Any serious perspective on how to respond to the election of Donald Trump must begin by recognizing that his victory flowed in substantial part from the growing global crisis of capitalism, which demands a specific strategic response. The response must begin with — but also go beyond — the urgent work of defending, wherever and however possible, the individuals and communities most at risk.
At the most obvious level, our collective response must build upon the energies illuminated by Bernie Sanders’ “democratic socialist” campaign, Black Lives Matter, climate justice, the mobilization in Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Green Party, LGBTQ activism, immigration activism, People’s Action and many, many other efforts. It must also find ways to bring such energies together with the community-level organizing aimed at democratizing the economic system from the ground up, starting with the development of alternative institutions and building toward a larger vision.
The Global Economic Crisis
The angry and unpredicted Brexit vote in Britain was clearly related to the anger that produced the Trump election. Something deeper than the contingencies of the electoral cycle is at work: both upsets are related in part to the fact that globalization is destroying jobs and undermining economic stability in nation after nation, even as the collapse of traditional unions (the previous muscle behind progressive politics) has weakened social democracy everywhere.
Anger at this economic decay, exacerbated by longstanding racism and fear of “outsiders” — immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, and a host of others — is fueling a toxic political mix throughout the world. Almost certainly we will see further explosions of unexpected political challenge as social democracy fails to deliver the goods and backing deepens for right-wing movements in support of Marine Le Pen in next year’s elections in France and political challenges to Angela Merkel’s government in Germany.
The global crisis is not likely to lead to a full collapse, as some Marxists once held (though not Marx himself in certain writings about the United States, Britain and the Netherlands). Rather, it is likely to be a crisis of protracted economic decay and deepening pain, punctuated by explosive episodes and the continuing erosion of legitimacy — and with it potentially, too, the slow build-up of a response at all levels, both practical and systemic in direction.
The Collapse of Labor Power
In the United States, the collapse of labor union strength as the basis of traditional liberalism has been dramatic: Labor union power has gone from 34 percent of the labor force to a mere 11 percent overall and 6 percent in the private sector, and it continues to decline. Though many other elements are involved, organized labor has been the necessary foundation of modern progressive politics. The right understands this fully: From Ronald Reagan’s dismantling of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s all-out attack on public unions, undermining labor has been a central — and highly effective — way to gut the power base of traditional liberalism. When combined with ongoing conservative efforts to suppress the vote in communities of color by any means necessary, the results are disastrous. “Institutions matter,” observes historian Michael Kazin of unions. In addition to contributing directly to the building of political power, unions “give their members (or audience) a community in which to learn about politics and discuss ways to tilt the world in a progressive direction.” Without institutional connections, individuals swim in a lonely political sea, ready to be preyed upon by the likes of Trump.
We must actively support unions whenever and wherever viable, but they are not likely to return in strength — and not only because of hostile legislation and policy, but because of structural forces at work in the global economy. Whatever can be done to strengthen unions must be done, but a new institutional base for a serious progressive direction must clearly be developed elsewhere.
Lessons From History
We may take some guidance from history. The civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the LGBTQ liberation movement — and even the modern conservative movement (which had limited capacity in the 1940s) — all understood that the development of a new political direction can only come from a long, long struggle. It is a struggle that involves practical organizing, institution-building and political activism, along with the build-up, too, of a morally serious vision of a new future direction.
Prior to the 1930s, key elements of what became the New Deal were developed slowly, step by step, in the state and local “laboratories of democracy” — as was a new politics that built from the bottom up as it created new institutions and a progressive liberal vision that, at the time, offered something to hope for, work for and counter the traditional embedded corporate power that dominated the final decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th.
In our own time, anew politics must build a new and different institutional power base, step by agonizing step, along with a compelling new vision of the future based on a radical democratization of the economy, starting at the community level and working up. It must be fleshed out with the powerful and explicit political energies illuminated by Bernie Sanders’ “democratic socialist” campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, augmented and intensified by the movement-building efforts of many allied groups — above all, those organizing in defense of the civil rights of the rising new electorate in what will soon be a nation in which no single racial or ethnic group can claim the majority.
Unless an energized new fusion of local organizing, institution-building and national progressive political energies is achieved and steadily brought together around a compelling and transformative vision, the imbalance of power illuminated in the recent election is likely to get worse, not better. Donald Trump will not be the last right-wing politician who will exploit the deepening economic crisis, fear of immigrants, the collapse of union power and the lack of deep economic organizing on the left.
Building on “Local Socialism”
That millions of Americans are open to — and responsive to — a politics of “democratic socialism” is an important lesson of the Sanders campaign and of numerous polls demonstrating such support, particularly among the young who are building and will build the next politics. What is missing is recognition that institutional foundations must be established if a broad-based new politics involving diverse groups and a new direction is to move beyond sporadic explosions of excitement to the achievement of real power.
