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Democracy in peril – It’s time to get involved


People are broadly disaffected with their parties. They are not capable of representing them and that is as true for the Republicans as it is for the Democrats, but in different ways. I chose Muncie, Indiana, as my base for the US election because people in Muncie had voted for Sanders and Trump. I was looking for a place where people had voted for anti-establishment candidates, but there is enough national data to suggest that Muncie is not an anomaly. Trump won here, but most of the active Republicans I spoke to didn’t vote for him in the primaries.

What’s interesting is that Republicans talk about Hillary in exactly the same way that Democrats talk about Trump. As one of them told me: ‘I know some people who are voting for Hillary, and they’re not bad people, but they just don’t get it.’

There are a range of ways people don’t trust the system.

Hillary has been around for 25 years as a national political figure, and that happens to coincide with a time when wages have stagnated and everything has gone up except for the price of labour. In a town like Muncie, which had a huge industrial base that has now gone, people look to the North American Free Trade Agreement, they look at Glass-Steagall [banking regulation], welfare reform (they don’t mention welfare reform, but it’s an issue) and they say: how are you for us, exactly?

Both parties are losing control of their base. In the primaries, the Democratic base voted for Sanders, which is not what the establishment wanted. On the Republican side there was open revolt between the people who run the local Republican establishment and the Tea Party folks.

What happened to Stevenage, where I’m from, is very similar to what has happened in a town like Muncie in the US.

Stevenage had British Aerospace. That’s where you went to work, that’s where your parents worked, that’s where most of my friends left to work from school at 16. You left school, you got an apprenticeship, there were trades, you became a skilled labourer.

And then it closed. We had an industrial area, we probably still do but I don’t know how much industry is there. Mostly, grown up people didn’t commute to London, they stayed there. The bottom fell out of that. I used to describe Stevenage as a working-class town where people actually worked. But then working class became this synonym for poor and destitute.

A very similar thing happened to Muncie, which is shrinking. A sense of purpose is lost. There is a sense of disorientation – people begin to ask ‘why are we here?’ There are attempts to revive the town in a variety of ways, but there is 30 per cent poverty in Muncie and a very big drugs problem.

There are actually jobs available now, but people aren’t sufficiently trained for them. And people don’t necessarily have the capacity to do them. They don’t have cars, so they can’t get to the factories, which are out of town. The jobs don’t pay enough for them to have cars – which in this part of America is like not being able to read, or walk. If you don’t have a car there is an awful lot you can’t do. Then a significant section of the population can’t pass a drugs test, particularly on the white working-class side of town (Muncie is still very segregated).

Institutions have been hollowed out. Primarily the unions, but also institutions of culture and community. This speaks to Trump’s appeal, particularly for the white working class. It was a point made quite passionately by one woman I spoke to who was considering voting for Trump. She said: ‘People think we’re stupid, and nobody speaks up for the poor.’

African Americans are worse off, but they have advocates and they have institutions, they have religious structures, they have political engagement and a history and a Martin Luther King Day, and a way of being recognised.

In a nation that doesn’t recognise poverty, those who are just poor and not something else are screwed. Poor white people don’t have advocates, because in a country that prides itself on being a meritocracy, even if it’s not, on having complete class fluidity, even if it doesn’t exist, it’s much more difficult to talk just about being poor if you’re white. Then comes along this guy who isn’t afraid to say whatever he thinks, who can talk in quite raw ways to a group of people who feel really undermined.

One interesting caveat is that while Trump garnered a significant majority of non-college-educated white men, and a smaller majority of non-college educated white women, that was not the majority of his base. His support was actually much wealthier than Hillary’s support. There is this idea of him scooping up the lumpen white vote, but the truth is that it was primarily relatively wealthy people who supported Trump and while he got a significant section of the uneducated white vote, that was still a relatively small proportion of his actual vote.

In that sense, it was a bit like Brexit. The victory was made possible by wealthier, older people in the south, but it’s seen as a working-class revolt.

What was striking about the Republicans in this election was their use of coded racial messaging. In Nevada, the Republican party chairman alleged fraud because ‘a certain group’ were given ‘more time to vote’. He meant Latinos, who were in line. If you’re already in line in the US, then you get to vote after the poll closes. Those are the rules.

This approach has been used by the Republicans since 1960, when Nixon developed a strategy to win the south from the Democrats by targeting a section of suburban white America with coded racial messaging. Nixon said: ‘The real problem is the blacks, the issue is how you say that without actually saying it.’ That has been the plan for the last 50 years. If you think of the Willie Horton ad, of George Bush the first, or Reagan and ‘welfare queens’, or Mitt Romney’s ‘47 per cent of Americans don’t pay taxes’ – it’s all coded racial messaging.

That’s what you heard when Trump talked about the vote being rigged, certain groups, inner cities and so on. It was an attempt to reimagine a pre-civil rights America, to say that some people shouldn’t be voting. It was probably the last time they could do that, because the white population is shrinking as a proportion of other populations and so states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, even North Carolina to some extent, where there are significant Latino populations, become swing states in a way that they never were before.

It was an intensely misogynistic election. Trump boasted about sexual assault and denigrated women’s bodies. He actually talked trash about Clinton’s body. To me, that evoked the symbolic importance of her gender in a way that she did not and could not. In gender terms it was a ‘lean-in’ candidacy, and she refused to galvanise it beyond that. She kept on talking about these holes in the glass ceiling, not realising that an awful lot of women are in the basement and can’t get out.

The degree to which misogyny became part of the campaign and still did not raise the symbolic nature of her gender is significant. I called Obama the ‘incognegro’, because he would never talk about it. Hillary was the same – she kept quiet about the significance of her gender. It only came to the fore when she was up against the most vile, repugnant pig of a man you could imagine.

