Will next year feature a Summer of Love or a Summer of Hate?

by Yohan J. John

Epic-sly-everyday-peopleEver since Donald Trump's shocking victory in the recent US Presidential Elections, I have gotten a kick out of reminding people of the following: next year we will mark 50 years since the Summer of Love. One response, which I imagine reflects a common sentiment among left-liberals, was a sardonic laugh followed by the line “So next year will be the Summer of Hate, eh?”

We may experience more than a summer of hate next year if our worst fears about Trump and the Republicans come to pass. The absolute control they will soon wield over all three branches of government give them the power to roll back half a century and more of progressive policy, if they so choose. So can we convince the Right, or at least some sections of their supporters, that a better solution to their grievances is possible? Is there anything we can do to breathe new life into the dreams of the 1960s hippies and radicals? Peace, Love, Equality and Good Music For All? Perhaps, but this will require a major reorganization on the part of the Left.

And this reorganization needs to start right away. Liberal and left-leaning people all over the world are still reeling from the election shock, but we need to snap out of it and get to work. Our delusional confidence in the liberal media establishment lulled us into complacency. Now we are having to confront our biases and filter bubbles: one of the few silver linings in this ominous time.

The soul-searching on the Left is necessary right now. But there is a danger that social liberals will double down, continuing their losing strategy of framing all political debates in terms of identity politics: they will cry racism, bigotry and misogyny until they are blue in the face. This election should have proved that this is politically naïve in the extreme. The media was virtually unified in its revulsion of Trump. If months of decrying racism and misogyny during the election campaign did nothing to sway the electorate, what will protests (to say nothing of KKK-bashing internet memes) now achieve?

We can of course interpret the rage and fear as a necessary emotional impetus for forcing the fissiparous left-liberal spectrum to unify against a common enemy. But this unity is unlikely to be sufficient to win over the more moderate of Trump's supporters.

This brings us to a very dangerous game being played by the “extreme” wing of social liberals. By declaring that all Trump supporters are inherently racist and misogynist, they are refusing to engage with them. Has anyone ever been convinced to abandon bigotry by being yelled at? Now is the time to understand the frustrations and aspirations of Trump supporters, particularly among the white working class (who used to be such a reliable source of votes for the Democratic Party). We can disagree with many of the things they believe about the causes of their problems, but it is both cruel and politically suicidal to simply dismiss their problems out of hand.

The Democratic Party has for decades pandered to Wall Street interests. They weakened social safety nets while continuing to spout pieties about equal rights for all races, genders and sexual persuasions. For a time it may even have seemed like the Democrats could forge a permanent coalition of minorities and special interest groups who could keep out the (allegedly) bigoted rubes from the 'flyover states'. This election has completely shattered this illusion. Donald Trump even managed to increase the Republican vote share among people of color. One line he used when campaigning to minorities was particularly telling: “What have you got to lose?” Perhaps not a lot? The Democrats oversaw the cancerous growth of the prison-industrial complex. Even the first black President seemed to be powerless to do anything to stop it. What exactly are the Democrats for again? They can't help the working classes recover their lost jobs and dignity, and they can't help black people escape institutional racism. Gay marriage is great if you're gay, but it's hardly enough to enliven the core Democrat supporters, let alone the newly converted Trump supporters.

Bernie Sanders seems to have understood the limitations of liberal politics as a United Colors of Benetton ad. He has shown that policies aimed at universal goods resonate far more widely than bland appeals to multiculturalism and tolerance. Better wages for all. Healthcare for all. Education for all. This kind of universalism doesn't require throwing minorities under the bus. In fact it will help minorities most of all, since they face the brunt of economic deprivation and discrimination. The more money African-American people earn, the more power a movement like Black Lives Matter can amass. As a recent article put it, “class is more intersectional than intersectionality.

But what about the racists and misogynists who seem to be crawling out of the woodwork now? Surely they are impervious to universalist arguments? Don't they want to deny universal rights to minorities? For died-in-the-wool bigots, this may be true. But there is practical value in optimism regarding their numbers and zeal, and for that we need to modify how we think about people. To label someone as “a racist” or “a misogynist” is reductive and essentialist in the extreme. It denies the possibility that people are complex, inconsistent, and most importantly, subject to changes of heart. Rather than saying that particular groups of people are fundamentally “racist”, it makes political sense to speak of racist actions, racist words, and racist policies. Rather than screaming at people, we have to appeal to their sense of compassion, kindness, and even nationalism. As a post-election email from Corporate Accountability International wrote:

Trump is horrifying, enraging, and traumatic for so many of us. His scapegoating of immigrants, his racism, his blatant Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, his misogyny, and more is unforgivable. But we must believe that only a small percentage of the people who voted for him hold these views. In the days that follow, there will be volumes of analysis of this election. What is sure to come through is that Trump’s victory is rooted in the fact that this system is failing too many people across the country. “

I like the phrase “we must believe“. Beliefs don't have to be fixed, permanent things. There is a practical use to them. When we look at the election results, the campaign anecdotes and the sociological analyses, we should see a few reasons for hope. Many of the counties that voted for Trump this year voted for Obama twice. How racist can those voters be? Many of the voters find Trump's crude behavior distasteful, but see it as a necessary evil on the road to shaking up the system.