This is where little-discussed “new economy” work going on at the local level in many parts of the country comes into play: Given the decay, conservatism and disinterest of the corporate media, there has been minimal awareness of intense activist efforts to build “democratized” economic institutions at the local level in diverse parts of the nation. Nonetheless, in community after community, activists are developing cooperative businesses grounded in community ownership, community land trusts to confront gentrification and displacement, city-owned public banks and community financial institutions in response to the brutal abstractions of financialization, public broadband companies in many cities, even attempting the takeover and socialization of electric utilities to deal with climate change.
Taken together, rather than anecdotally and in isolation, there is a wave of energy invested in a steadily expanding range of cooperative and “local socialist” institutions of democratic ownership designed to lift up and strengthen local economies.
Though the intensity of this growing effort — and its likely expansive future trajectory — have yet to be fully acknowledged, three quite distinct realities are critical:
The first is that new institutions of democratic ownership are beginning to suggest the outlines that a radically decentralized, pluralist, community-nurturing democratic socialist vision might take — one that mirrors and extends some of the things Sanders pioneered long ago locally as mayor of Burlington, Vermont.
The second reality is that the developing trajectory is slowly building a new institutional power base for a politics that can add strength to — but also transcend — traditional election mobilizations.
The third is that local developments are also beginning to suggest the direction of overarching, larger and longer-term, system-wide possibilities.
Working Toward a Pluralist Commonwealth
The development of a new local democratic economy buildup is also on track to converge with the current strictly political mobilization that the Sanders campaign has demonstrated is possible. It is likely to be expanded and deepened by the Sanders “Our Revolution” effort, by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, by Rep. Keith Ellison and by movement activists working on critical issues at every level throughout the country.
Ultimately, both the local efforts and the national political mobilizations will have to move beyond the faltering ideology of progressive liberalism in the United States and social democracy in Europe — both of which accept the theory that corporate power at the center of the system can be regulated and “incentivized” to achieve democratic outcomes. Those days, even at their best, were limited in their outcomes (the United States ranked last among advanced systems on virtually every major social and environmental indicator, even before Trump’s victory.)
Ultimately, too, larger institutional power must be confronted. The US government de facto nationalized General Motors, Chrysler, AIG and, in a different way, several major banks during the most recent crisis. The reconstruction of the idea of democratic ownership from the bottom up, along with a new politics, is the precondition of building a movement and the basis of a longer-term strategy that understands the need to create — and decentralize — democratically controlled public institutions at every level, including the very largest.
The diverse and plural forms democratic ownership is already taking — and is likely to take — suggest a vision that might be called a “pluralist commonwealth.”
What is perhaps even more significant than the Trump victory is Sanders’ demonstration that the ideological hegemony that has blocked new and bolder thinking can be challenged: That millions of Americans voted for a democratic socialist in the recent campaigns suggests that a compelling and practical approach that challenges the stale neoliberal consensus in ways far beyond the initial Sanders program may be viable.
This is especially the case if a new vision of community, in many senses of the word, is built and put forward from the ground up — a vision that also does not duck the larger regional and national questions as time goes on.
Facing the Challenges of the Trump Era
Clearly, the first challenge of the Trump era is to defend and protect those most threatened — including Latino and Latina, Black and Muslim communities, the gay and transgender communities, and the women who will likely face a Supreme Court hostile to their basic right to control their own bodies.
The second is to work to achieve whatever limited gains may still be possible through traditional political efforts. The deeper challenge, however, is not simply political (though it is that.) It is profoundly existential: to recognize, personally, the depth of the crisis we face and the need to deal with, rather than avoid, its demands. The old ways are now dying and are unlikely to be rebuilt in significant ways.
Even as resistance is mobilized, unless a much more serious politics is steadily developed — one that does not ignore “current” possibilities, but one that is also profoundly aware of the need to move thoughtfully beyond to deeper institutional and systemic change — there is little likelihood the powerful forces gathering around Trump in the United States and others even more dangerous in other advanced systems will be seriously challenged.
As we do the necessary work of defending those most in danger, and seek to slowly build a new coming together of traditional progressive politics with the institutional development of a radically decentralized community-based vision, it may accordingly help to reflect on the position of civil rights workers in Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s, the decades before the movement became a movement — a time of acute brutality and danger. As in the prehistory of all great eras of change, activists in that moment consciously worked to lay down the institutional foundations as well as the politics of a transformative new direction. This sort of work takes time and commitment for the long haul. Sometimes it is darkest before the dawn.
Gar Alperovitz, author most recently of What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, is cochair of the Next System Project and cofounder of the Democracy Collaborative. Alperovitz was deeply involved in the teach-ins on the Vietnam War.