The first two weeks of the Trump presidency ought to be engraved in our memories as if in granite. We are witness to three simultaneous crises: a crisis of the working class, which, fractured by race, region, citizenship status and religious belief, lacks political cohesion or organisational representation.
Then we have a crisis of the ruling class, which was bullied and backed into a corner by a megalomaniacal kleptocrat who stole their candy, and who has no respect for the core institutions of class rule or for the stories his class brothers and sisters tell each other about the delights of the prevailing world order.
And a crisis of the state, in which far-right ideologues, autocrats and theocrats, having captured the governing apparatus, are rapidly concentrating power in the executive while bureaucrats scramble toward either dissent and defiance or appeasement and accommodation.
In response to these crises, a highly consequential debate about the direction of the Democratic party rages among academics, pundits and politicians. Sparked by the Columbia University professor Mark Lilla in a New York Times opinion piece, this debate is most active among liberals, but ranges both rightward and leftward as well. The controversy focuses on the role of “identity politics” in Hillary Clinton’s presidential defeat. Essentially, the debate turns on whether the Democratic party and Clinton, in their embrace of racial, religious and sexual minorities, forsook working-class white people, who responded to their abandonment by casting their votes for Trump.
According to this perspective, the journey back from the devastation of 2016 requires that the party take an indefinite break from identity politics to concentrate on winning back economically squeezed white workers. There’s a leftish version of this line – an economic fundamentalism that posits that bread-and-butter issues trump all others. The classic liberal version, seemingly reasonably, demands the subordination of the part to the whole, the interests of particular groups to the national interest.
It’s important to take interests of other social groups into account.
Both boil down to the same thing: it’s time to subordinate the rights claims of various “interest groups” to an economic agenda that prioritises solving the distress of white workers. Only this adjustment will create the conditions for Democrats to make gains in congressional and state-wide races and retake the White House in 2020. In the leftish version, only this adjustment will set the foundation for building a successful workers’ movement.
We are all navigating treacherous terrain, seeking a way forward. At least some of us know that not a single development over the past period indicates that the way forward requires that we abandon our freedom dreams. So sometimes it is important to sacrifice something in order to receive more from every member of political society.
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