If the Left wants to remain committed to democratic processes, it must assume that there are people currently in the Trump camp who can be reached. More importantly, the Left must rediscover the art of actually helping and empowering people. The Left must stop seeing itself in solely cultural terms: as the elite repository of all that is good and true and beautiful. We must stop talking down to people and telling them what they ought to want. Good intentions and eloquent speeches are ringing hollow in many parts of the country. Trust in so-called experts has been decimated. The experts failed to serve the people.

The left-liberal world must also learn what it can from the success of Donald Trump. Trump not only addressed economic concerns, he also created a narrative. “Make America Great Again” clearly has some ominous undertones, but it has the virtue of vagueness and universality. Every person wants to feel they are part of something larger than themselves. The left needs a new narrative: one that includes everyone, including the notorious 'privileged cis white male'. If you create a narrative in which a particular group of people are inherent symbols of racism, colonialism, rape culture and every other modern evil, regardless of their actual actions, then you are very likely to push some of them towards a very different narrative — perhaps one in which they are the central protagonists of history, as is the case with white nationalist groups. Constantly vilifying a particular group of people cannot heal wounds or create new societies. It is a purely negative message: “check your privilege” and other identitarian slogans do not tell people what they ought to do to contribute positively to the cause. Nor do they conjure up a vision of society in which the privileged and underprivileged can live together without constantly having to negotiate historical resentments. No individual should be made to feel morally culpable for the actions of a group to which they belong, unless they provide active, intentional support. If this seems like a natural sentiment when debating Islamophobia, we should be able to apply it to race relations.

This brings us back to the visions of the 1960s. Two relatively new forces were sweeping the world back then: a desire for individual freedom of thought and expression, and a desire to reform social institutions. The first force was newer and by far the more powerful one, and seems to have weakened the second force. The sexual revolution was the most successful of the many upheavals of that decade, and grows out of a belief in the 'sovereign self'. This kind of libertarianism is easily absorbed by the forces of the market, which can then reflect it back to the individualist consumer in the form of advertising and entertainment. But the other social revolutions — civil rights, feminism and environmentalism — remain incomplete because they depend far more on economic equality. As long as the goal of capitalism is the maximization of profit, racism, misogyny and ecological degradation will always recur, justified using the seemingly neutral language of markets. The individualism of the 1960s may ultimately have been counterproductive. Working towards economic equality requires solidarity — something that individualism alienates us from. An atomized society cannot form the strong chemical bonds of collective resistance.

So ultimately we have to reinvent a discourse in which social liberalism goes hand-in-hand with socialist economics. The public's frustration with the economic status quo therefore creates a great opportunity for the Left, but only if it rediscovers its universalist instincts. And while doing this, it also makes sense to borrow some of the language of the cultural right wing. The Left should appropriate the mantle of family values: after all, only people with decent living standards have the time and resources to devote to their children and their communities.

It has become a cliché to say that the dreams of the 1960s failed, and that this was the fault of the impractical starry-eyed hippies. I think this is a bit too hard on the idealist young baby boomers. They were, after all, being confronted by capital, the most powerful force the world has ever seen. It is extraordinary that they achieved what they did in the face of such opposition. The key is to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” And this is never going to happen if our discourse is stuck in a distrustful, divisive, and fearful mode. Politics has become differential. What is needed is an integral politics, and perhaps the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love will give us a reason to revisit previous attempts, and learn from their successes and failures. We have little choice: the crises we face on this planet increasingly require coordinated action. As one 1960s visionary sang: “We got to live together”.


Everyday People – Sly and the Family Stone

Sometimes I'm right and I can be wrong
My own beliefs are in my song
The butcher, the banker, the drummer and then
Makes no difference what group I'm in
I am everyday people, yeah yeah
There is a blue one who can't accept the green one
For living with a fat one trying to be a skinny one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo
Oh sha sha we got to live together
I am no better and neither are you
We are the same whatever we do
You love me you hate me you know me and then
You can't figure out the bag I'm in
I am everyday people, yeah yeah

There is a long hair that doesn't like the short hair
For bein' such a rich one that will not help the poor one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo
Oh sha sha we got to live together
There is a yellow one that won't accept the black one
That won't accept the red one that won't accept the white one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo
I am everyday people