Liberal politics and the contingency of history

by Emrys Westacott

UnknownIt is hard at present to think about anything other than the recent election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This is a cataclysmic and potentially catastrophic event for both America and the world. Severe narcissism and immense power are a volatile combination that usually ends badly. And with the Republicans controlling all branches of government, the hard right are in an unprecedentedly strong position to implement much of their agenda, from scrapping efforts to combat climate change to passing massive tax cuts for the wealthy

Already, much ink has been spilled on what Hilary Clinton, the Democrats, the liberal elite, the media, the intelligentsia, and anyone else who opposed Trump, got wrong. But the first lesson to be drawn from the election is that history is radically contingent.

Reading post mortems on the election reminded me of listening to soccer pundits explaining the result of a close game. In the game itself, the losing team may have hit the post twice, had a goal disallowed for an incorrect offside call, and been denied a clear penalty; the winning team perhaps scored once following an untypical defensive slip. Yet the pundits will explain the result as due to the losing team's inability to cope with their opponent's midfield diamond, along with their failure to spread the play wide. Their explanations are invariably blamings. In truth, though, the result could easily have been, and four times out of five would have been, different; in which case the talk would have been all about the ineffectiveness of the midfield diamond….etc.

Exactly the same sort of thing can be seen in political punditry. The contest between Clinton and Trump was extremely close. Clinton won the popular vote–with counting still going on she has a lead of close to 1.5 million votes–but Trump won the electoral college: which means, given the peculiar and outmoded system, that Trump won. Explanations are legion. Clinton was a hopelessly flawed candidate. The Democrats took their base for granted. The Democrats ignored the plight of the working class. The coastal elites are out of touch with the heartland….etc.

But as Nate Silver and many others have pointed out, a small shift—one vote in a hundred or less—in three of the swing states and Clinton would have won. In that case, the hot political topic today would be the crisis in the Republican party, the gulf between its established leadership and the Trumpistas, the impossibility of a Republican winning the white house so long as the party continues to alienate minorities and millennials…. etc.

Given the dire outcome of the election for the Democrats and for liberal causes generally, it is natural and sensible for liberals to ask what went wrong. But it is important in doing so, to not exaggerate problematic factors, and to keep hold of what was right.

Three areas are especially subject to scrutiny: the candidate; the platform; and the strategy.

The candidate first. Yes, Hilary Clinton had her failings. She gave her critics too many opportunities to accuse her of dishonesty, evasiveness, secrecy, and cupidity. But she really wasn't very different from most other politicians in these respects. Her weaknesses pale into insignificance compared to Trump's. On most counts–knowledge, experience, judgement–she was by far the better candidate: knowledge, judgement, experience. During the debates, she spoke in complete sentences, laying out cogent policy proposals, while Trump's remarks, often wild, unsubstantiated, and false, at times degenerated into little better than inarticulate grunting. If Clinton's behaviour and way of speaking had even remotely resembled Trump's, she would have been toast early on.

Clinton was certainly hated and despised by millions. But the main reason for this is simple: for many years she has been the target of an unrelentingly hostile campaign by right wing media. Trump simply, and expertly, built on this. The hatred of Clinton expressed by Trump supporters–often in the vilest language–was far in excess of anything she deserved. She has, after all, spent several decades working hard for worthy causes having to do with the rights and welfare of women and children around the world. It's worth remembering that according to Gallup polls, she has, by a a sizeable margin, been the woman Americans admire most in the world for every one of the past fourteen years.

What about the platform? One of the most common post-mortem findings is that the Democrats ignored the legitimate bitterness and anxiety of blue collar workers in regions suffering from the loss of manufacturing, and their anger at the fat cat elite. But the simple, obvious, truth is that the Democratic platform offered to do far more for such people, and for poor people generally, than did the Republicans.

· Health care. Obamacare; Expanded Medicare and Medicaid; a public option to keep insurance premiums down; allowing the government to negotiate drug prices; all these policies favor the less well off. The Republican policy, by contrast, amounted to nothing more specific than repealing Obamacare.

