Unexpected Alliances

2 years ago Matthew Taylor

We are a new blog intelligently reporting and analyzing current events through a leftist lens. We are trying to combat the digital media trends of clickbait and fake, misleading “news” with no substance. If you want to see more journalism like this, please like us on Facebook.

In lieu of intelligence briefings, the President-elect of the United States of America is going on a victory tour, spewing demagoguery at cheering, fawning crowds.

It’s the worst sort of anti-elitism writ large: this soon-to-be Leader of the Free World doesn’t pore over lengthy, technical foreign policy documents and consult with intelligence experts. No, he holds Nuremberg-esque rallies that satiate his own egomania and make good on an implicit promise to his supporters. Spectacle, after all, won the election, and it’s the single element of the Trump campaign that is sure to remain steadfast throughout his presidency.

If the constituencies that voted for this man are any indication, there are some odd bedfellows in these stadiums. They run the gamut from half-comatose ‘family values’ Christians to struggling blue collar workers to pseudo-intellectual white supremacist cretins who specialize in shitty misreadings of Nietzsche. The spectrum also includes the many obscenely wealthy executives and bankers and lobbyists who supported Trump; however, they would never deign to attend such an event. Trump conned the people in those audiences into believing he’d fight against them, after all.

As we have seen, the Right does a remarkable job of finding common cause. Surely evangelical Christians weren’t all too fond of Trump’s predilection for grabbing pussy, but they liked his hard stance on anti-abortion policy. And the Paul Ryan-style conservatives disapproved of his brash, childish temperament and screeds against the Washington establishment. But they knew a Supreme Court appointment was at stake, so he got their vote.

Many Trump voters likely found an issue that mattered to them that his platform aligned with (at least ostensibly), rationalized the fact that a vote is far from a full-throated endorsement, and cast their ballots for him. With these compromises and concessions in mind, it makes sense that Trump is so confidently making calls for unity despite running a vitriolic, divisive campaign.

In Cincinnati, the first stop of his victory tour, Trump said, “We’re a very divided nation. But we’re not going to be divided for long.” From the mouth of a man who has threatened to imprison his main political opponent and often takes to Twitter to lambast his critics, these words don’t seem like much of a good-faith attempt at mending a divided country. Rather, they reek of suppressing dissent and moving toward autocracy.

But the American Left—in the broadest scope that idea can signify—actually needs to learn something from the big-tent strategy that got Trump elected. It desperately needs to bring all kinds of people together and work toward building strong coalitions, leading to unexpected (if tenuous) alliances. If Donald Trump and his cadre of wealthy bigots could do it, the Left should be able to as well.

The present and the immediate future demand an urgent response to help protect the most vulnerable people and not cede too much of the terrain that civil rights and collective interests have gained. This will require working with and applying pressure to many groups and powerful figures that the Left may find mostly despicable. But given the current circumstances, it’s a necessity.

In the longer term, there is the question of working toward an American politics with an actual leftist foundation. The tepid, centrist liberalism that came to define the Democratic Party has in many ways been an attempt to safely appeal to a wide range of Americans. But it let down many of the voters that it took for granted, and they took notice. A further left solution could be more successful and help to improve the lives and material conditions of real people.

There is a dual strategy at play here, and it will require a great deal of negotiation. The necessities of the immediate and the long-term will not always seem concomitant with one another. One issue with the Left is its tendency to get caught up in a politics of purity, which is always fundamentally reductive. So it is critical to remember that successful politics doesn’t need to create consensus; it just needs to appeal to some of the most prominent interests of many people.

The Immediate

In the wake of the election, n+1 founder Mark Greif wrote an essay posing the question, “To what extremes of disobedience and resistant behavior do peaceful Americans know how to go?” He is not referring here to protests or the “familiar forms of symbolic resistance” that are associated with overt dissent in the cultural imagination.

Rather, Greif is anticipating the necessity for quiet, quotidian resistance. He wonders whether people who don’t necessarily consider themselves outwardly ‘political’ (the way protestors might, for example) will undertake  “ordinary and unromantic and vilified forms of disobedience” when circumstances call for it. Specifically, he is thinking about

“Refusal of allegiance. Refusal of participation, at all levels. Not showing up. Leaving key government jobs. Staying in those jobs to slow down or stall illegitimate actions. Daily refusal to go along with orders coming from an illegitimate executive. Refusal of bureaucrats tasked with reporting on citizens to report, if it could put their subjects in jeopardy. Refusal of enforcement agencies to enforce. Refusals and resignations in the armed forces. Refusal of many tasked with cooperating, in the government, to do so.”

This sort of conscientious disobedience—jamming the cogs of the machine, so to speak—directly contradicts the mainstream American ethos as it relates to work and ‘keeping the peace.’ There remains a persistent notion in this country that just getting a job done without complaining, raising a ruckus, or causing any trouble for the boss is somehow virtuous and indicative of strong character. Creating a disturbance is frowned upon, no matter what the impetus.

