It should not be like this. After nominating a fringe candidate opposed to much of its own party’s programme, one opposed by hundreds of the party’s leading figures, the Republicans should be in disarray. On the left, the Democrats should be crowing and unified behind a sitting President who enjoys an unusually high approval rating. After a spirited contest, the Democrats nominated a candidate for President who was able to unify the Party around a platform that included progressive proposals on issues ranging from climate change to the minimum wage, and that candidate won a solid plurality in the popular vote, beating her Republican opponent by almost 3 million votes, or over 2% of the total.
So unpopular is the new president that his share of the popular vote (46.1%) barely beat the share received by the defeated Republican presidential candidate in 2008 (McCain received 45.7%) and he received a significantly smaller share of the vote than did losing candidates in every other election this century. The demographic prospects remain grim for the Republicans: their electoral prospects increasingly depend on overwhelming support from declining sections of the population in declining regions; the Democrats, on the other hand, and the almost-successful Sanders insurgency in particular, draw support from expanding parts of the electorate: educated, non-whites, in economically vibrant urban and coastal areas.
Democrats and the left have reason to be angry, energized, and optimistic. So far, however, their anger remains inchoate, without effective channel or institutional mechanism. Beginning with no organization, no name recognition, and virtually no support, Senator Sanders nearly upset the candidate favoured by virtually the entire leadership of the Democrats. Having captured 13m votes, 43% of those cast in Democratic primaries, Sanders showed that many Democrats want their party to take a more progressive stance on issues ranging from social security and health care to education spending, foreign policy, and the regulation of financial markets.
Since Clinton lost states with a large white working-class vote like Wisconsin and Michigan (two states where Sanders won the primaries) as well as North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Sanders has even more credibility as a national leader for the Democratic Party. Many now argue that he has a programme that could recapture those voters who abandoned the Democrats because the party’s neo-liberal leadership neglected the interests of what had been the party’s working-class base. And Sanders’s clout was further magnified by his ability to energize millennials, those aged 20-35 whose votes were an essential part of the Obama coalition and who did not turn out quite so heavily for Clinton.
Sanders was able to win significant concessions in the Party platform and, after the election, he was elevated to a leadership position in the Democratic Senate caucus. To be sure, his position, Director of Outreach, is minor, and he is but one of ten senators in the leadership. And his position as chief minority member of the Senate Budget Committee is only slightly more important; while it drafts an overall budget, the Budget Committee has no substantive role in actual appropriations or revenue raising. The Sanders campaign did leave three legacies. In ascending order of importance, they are ‘Our Revolution’, the network of Sanders activists, and the Senator’s own newfound media status.
The most visible product of the Sanders campaign has been ‘Our Revolution’, an activist group powered by left-over campaign funds and led by longtime Sanders associate, Jeffrey Weaver. While the organization has local affiliates, it is largely directed from the top. Sanders himself tapped Weaver to run the organization, and most of the Sanders staffers quit when Weaver was appointed director without consulting others. ‘Our Revolution’ may already be moribund. After supporting a variety of candidates and initiatives in the past election, in December 2016 it supported Representative Keith Ellison’s bid to head the Democratic National Committee. While this could hardly be expected to excite a popular movement, it is more concerning that as of 18 December 2016, its website (https://ourrevolution.com/) has not been updated since the 8 November election.
Disappointed with ‘Our Revolution’, many young Sanders campaign staffers have maintained a national support network with many of the campaign’s local supporters and national convention delegates. Without national leadership or a clear political program, their energy and local connections could be a valuable base for the next set of progressive campaigns, but by themselves cannot constitute an effective national movement.
Regardless of any institutional legacy, Sanders now has a voice in American national politics. With Clinton discredited, and Obama having failed to bring in his designated successor, Sanders is the leading national Democrat standing. His response to every Trump proposal or appointment is front-page news, on the networks, and across Twitter. If Sanders is not the face of the Democratic Party, he is seen by the public and the press as a leading figure within it.
National Democrats did not expect to lose this election, and they have responded to defeat with some mixture of denial (facilitated because Clinton won the popular vote), anger, and, most of all, a deep depression. Their confidence may have contributed to their defeat. The Obama Administration did not do more about the Russian interference in the election because they were confident that Clinton would win regardless and feared to act and rock the boat.
