as much for their bark as for their bite.
Bigoted populists like Trump play an age-old and dangerous role in perpetuating racial inequity and promoting a fear-driven, racist, as in irrational, politics. They serve as marketers of bigotry, constantly testing the public consensus, and, when the tests come back positive, moving extreme bigotry out of the margins and into the mainstream of our political debates. This distracts pro-equity activists, forcing us to reposition ourselves in order to respond.
I’ve found it helpful to understand this dynamic by considering the Overton Window, a device that is often used by political leaders and pundits. To followers, the Overton Window frames the publicly acceptable range of ideas in our political discourse. What’s in the Window is the stuff you get to talk about without marginalizing yourself as an extremist either on the right or the left.
The view in the Window isn’t static. It changes according to the political climate, and serves as a warning to check the temperature before jumping into debates.
People like Trump introduce storms into that climate by purposely proposing the unthinkable and, in the right conditions, causing enough commotion to provide the necessary cover for mainstream leaders to move outside the Window into the gap between “unthinkable” and “acceptable,” while capturing more voters or a stronger position of advocacy on their issues.
For an example of this, just review the Republican debates to date. As extreme bigotry caused Trump’s star to rise, every candidate moved further to the right to capture the voters to Trump’s left.
And while this kind of outsider political strategy is not the exclusive purview of the right, I’m going to suggest here that it hasn’t been working so well for those of us on the left for a long time. And, I’ll go even further and suggest there may be a solid reason for this that makes the case that fighting the right wing should be a necessary staple of our activism.
The reason? We on the left have no broadly unifying theory of politics, or at least none that is legible to the broad public. And the reason for that, it seems to me, is that we’ve been too divided by an uncritical brand of identity politics (the last refuge of many radicals in the midst of the right wing Reagan revolution) to achieve a meaningful political consensus that would make agreement on alternatives possible. Instead, again, precisely because of the success of right wing demagogues (Goldwater, Wallace, Schlafly, Reagan, Thatcher, et al), we’ve been too afraid to offer radical solutions (as in, solutions that get to root causes of inequity and injustice), and have focused almost exclusively on the effects of inequity and oppression instead. Focusing on effects is a good base building strategy, but it’s no way to build a substantive, broadly appealing change agenda unless we follow those effects to root causes. We need to get off the defense, but that will require pushing back on the right.
Right wingers have it a lot easier because the theories that guide them tend to go with the grain of the culture, and the racial demography, rather than against it. Their relative advantage suggests a path forward for our side. Perhaps we need to view political change as a process of cultural change and not just as a process of reorganizing power, though a focus on political change as a project of reorganizing power relations would certainly help. But that path is going to be a tough one to blaze. Meanwhile, the threat of Trumpism and more general rise of an increasingly violent white right fearful of demographic change is right in front of us, and happening in the face of multiple possible crises (another economic bubble busting, climate change, etc.) that may create the context in which a strong man like Trump may become the next Mussolini.
The tide may be turning in our direction, and the large numbers of young people who #feelthebern may be indicative of this, but we’ve been on the wrong side of history for the last 50 years. Thus, when we throw unthinkable ideas into the mix, they’re received as incoherent, and they often are, and we too often end up marginalized.
Now Trump is also forcing us to respond to what he’s saying and doing, and that’s moving the public debate even further off the root causes of our problems, and onto questions like whether or not it is acceptable to exclude all Muslims from entering the U.S., even as tourists. And as the conversation ends up revolving around ideas like that, even Democratic political leaders have more running room to their right. They can count on fear to get those of us to their left to the polls, voting for the lesser evil.
Again, we can see this dynamic already in effect in the presidential election. Hillary Clinton is starting to pivot to the general election by treating her Democratic opponent as a presumptive loser, and focusing more and more on simply ginning up fear of Trump. The menu of choices has been reframed by fear. The obvious subtext of Clinton’s attacks on Trump make this clear, boiling down between the lines as a vote against me in the primary is a vote for Trump!
Another example of this political dynamic occurred after white supremacist, Dylann Roof, committed mass murder in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last year. After the murder, Black leaders demanded that the rebel flag, a symbol of racism and an emblem of pride to the shooter, be removed from the South Carolina capitol grounds. The demand was a just one, but then something all too predictable occurred. The staunchly conservative Republican Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, once a proponent of drug testing unemployed people as a condition of receiving benefits, was able to position herself as a champion of anti-racism rebranded in the context of her career as neoliberal multiculturalism.
The move drove the increasingly unpopular Haley’s approval rating and national profile up, while giving her a platform from which to effectively say that when it comes to racism in her government, there’s nothing structural going on here! The horror of the unthinkable made Haley’s record of more garden variety racism pale by comparison.
And, back again to this election, what we have is a situation in which we can have Trump or the brand of politics that created the context for his rise. It’s a damned if we do and damned if we don’t situation. If Trump is nominated, any Democratic opponent must be supported if for no other reason than to show political opportunists on the right that a political system founded upon the protection of individual liberty is still preferred by the overwhelming majority of us. And that, even if some of us, including a growing number of young people in the U.S., happen to also believe that putting individual liberties as far above the communal good as is the American habit is less than ideal.
Getting on the right side of that debate will require us trump the fear factor, and make fighting the right a core strategy of racial justice activism.