This reactionary impulse is especially evident among centrist liberals, who should presumably share the Left’s interest in fighting oppression, whether by direct action or increasing visibility and awareness of critical issues. Yet they are often the ones who complain when, for example, a Black Lives Matter protest blocks traffic or leftists criticize the conciliatory tone that President Obama and Hillary Clinton espoused in assuring a smooth transition of power. We’ve written before about how this amounts to a ‘call to inaction.’

These are not normal times, and the President-elect and his Cabinet are not simply leaders with ideas that diverge from the mainstream. There is a very real moral imperative to resist, to question commands and policies, and to make it as hellishly difficult as possible for Trump and his team to accomplish anything on their agenda. So the Left must put pressure on people in positions of power, authority figures, and federal employees and bureaucrats, especially when others are reluctant to do so.

Many on the Left are likely to find such people or the institutions to which they belong morally objectionable. Yet this is a matter not of political purity but rather of pragmatic action in the interests of vulnerable groups of people. When conditions demand urgency, these are the people who can make concrete change…or perhaps prevent concrete change, as the case may be. Imagine, for example, if the Morton County Sheriff’s Department had simply refused to deploy force against the water protectors at Standing Rock. Or if the Dakota Access employees stopped doing their jobs altogether.

Sanctuary cities are a prime example of where the Left can and should apply pressure to protect undocumented immigrants, including members of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump has promised to dismantle. ‘Sanctuary city’ is not a legal term, but rather an understanding among local officials and authorities. Reema Khrais offers a good working definition of sanctuary cities as areas with “policies, police department orders or nonbinding resolutions that limit government officials from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement.”

Trump, however, is threatening to completely withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities as soon as he takes office. In spite of this, many powerful people at the local level are resolute in their refusal to help Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement with deportation. LAPD police chief Charlie Beck, Senator Kamala Harris, and Mayors Jim Kenney (Philadelphia) and Rahm Emanuel (Chicago) have all spoken out against helping Trump enact his immigration agenda.

Emanuel in particular has drawn many valid criticisms from the Left. By no means do I advocate forgetting or forgiving his wretched actions. But people who care about undocumented immigrants in Chicago need to be willing to reach out to people like Emanuel to apply pressure and tell them they must not waver from their promises. That is what I mean by forming uneasy, tenuous, but altogether necessary alliances, even if they hinge solely on a single critical issue.

And if sanctuary cities begin to sue the federal government for blocking funding, as Adam Sieff advises, leftists should be helping with whatever resources, expertise, or advocacy they can offer. People who see American systems and institutions as fundamentally flawed are often reluctant to play by their rules. This is to some extent understandable, but not with the terrain and circumstances of a Trump presidency. If we are truly prioritize actual people’s wellbeing and material conditions, then we must work with what we have at our disposal.

As Samuel Sinyangwe of Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero said to ThinkProgress, “It becomes a strategy of how can we work with states and local governments and with [whatever] power exists in the Senate to block and limit the amount of harm the federal government can cause.”

And it extends beyond governments. What about powerful industries, particularly those whose technology could be deployed against the interests of the people? Spying, expanded data collection, and even blacklists of some sort are all very real possibilities with the way the upcoming administration is being formed. The warrantless surveillance programs that proliferated with Obama are almost certain to be more of a threat in the Trump years. Outright expressions of dissent—especially coming from already-targeted groups such as Muslims, people of color, and journalists—could lead to all sorts of spying, smear tactics, and blackmail using what should be private data.

Silicon Valley might be nothing more than a new iteration of Wall Street with an obnoxious ‘visionary’ veneer, and many of the best leftist journals (notably The Baffler) have done delightful and scathing work making fun of tech culture and exposing its deepest hypocrisies. But now that is insufficient, and there urgently needs to be more.

The Intercept recently published a jarring piece on the tech world’s possible complicity in the Trump administration’s “most extreme, draconian goals.” The article poses the question of whether American corporations will aid or resist in the times ahead.

“This question is perhaps most important for the country’s tech companies, which are particularly valuable partners for a budding authoritarian. The Intercept contacted nine of the most prominent such firms, from Facebook to Booz Allen Hamilton, to ask if they would sell their services to help create a national Muslim registry, an idea recently resurfaced by Donald Trump’s transition team. Only Twitter said no.” (Emphasis mine)

That is unacceptable, and the Left can’t settle for just being snarky detractors of these companies any longer. Rather, we (by which I mean the Left, again in the broadest sense) must appeal to the purported progressiveness of the people leading these companies, and indeed to the moral necessity of refusal. It’s easy to remain on the fringes and criticize, but now is the time to actually speak with and put pressure on people and institutions that we may not like, but with whom we can find common cause in fighting the most overt oppressions and repressions of the upcoming administration.

The Long-Term

But just fighting Trump’s agenda isn’t enough. That entails just reacting to change, and purely reactionary politics is the foundation of the Right. There also needs to be a concerted effort to create a solution that is not just better than Trump’s America, but also far better than the current status quo.