Combined with the Democrats’ failure to capture the Senate, defeat in the Presidential election means that the Democrats are shut out of power in Washington as well as in most state capitals. In addition to anticipating the destruction of many of the programs that Democrats have sponsored or protected for decades, many national policy activists are now looking for work with few prospects of employment in the Federal government or in liberal think tanks which expect to lose their accustomed Federal grants.
More than loss of position depresses Democrats. Defeat has exposed the narrow and unstable base of support behind the national party. With its support for neo-liberal economic policies, the national party has an agenda attractive to Wall Street and export-oriented American industry (ranging from entertainment and high technology companies to business and financial services, and higher education). While politicians like the Clintons and Obamas have successfully raised campaign funds from these sources, many capitalists in these industries naturally prefer low-tax and anti-government Republicans. Even in defeat, Sanders demonstrated that neo-liberals depend on an electorate considerably more progressive, more suspicious of trade deals, more concerned about global warming, and more hostile to Wall Street. Republican attacks helped Obama to hold together this volatile alliance; it did not explode under Clinton but it shed just enough votes to elect Trump, and to expose to national Democrats how precarious their coalition has become.
Top-down efforts will be vital to slow the enactment of the Trump agenda but neither Sanders nor national Democrats have the political strength or the programme to stop America’s slide towards fascism. Fortunately, there are popular movements building, movements that contributed to the successes of the Sanders campaign and have only been invigorated by Trump. Some of these include:
Climate Action: The Climate Action Network, 350.org and momscleanairforce.org are examples of decentralised groups that have attracted a large and militant membership to protect the planet. The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which united progressive groups around the country with Native American communities and veteran’s groups, is an example of the type of spontaneous local action that can help to stop the Trump climate agenda. There is also some support among the Democratic establishment and business interest for protecting the climate.
Economic justice: The Fight for $15 has become a national movement for higher wages and fair treatment of fast food and other low wage workers. Without ties to Democratic politicians, it has grown to involve, in its words: ‘1,000s of workers. 100s of cities. 1 movement. $15 and a union’ (http://fightfor15.org/). It is now leading popular organizing against ‘[n]ewly-elected politicians and newly empowered corporate special interests … pushing an extremist agenda to move the country to the right’. An immediate target is Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Labor, Andy Puzder, head of a fast-food chain and opponent of the minimum wage and labor unions.
Civil rights, African-Americans, Immigrants, Women and LGBTQ: Attacks on abortion rights, voting rights, massive deportations of undocumented immigrants, attacks on gays and Muslims are all on the agenda for the new Administration. While these attacks may be met with pushback from establishment sources, including several state attorney’s general, we might expect popular action in defense of established rights. There have already been active campaigns to establish ‘sanctuary’ zones to protect immigrants and for local action to protect access to reproductive health care and to resist police brutality. The model here, of course, is the Black Lives Matter movement.
The rise of popular resistance movements gives hope that the body of American democracy will resist the Trump infection. On a less optimistic note, however, are the continued fragmentation of the American left, and the lack of a coordinated national campaign and ideology to fight the right. Going back to the 1970s, Republicans have built a movement seeking to reverse economic reforms and civil liberties expansions dating back to the New Deal of the 1930s.
Despite huge investments in thinktanks and grassroots movements, the right has enjoyed only limited success, advancing elements of a neo-liberal economic programme but doing little beyond. Now, behind Trump, reactionaries stand poised, if not ‘to make America great’, at least ‘to make America like 1925 again’. Those of us opposed to this reactionary programme have the support of a solid majority of Americans, including many who, ironically, voted for the right-wing Trump in frustration at the Democrat’s neo-liberalism. What we need is a social movement and a programme to win back voters disenchanted with the Democrat’s dalliance with neoliberalism. We need a movement and a programme to point the way forward to a progressive, inclusive, and democratic America. Without that, it will be a long and dark time.
Gerry Friedman is Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of Reigniting the Labor Movement: Restoring means to ends in a democratic labor movement (Routledge, 2007) and was active in Sander’s campaign.