James Green Jr., 28, is angry. The emotion is not new to him: born and raised as a Black in the southern American city of Birmingham, Alabama, he has seen plenty of days coloured with anger. He is poor and works two jobs at burger joints. But he is angry because Donald Trump, the candidate endorsed by—among others—the Ku Klux Klan, won the November 8 presidential election and will soon run the country. “We are done for,” he says. “I thought Hillary [Clinton would win] and I was praying [for her].”
She didn’t, and Green now plans to participate in an upcoming ‘Not My President’ rally in his city—one among a series of anti-Trump protests that erupted across the country after the election result was announced.
“I’m afraid cultures have been torn apart,” he says, explaining his anguish. “Rednecks are still waving their Confederate flag high and writing n***** go back to Africa.”
The irony of his own words is lost on Green. The Confederate flag he refers to, a symbol of the southern states that fought the 1861-65 American Civil War, was in fact the flag of the Democrats—the party Hillary represents. It was the Democrats who tried to secede from the American Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, in order to defend their right to enslave Black people.
This is one of the many quirks of history that make US politics so befuddling. The war has been over for a century-and-a-half and the country has now had a Black president. But looks can still be just as deceiving.
Take Hillary herself. She started her career as a Republican who campaigned for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid, before joining the Democratic Party. As first lady to Bill Clinton, she helped put unprecedented numbers of Black youth and other minorities in jail through the 1994 crime bill, which expanded the powers of the police and made incarceration much easier. Two years later, the same administration deprived millions of poor women of welfare benefits by repealing the 60-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children programme. As senator, she voted for the illegal invasion of Iraq. As secretary of state to President Barack Obama, she launched several more invasions herself, as well as illegal drone attacks: conservative estimates put the collateral damage of these offensives in hundreds of thousands. She repeatedly spoke against gay rights and consistently championed the cause of big businesses, Wall Street banks, and free trade agreements such as NAFTA and TPP that impoverish millions.
And yet, thanks to rich donors, party insiders and the news media, she manages to paint herself—successfully—as a progressive, even left-of-centre, political leader. She appeals to a core constituency of educated, urban Americans who like to view themselves as open-minded, racially inclusive, anti-patriarchal cosmopolitans. Men and women who work in offices, arcades and restaurants, read The New York Times and vote for the Democratic Party. They may be rich or poor, but they are a class apart from—and self-assuredly superior to—the racist, rustic, Republican rednecks toiling away on ranches. They naturally count on minorities to be on their side. They recently showed how ‘nice’ they were when they elected Obama as the first Black man in the White House. Now, they were going to usher in the first woman president as further evidence of their decency.
That they didn’t succeed was, of course, not their fault. As Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and the patron saint of liberal America, wrote after the election in NYT: “There turned out to be a huge number of people—white people, living mainly in rural areas—who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy.” Notice how Krugman divides the country into ‘us’ and ‘them’—simultaneously belittling ‘them’ and blaming ‘them’ for Hillary’s defeat. Even in two sentences, he betrays the scornful self-righteousness of Hillary supporters.
The ‘Not My President’ protests, happening around the country but only in cities, are in some ways the same—an attempt by the urbane to disown and disparage the bucolic. Calls to impeach the president-elect before inauguration and petitions to electoral college members to go against the nation’s democratic will and elect Hillary instead signify the superciliousness of this class and its sense of entitlement.
However, rural white people still constitute the heart of America. This heart once beat for the Democratic Party, but not anymore. In her book The Politics of Resentment, based on interviews with people in rural Wisconsin conducted over years, Kathy Cramer observes that pastoral anger has been building for decades because of growing economic inequality, deteriorating neighbourhood conditions and the conviction that rural communities had no respect for townspeople and no share in power. Slow recovery after the 2008 economic recession, the election of the first Black president and the influx of immigrants has deepened their sense of dispossession and embitterment.
This was the anger Trump tapped into. Recognising that people were fed up of establishment politics and economics, he poked fun at both Republican and Democratic establishment insiders to endear himself to his audience. While challenging free trade policies that took jobs and industry away, he also espoused racist, xenophobic positions to connect with anti-immigrant sentiments. The more Democratic Party supporters and the ‘liberal’ media called him unfit to be president, the more desirable he became in the eyes of a disenfranchised populace.
Democrats had their own man capable of connecting with the same people without any of the racism or ridicule: Bernie Sanders. But the party establishment, in cahoots with the Hillary campaign, ensured Sanders’s defeat in the primaries, paving the way for their own eventual loss. Following Trump’s victory, Sanders said: “Democrats have focused too much with a liberal elite which is raising incredible sums of money from wealthy people in the upper middle class but has ignored to a very significant degree the working class and the middle class and low-income people in this country.” Many such voters did not turn up to vote, costing Hillary her long-cherished presidency.
One reason why Democrats like Hillary are able to ignore the working class and the poor is their willingness to be satisfied by the politics of hollow symbols. Having a Black president, while desirable, does not itself ensure better lives for Blacks and the end of racism—indeed, the reverse could happen. It is the policies implemented by the president that would make a meaningful difference. Similarly, electing a woman who talks about liberal causes won’t spell the end of patriarchy and the advent of a progressive polity—certainly not when that leader has adopted reactionary positions, implemented neoliberal policies and would, in all likelihood, pursue a similar agenda once elected.
A second reason is that Democrats such as Hillary are confident in the knowledge that the working class and the poor have nowhere else to go, nobody else to vote for. A number of voters opted for Hillary not because they liked her but simply because she was not Trump. Convinced of the liberal vote, such leaders keep moving further to the right to appropriate the broadest possible share of votes—disregarding progressive interests and demands.
To pull them back, working class and poor voters need to let the Democratic Party know that their vote must not be taken for granted. They can do so by being willing to vote for third-party candidates—such as Jill Stein of the Green Party this time around—who have a consistent record of progressive action. Even if such a candidate loses an election, the vote will carry long-term value, making Democrats realise that to be the party supported by liberals, they have to adopt genuinely liberal policies and act upon them.
By Saif Shahin in Ohio