· Inequality. The Democrats proposed higher taxes on the wealthy. Trump and the Republicans proposed to lower taxes on the wealthy and to abolish the estate tax (which affects people bequeathing over $5 million). The Democrats advocate regulating Wall St; the Republicans advocate deregulation.

· Education. Clinton proposed increased federal aid for public education in order to greatly reduce the cost of college for families who are less well off. The Republicans advocate massive cuts in government spending; some would even abolish the Dept. of Education.

The list could be extended, but the point is simple. Democratic policies are likely to benefit struggling communities far more than Republican policies. Both sides talked about the government investing in infrastructure, which would provide jobs in areas where they are needed. But it is the Republicans who have restricted such spending during the Obama years, while the Democrats lobbied for it.

On other issues, too, there is no good argument for the Democrats to shift their platform toward the Republicans in order to capture votes. Global warning? It's neither a hoax not a fiction. Abortion? Even apart from the issue of woman's rights, Republican policies are likely to make abortion less safe and, if anything, more common. Gun control? It really does make sense to limit the magazine capacity on the semi-automatic weapons that mentally disturbed people or terrorists can use when they go on shooting sprees. Environmental regulations? Who suffers most from pollution? Not the rich, who make sure that toxic waste is kept well away from their pristine enclaves. Read about the dire effects of water pollution in the coal mining communities of West Virginia.

Yes, yes, critics will say. To be sure, the Democratic platform should appeal to people who are struggling if people vote according to their rational self-interest. But if this election proved anything it is surely that rationality is not a major player in American politics. Votes are largely determined by other considerations: party loyalty; tribal identity; gut instincts; cult of celebrity; attachment to symbols; and emotions like fear, pride, hatred, and nostalgia

This brings us to the issue of strategy. Given the premise that Democratic policies do, in fact, favor ordinary folk more than do Republican policies, what could Democrats do to make their pitch more effective?

One approach would be to take steal pages from the other team's playbook: traffic more in personality politics, visceral symbols, and artificially inflamed passions. To some extent Democrats have done this. Obama may at times be the embodiment of detached rationality, but when campaigning for re-election he relied a lot on his personal charisma and standing and did less than he might have to advance progressive arguments. So although he was successful, the Democrats on the whole suffered heavy losses. In this election, Clinton certainly articulated a more cogent program than Trump; but she also went down and dirty with her ads, making Trump's manifest unfitness for office her main argument.

It's a dilemma–at least for those who cherish rationalist values. American politics has become so much a matter of tribal loyalties and clashing symbols. Guns; pipelines; coal; abortion; the death penalty; immigration; climate change; environmental regulation; affirmative action; transgender bathrooms; Obamacare. Many people stop assessing on their merits specific proposals about these issues; instead, they take sides according to what they gather is the default position of the group they identify with. And not just on one position, but on a whole cluster that hang together. So you can predict that someone who is opposed to gun control is likely to support the death penalty; and someone who supports affirmative action is likely to support environmental regulations.

Without question, symbols, soundbites, and attack ads on personalities are rhetorically powerful. But the problem with relying excessively on them is that this contributes to the general debasement of political discourse. Informed, rational discussion becomes an anomaly. Politicians who can engage in it don't trust it; and the electorate become less receptive to it.

But now is not the time to lose faith in the role that reason can (and should) play in politics. With the election of Trump, it is more important than ever that liberals consistently make the argument for coherent, practicable policies based on good evidence. One reason for doing this is certainly to raise the tone of political debates. But rationalists must also have some faith that, in the end, the arc of history bends towards truth–or perhaps, more modestly, at least away from error and folly.

To put it another way, if you're wrong, reality will eventually bite you in the ass. The errors of those who masterminded the invasion of Iraq were eventually plain for all to see. Trump's claim that he will revitalize the coal industry will eventually–or perhaps quite soon–be exposed as hollow. If global warming is real and a problem, the denial of that it is either will eventually become untenable.

Of course, much damage can be done before Reason triumphs. And “our dire warnings proved correct” is never much of a consolation. But the swinging pendulum is a familiar feature of political history. It is entirely possible that Americans will quite soon be ready for a more elevated form of political discourse.