Elias Nietosvaara is a first-year Economics student at King’s. Originally hailing from Finland, his academic interests include a comparison of political and economic systems in a global context, but in his spare time rows, plays badminton, and spends excessive amounts of time playing pool in the bar. Below, Elias argues that the current agenda of the liberal left espoused by the Democrats betrays a wider incapacity and unwillingness to engage with voters’ concerns, guaranteeing electoral wilderness until it entirely re-imagines itself as a force for all of society.
The morning after November 8th, Facebook filled with comments rejecting racism, sexism and xenophobia in the advent of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory. Asserting that uneducated white people – men in particular – had elected a bona fide sexual assaulter and racist to be the president of the United States. Saying that this was not the country that they lived in – or the country that they thought America was.
And in that they were right. The America that elected Donald Trump is not the America of mid-town coffee shops, Pride parades and campus activism. But neither is it a world of misogyny and racism. It is, rather, an America without a future, but with a past. An America which, for decades, has watched parties switch places while at the same time seeing their own lives and livelihoods slowly deteriorate and be shipped abroad. The very people many on the left rail against the right for forgetting are the same being demonised for voting allegedly against their own interests and for selfish reasons.
In this election, those people faced a clear choice: Hillary Clinton – perceived as embodying the neoliberal consensus that has controlled mainstream politics for the past three decades – and Donald Trump, who promised something different. Voters in Michigan and Wisconsin did not vote for a racist predator but rather a man who promised them change and a return to the good old days. Yet in the weeks leading up to the election the picture one could gather from popular media channels labelled them racists and misogynists.
These were Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables”.
Such patronising oversimplification is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Trump phenomenon and a concrete sign of the deep polarisation in American politics. According to a survey by PEW Research, half of all Americans think that the policies of the opposite party are dangerous to the country. Voters of one or the other have increasingly fewer friends who disagree with them. Indeed, it is unlikely many readers of this article can name a friend who (openly) supported Trump. And so Americans have struggled to see the other side of the American experience through the increasingly distorted lenses of social media echo chambers. Out of touch, Macchiato-drinking, white-man hating, gun-seizing liberals sit on one side, and on the other occupy wall-building, uneducated hillbillies. The mainstream media is glad to pit these strawmen against each other and watch the public tune in, all at the expense of grown-up and sensible political discussion.
Media alone was obviously not to the cause of Trump getting elected. Equal cause lies with the Democrats who are increasingly becoming the regional party many thought Republican would end up as. Theories of a chronic Republican decline seem today more apt for what is little more than a Democratic party of coastal liberals, political elites and minorities. The core of this party is distant from the coalition that got Bill Clinton and Barack Obama elected. Predominantly white, the coalition of old union-workers and middle-class Americans has been pushed to the sidelines by an agenda of liberal identity politics. The old socially moderate “blue dog” Democrats are now foreigners in their own party plagued by ideological purity tests. Jobs and the economy have been replaced by gay rights and implicit bias.
What kind of future lies ahead for such a party?
While the United States grows more diverse, more than two thirds of the electorate is white. Marginalizing this group the same way Republicans have marginalized the black and Latino vote guarantees defeat. Many don’t want to see the values and structures they’ve known for their entire lives to be replaced by third-wave feminism and internationalism. This is not a small group; people of traditional values come from all genders and ethnicities. And this subset of population still holds such electoral clout that the Democratic Party cannot abandon it if it hopes to win control of not only the presidency, but also the Congress, state governorships and state legislatures.
In an era of increasing partisan gridlock on the federal level with the polarisation of politics, local seats will increasingly be the key to enacting the progressive agenda. Unless the Democrats seriously re-evaluate and change their tune, that vision lives only in high-flying campaign speeches.