How the progressives got it wrong
Late on election night, as the results continued to trickle in, a county here, a city there, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, came on stage at the all-glass convention centre where her victory party had been convened. The PA cut out in the middle of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”, the perennial losers’ consolation number, and Podesta told the assembled thousands, some in tears, all in a stupor of sorts, that Clinton would not be appearing tonight to say anything. “We can wait a little longer, can’t we? They’re still counting votes and every vote should count,” he said, telling them to head home and get some sleep, before saying: “Goodnight. We will be back, we’ll have more to say, let’s get those votes counted…”
Podesta, and Clinton, had right on their side – the election had still not been called by the press, and with some extraordinary twists and turns, Hillary could still win by keeping hold of the rust-belt states, Pennsylvania and one or two others. Could, but wouldn’t. The Democrats had been demolished in every part of the country. There wasn’t going to be any comeback. These people would never be regathered. There would be no signoff for their efforts. Having been terribly let down by their leaders, the thousands were sent into the cold and uncertain night.
Reliable states fall
Much of the world shared the feeling of those assembled – expulsion from the crystal palace, the glittering home of power and modernity. At the start of vote-counting on Tuesday night, Donald Trump had gained a small but worrying lead in key eastern states. That had quickly reversed itself and by about 8pm Hillary was surging ahead. An hour later, it reversed again, and it never went back.
Florida and North Carolina went down, leaving Clinton with only the rust-belt states, old reliable blue-collar Democrats, to depend on. But they fell, too, and by the midnight hour it was clear that the election had gone exactly as Trump had claimed it would during the Republican primaries – he had cracked open the map, put the de-industrialised north in play, and given the Republicans many paths to victory. States such as Wisconsin and Michigan that had voted Republican only two or three times since the rise of the grand worker–progressive coalition in 1964, rejected the Democrats without a trace of sentiment, delivering 10-15 per cent swings, knocking back Democratic senate and house challenges.
The result is catastrophic. The Republican party now controls the presidency and both houses of congress, and is in position to nominate and confirm a justice who will return the Supreme Court to conservative control, with a couple more to come. The only skerrick of power that remains lies in the narrow Republican majority – probably 52-48 – in the senate and the consequent availability of the “filibuster”. This running out of the clock on debates before a vote – which requires a 60-vote majority to overturn – is but a small mercy, though. And the Democrats have spent most of the past few years limiting the power of that measure.
Getting it so wrong
So what happened? Well, Trump didn’t win a landslide. Overall, the result is close to a numerical draw. But the Democrats decisively lost a chunk of the white working and middle class in key swing states, while increasing their vote in places such as California, where they didn’t need it. The only social group that decisively voted against Trump was African Americans, 88 per cent to 8 per cent. In every other category, he did well enough to disable the Democrats’ “new coalition”, taking 29 per cent of Hispanic votes, 67 per cent of non-college-educated whites and 49 per cent of college-educated white men. The gender gap did not open wide; Hillary won college-educated white women with only 51 per cent, and lost non-college-educated white women with 34 per cent. The Clinton campaign, strong on Trump’s sexism and Hillary’s crusading record on women’s and children’s rights, was an utter failure.
The bitter truth is, Hillary and the Democrats deserved to lose. The candidacy was an entitled one from the start, run by a family-elite machine that had colonised the centre wing of the Democrats, using the muscle and influence of the Clinton Foundation. Party insiders were too willing to let that happen without challenge. Hillary had become a left neoliberal in the ’90s, and a left neoconservative in the 2000s, offering free trade, open borders and more explicit use of United States force round the world. Her retreat from these positions was prompted only by the rise of Bernie Sanders. Her role in that process became entwined with her business and email arrangements in the conspiracy-oriented mindset that now dominates mainstream American thinking. Was it helped along by right-wing propaganda? You bet. But they couldn’t have done it to Joe Biden. Did it draw on deep wells of misogyny? Yes, but they couldn’t have done it to Elizabeth Warren.
Clinton’s nomination, the inevitability of it, represented the greatest political failure to date of the progressive class, the layers of professionals, knowledge and culture workers who have come to occupy the centre of de-industrialised Western economies. The progressive class has taken its formative values – radical openness, borderlessness, cosmopolitanism, ungroundedness – as unreflected upon virtues. They have marked any resistance to them as political evil.
This class has rolled over the old Marxist delusion – that the working class are necessarily internationalist – into gender and race issues, and then dispensed with economic class altogether. Those outside the progressive class have held on for a decade or more waiting for real recognition of their demands. Denied it, a chunk of them broke off and voted Trump into power. Next year, they may well make Marine Le Pen the president of France. When a global economic crunch hits Australia, they will challenge Labor from the right, finally creating an effective hard-right political vehicle. Labor, in its current entitled, cronyist form, will be as vulnerable as was Clinton’s campaign.
Get ready for bad times. Presuming Trump enacts his program, he will collapse the international trade system abroad, and, tariffs aside, give corporations huge tax cuts and deregulation at home. It is quite possible that this will create a growth spurt in the rust belt and the south, exactly as he had promised, though that may then collapse as other nations compensate for the shift. Abroad, he’ll return to mass bombing as a US military tool, with high civilian casualties. Progressive centres of power in the state, in the culture, will come under relentless attack.
Beyond the first few years, however, new opportunities emerge. Trump’s promises are impossible to fulfil. The jobs-led economic revival he guarantees won’t happen in anything like the volume required. Automation and global wage equalisation are relentless forces. His foreign policies may well cause chaos beyond his, or anyone’s, ability to control. His supporters will stick with the illusion for a while; eventually they will realise they were just the 2016 graduating class from Trump University.
That is the point, across the world, at which it will be possible to put forward a better account of poverty and inequality to people: that it is the lack of integration of a genuinely democratic state, market and society, rather than too much integration, that has produced inequality, and that Western societies have to be managed to a post-industrial and post-capitalist future.
But that will only be possible if progressives abandon their demand that every social class accept their specific values as the revealed truth. Any new progressive coalition will have to recognise the need for strict controls on immigration flow numbers, and the notion of a bordered society; that many people are alienated, not excited, by a globalised, radically open world, and are “parochial” in the best sense of that word; that trying to manage behaviour and speech through state enforcement has a totalitarian dimension to it; and that whatever changes society goes through, progressives will never have sufficient numerical dominance to take power and create the society they want, without class allies.
No glass ceilings were shattered on Tuesday in America, but a lot of illusions were. Progressives could use the shards to slit their wrists, or look in the mirror of them and work out how they got it all so terribly, terribly wrong.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "Progressive class warfare". Subscribe here.