I don’t think the current system can deliver democracy in the 21st century. Corporations are more powerful than governments. Trade has been liberalised legislatively, and then caffeinated technologically in a way that makes it virtually impossible even for a nation state as powerful as America to control its own affairs.

These things we are seeing – Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, Corbyn too, in a way, and Syriza and Podemos and Sanders – are all responses to this particular neoliberal moment in which everything crashed. The poor and working class were made to pay for that crash and nothing has improved for them. The nature of that was so blatant and brazen and the remedy so elusive, if even offered, that in all sorts of ways – some of which I support, and some of which I don’t – people are in revolt.

The party systems as they stand are simply not equipped to deal with these challenges. So in Britain, Corbyn rises at the same time that the Tory base is in revolt over Brexit. In the US, you get Sanders at the same time as Trump. They are not morally equivalent responses, but they are responses to the same challenge.

The nature of neoliberal globalisation brings with it not just the moving of foreign trade to places where unions are weaker and labour is cheaper. It also relates to immigration, to a range of cultural insecurities. When people feel like they have lost control, because the nation state was the basic democratic unit, there is often a patriotic nostalgia – which is where the slogans ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘Take Your Country Back’ come from.

The challenge for dissidents of the mainstream political parties is whether they seek some collective redress to challenge the system, which is where Corbyn, Sanders and the resurgent new left in Europe come in, or whether they attempt to retreat into what is left of the national laager, throw up the walls to people and try to keep the gates open for trade, which is what the arguments over Brexit are about now.

In a sense that’s where Trump stands. Most of his stuff, his different product lines, are made in all sorts of different countries. He owns a golf course in Scotland. He is not against foreign trade. He wants to change the terms, but he doesn’t want to stop it entirely any more than Nigel Farage does. They just want to close borders to people and open them to capital.

We are trying to fix the plane while it’s going down. The primary challenge is to make sure the plane doesn’t crash, because you can’t fix it if it crashes and everybody dies. So we have to do these two things at once. ‘A better world is possible’ is a useful mantra, but we must bear in mind that a worse world is possible also and we have to be determined to prevent that.

I think the way that distinction is sharpest is in making it very clear that we understand the difference between the electoral and the political and that we understand the limits of both, particularly in this neoliberal moment. Elections have a real importance, but national governments also have limited strength and power. Even once elected they have to engage with the political reality on the ground.

That said, we should be aware of the electoral opportunities that remain. There are people who voted for Sanders who didn’t vote and I think that’s the very least you could have done. I’m not going to make any great claims for it, certainly not for Hillary, given her past, but it’s important not to be complacent electorally about what people can do domestically, and, in the case of America because of its power, globally. Whoever wins as US president will kill a lot of people, because that comes with the job – but some people kill more than others.

The thing we mustn’t do, gloomy as it is at the moment, is forget that a Jewish guy from Vermont, who called himself a socialist, ran the crowned establishment figure scared. From nowhere. Nobody saw that coming. And he talked in very stark terms – to a fault, because he couldn’t talk about anything else – about the millionaires and the billionaires. He gave a place for class resentment to go in a way that hadn’t really existed since Jesse Jackson in the 1980s.

The significant thing that was missing from Sanders’ coalition was minorities in general and African Americans in particular. Sanders would have won if he’d been able to appeal to them. That speaks to a long-standing problem with the American left: that non-white people are an afterthought and they struggle to integrate their understanding of class with their understanding of race. Not an awful lot can happen until that problem is resolved.

This wasn’t just a problem for Sanders. We also saw a low turnout among African Americans for Hillary. People assumed that because African Americans were more likely to vote for her than for Trump, she had the black vote. They failed to foresee the slump in the black vote, because neither candidate appealed to them very much.

It’s important to remember that the left has been able to clear some electoral space, which didn’t exist before. Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos, the left bloc in Portugal, Bernie Sanders – here were people who either didn’t exist previously, or ran to make a point, to make a difference, to introduce something into the debate – and now they have an audience. They are making a difference, and they are winning the debates. So the left has to take itself seriously electorally. It cannot understand itself as having an almost tokenistic or decorative presence. It turns out we can win things electorally, so we have to have systems and policies and programmes in place that can make that victory count.

We need to be proposing some basic social democratic reforms, as basic as redistribution, raising taxes, investing in education, health and housing, that also try to rein in capital – capital controls, that kind of thing. These are things we can do and that would create a different, more humanistic, better-informed conversation about immigration.

We need to integrate our understanding of immigration with our understanding of issues like environmentalism, and climate change, foreign trade, and international development and say this is all part of one whole strategy. There are large numbers of people moving around the world who don’t want to move. We should be supporting them and evoking a sense of a welcoming and cosmopolitan nation that has always benefited from migration. I think there is an audience for that, but it’s difficult to reach if you’re not funding health, education and housing because they feel that they’d love to feel nice about the rest of the world, but they can’t even feel nice about their street.

There was a clear distinction in this election for the left between the electoral and the political. Electorally it’s only about what we lose, it’s not much about what we gain. Politically, the work that comes afterwards is hugely important, and that would have been the same if Hillary had won. The battle lines are clearer with Trump, and given the statements he has made democracy is more in peril, but the political work would have been necessary regardless.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether it makes sense to stay in political parties, but it has now become abundantly clear that it’s not enough to only stay in these parties. That’s true for Corbyn, and for the Bernie folks. Radical change is not going to come by solely organising within the Democratic Party or the Labour Party, or any of these parties. We need an anchor in the world of social movements that can put pressure on them. It’s time to get involved.

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