It is realistic to envision and work toward producing a politics that focuses on the material conditions and social structures of a society in which far too many people are currently suffering. To achieve this, the Left needs to work on organizing and coalition-building among many different groups, from labor unions to community movements against police brutality. Of course this cannot and need not mean total solidarity between all of the various coalitions and groups. There will be different priorities and divergent interests that are better addressed at a small, local level, on a scale where solidarity is a more useful and tenable concept.  But many of the hindrances that people anticipate standing in the way of a broad Left that is still unified enough to be successful are simply false dichotomies.

Perhaps the main perceived obstacle is the flawed notion that there’s somehow a conflict between striving for economic justice and striving for social justice (meaning the fight against racism, sexism, and religious discrimination). Some people act as though these two concepts are engaged in some sort of schismatic, zero-sum competition.

In an excellent essay, Frederik deBoer argues that this idea of mutual exclusivity comes from “a liberal managerial class that has essentially abandoned any interest in economic justice at all and so has cooked up a phony pretense that these things are somehow contradictory.” It is generated by “people who consider themselves liberals or progressives out of inertia and cultural comfort are butting up against their fundamental political conservatism and are acting out about it.”

That’s true, although I don’t think it’s the entirety of the story. There are still people with a leftist critique of the economy who are also reactionary about what they wrongfully belittle as ‘identity politics.’ Many of them dismiss questions of social justice by saying that a leftist economic solution would somehow eradicate racism, as if a pure class restructuring is enough to create a fully egalitarian society. This argument is as blatantly indifferent to the real issues facing people of color as ‘trickle-down economics’ is toward the poor.  These folks are just as wrongheaded as the liberals who balk at any mention of economic justice.

No matter how the contradiction is framed, the fact is that it doesn’t even exist except as the result of a deeply reductive perspective. These are both emancipatory concepts that seek to make life better for people. They are inextricably bound together, not at odds with one another. Frankly, there is no meaningful social justice without economic justice and there is no meaningful economic justice without social justice. A politics that focuses only on of these areas as though they were two discrete, isolated phenomena is conservative at is core and therefore opposed to actual change of any significance.

That fabricated conflict must be put to rest. Now is the time for the Left to create a viable, holistic alternative to the neoliberalism and corporatism that have come to define the Democratic Party. It is the time to formulate solutions that actually do something about urgent issues that have been addressed mostly with rhetoric about hope and promise which gives way to empty gestures and the occasional tiptoe toward substantive change.

During this past election, even that rhetorical veneer got cast aside. The Democratic Party inadvertently broadcast its tone deafness and lack of concern for the very people they are supposed to fight for when they offered “America is already great” or “We are great because we are good” as the rejoinder to Trump. In a time of immense desperation and immense anger toward the institutions and systems that have left wide swaths of the country miserable, unstable, and scared, this was unacceptable. It was an unacceptable answer for the countless Americans who suffer due to vanishing jobs, a for-profit prison industrial complex that preys on communities of color, the increasing wealth gap, lack of access to safe drinking water, the decline in upward mobility, inexcusably unaffordable health care,  and the many other problems that politics should be confronting and contending with.

That can’t be the case any longer. These issues need to be addressed, and the options presented can’t be ever again be limited to “Everything is fine” or “Everything is not fine, and it’s because of immigrants and Muslims.”  And, as Jennifer Roesch writes, “Economic demands and specifically antiracist demands should not be counterposed — they should be brought together.” Any leftist politics that does not recognize and act upon this will (and should) fail.

Again, this sort of politics won’t mend all divisions. Yet as long as it addresses the most pressing concerns of the many people for whom the current system is not working (and for whom it is only bound to get worse in the next four years), it can succeed.

But first we must build it. What idea specifically should we be building toward? As deBoer says,

“The basic idea is this: that all people deserve equal rights, material security and comfort, and human dignity by virtue of being human and for no other reason. These things are not deserved, nor can your right to them be fairly taken from you, regardless of what you’ve done, what you believe, and whatever culpability we imagine you might have for your condition. My analytical position is that people are almost never actually responsible for their own immiseration, though our culture is set up to get you to think otherwise. But even if that were not my analytical position, my moral position would be that it’s irrelevant. You cannot lose your moral claim to food, shelter, clothing, medical care, equal rights and participation in government, or human value through any action or inaction, or through possessing any belief, no matter how ugly or retrograde. If you believe that some people deserve their hardships, you’re my enemy, and it doesn’t matter what color tie you wear.”

Especially in a ‘post-scarcity economy,’ there is no morally justifiable reason that these should not be the standard political tenets. Because people simply can’t be at their best in desperate material conditions. Their worst and most grotesque impulses and fears can be played upon when they’re worried about being assaulted by police or being unable to pay both their medical bills and car repair costs so they can make it to the job that doesn’t pay enough.

People deserve a chance at better lives, actual equality, and work that offers fulfillment and dignity. So we must resist Trump, and we must look toward creating a future where the conditions that facilitated his rise to power no longer exist.

We are a new blog intelligently reporting and analyzing current events through a leftist lens. We are trying to combat the digital media trends of clickbait and fake, misleading “news” with no substance. If you want to see more journalism like this, please like us on Facebook.