Saving Democracy

“Money On My Mind” is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters) and are meant to stimulate discussion.



February 2017
By Jay Mandle

Trumpism can be defeated. But it will take grassroots organizing to do so. As the authors of the influential document, Indivisible, have argued, we will have to aggressively attack every retrograde policy that the new administration initiates. This includes the likelihood that Muslim-Americans will be singled out and scapegoated, under the pretext that they represent a terrorist threat. We will also have to mobilize to protect Latino and other immigrants. We will have to fight barriers to voting, and there must be no let-up in our opposition to attacks on free speech. And problems including mass incarceration, climate change, and the toxic relationship between the police and people of color must be addressed as well.

But I doubt that following Indivisible’s advice to adopt a “purely defensive” strategy – confining our activism to opposing legislation proposed by the Trump administration – is enough to save our democracy.

Many years ago, the sociologist Emile Durkheim described what happens in a rapidly changing world to people who feel that they are being left behind. Because the norms by which they have guided their lives no longer provide security nor hope for the future, they suffer from what he called “anomie.” They feel they have lost their place in the world and that they will experience further decline. And they are especially anxious about the future for their children. In their despair, anomic individuals often believe that a strong leader – accountable only to himself – can restore order to their lives. Trust is transferred from political institutions to a charismatic person. Anomie produces a politics that is hostile to democracy and prone to authoritarianism. In 2016, Donald Trump was its beneficiary.

The fact is that today we do live in a rapidly changing world. Millions of Americans have been unable to gain traction in a new age where imports compete with domestic production, technological change has reduced employment in manufacturing, and there has been a surge in immigration from Mexico and the countries of Central America. This is not the place to go deeply into the causes of these changes. But the fact is that very little of this is actually reversible. Donald Trump might start a trade war with China, but the source of imports will simply change and come from other low-wage countries. Nothing is going to persuade employers to stop replacing blue collar workers with automated equipment. It might be possible to slow migration, but walls cannot be made high or strong enough to stem the tide of people seeking better opportunities than are available in their home countries.

The problem is that the people who lose their jobs because of imports, technological change, and migration are often forced to scrape by with jobs that offer much lower pay than those they once held. Many look at what is going on and see that the same government that promotes globalization has failed to help them cope. It is not hard to understand their frustration. They are looking for answers and unfortunately, too many have been attracted to Donald Trump.

To defeat Trumpism, the sources of anomie have to be addressed with positive alternatives. They would include at a minimum a system of income insurance, job retraining, universal health care, and a large public works program designed to create blue collar employment. The cost of these initiatives will be substantial. The bill must be paid by increases in taxation on the wealthy – the people who have benefitted almost exclusively from globalization.

In proposing a positive alternative vision for the country, the inevitable problem that we will face is that of credibility. Why should people believe that the political system that failed them in the past will now come to their rescue? In fact there is no good answer unless we as well include the demand that a system of public campaign funding be made available to Congressional candidates. The American people are well aware that their interests are not represented in the present-day electoral system in which rich people pay for political campaigns. That is why many risked voting for Trump. They saw him as an outsider, not connected to the “pay to play” political system. We will have to insist that the counter to Trumpism has to include the public funding of political campaigns. Otherwise, the American people will think our alternative vision is nothing more than a utopian dream.

The irony is that the struggle against Trumpism will open up new opportunities to achieve a more progressive United States. Such a society will require the rich to pay their fair share for programs that poor and middle class people need in order to be able to cope with the dislocations of globalization. But such a vision can only be realized if we are to be serious about grassroots organizing. Without that effort, we cannot be convincing that it is possible to construct a more just and equitable society.

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