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The 2018 midterm elections are a battle for the souls of both parties.
President Donald Trump keeps signaling his determination to remake the Republican Party in the image of Steve Bannon and his circle of wild-eyed racists and xenophobes. Because the media in the United States tend to focus on personality clashes and electoral strategies rather than ideologies and the evolution of political parties, Trump’s political project is still too little-noted by the pundits and politicians, who have consistently underestimated the threat he poses. Yet, for those who are paying attention, the President’s extreme messaging sends a clear signal.“The dog whistles get louder,” says anti-racism activist and author Tim Wise.
Early in 2017, Trump expressed enthusiasm for France’s far right, hailing National Front (now National Rally) leader Marine Le Pen as “the strongest on what’s been going on in France”—an embrace of a candidate whom French conservatives rejected for leading a party “known for its violence, its intolerance.” Several months later, when neo-Nazis rioted and killed a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump suggested there were “good people” among those throwing up fascist salutes.
In August, Trump began hyperventilating about white farmers in South Africa, with a tweet announcing that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to investigate “South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.” In so doing, he adopted a meme favored by shadowy global networks that mumble about “white genocide.” The New York Times said the president was citing “false claims.” Patrick Gaspard, the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, warned that the President “needs political distractions to turn our gaze away from his criminal cabal, and so he’s attacking South Africa with the disproven racial myth of ‘large scale killings of farmers.’”
Gaspard was right about the impulse of this President to distract the media and his supporters from his many crises. Yet there is more going on here than the usual smoke and mirrors of politics.
“Ultimately, I don’t see this tweet as being about South Africa at all,” Wise told Joy Reid on an MSNBC program that offered a rare example of how Trump should be covered. “I think it is a way to try and scare white Americans not of black South Africans, about whom they don’t think very much, but of black people in this country. It’s all part of a larger political process.”
The larger political process is what matters. Donald Trump knows this. So, too, do his sharpest critics. That makes the 2018 election cycle much more than the traditional partisan fight between Republicans and Democrats. What is playing out this year are battles for the souls of both major political parties.
Just as Trump is steering the Republican Party into the ditch of white nationalism, a new generation of intersectional candidates (many of them women, people of color, immigrants, or the children of immigrants) is doing its best to drive the Democratic Party in a different direction. It is a movement that Ayanna Pressley, who beat a ten-term incumbent Congressman in a Massachusetts primary in September, says “can ensure that this moment of hatred and division in Washington is a catalyst for the greatest progressive movement of our generation.”
Neither major party will finish 2018 unchanged. Yet the extent of the transformation will be known only after the November 6 election results are digested. The changes may be uneven; one party may go through a more radical transformation than the other. But there is no going back for either party. Nor is there any reason to believe that this unavoidable process of radical transformation will end on a particular Election Day. Even if Republicans are completely vanquished by a “Blue Wave” election, the process of remaking the party in the President’s image will continue.
The President is a dangerous man, a danger he extends by regularly intervening on behalf of his “mini-mes”—like race-baiting Florida Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis. The threat Trump poses is multiplied by the fact that, as veteran Republican strategist Rick Wilson reminds us, GOP “leaders” such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan “lack the moral courage to stand up and say directly into the camera: this President is engaging in things that are overtly racial, this is a signal to some of the worst elements in our society.”
With that said, however, it must be understood that Trump is not our condition. Rather, he is an alarming symptom of what ails our politics at a moment of dramatic change in how we organize our lives, our work, our world.
Trump is President because this country’s political leaders have failed to respond honestly or usefully to the radical changes that are transforming the lives of Americans, and the anxiety these changes create.
The United States has barely begun to wrestle with the immediate crisis of climate change. At the same time, it is now thirty years into a globalization revolution that is changing everything about how we relate to the world—economically, socially, politically, and practically. It is twenty years into a digital revolution that is changing everything about how we communicate, with dramatic repercussions for how we organize our time and our relationships. And it is ten years into an automation revolution that is already changing everything about our workplaces, and that will ultimately upend our sense of who we are as workers and what we might seek to accomplish.
This is heavy stuff. It is hitting the average American with the force of three industrial revolutions at the same time. Unfortunately, because of the lingering influence of neoliberal fabulism on both parties, serious thinking about the policies needed to address this sea change has been neglected in favor of the fantasy that “the market will come up with a solution.”
Economists tell us that the concentration of power in the hands of a billionaire class, and the monopolization of wealth by trillion-dollar tech corporations, is bad for business and worse for humanity. Social scientists identify economic and social inequality as an existential threat. The Harvard Business Reviewnotes that “people in all walks of life are becoming very concerned about advancing automation.” Yet the supposedly “enlightened” leaders of both parties continue to propose “more-of-the-same” schemes to divert precious public resources to billionaires, tech titans, and the military-industrial complex that has already locked up so much of our commonwealth.
Until Bernie Sanders opened up the debate with a 2016 presidential run that shook the Democratic Party’s complacency, scant attention was paid to the fact that a Scandinavian-style social welfare state will have to be developed to provide Americans with guarantees of health care, education, transportation, and other basic needs. It is the only rational response to a “gig-economy,” where workers cannot count on the benefits packages that sustained their grandparents and that their parents are now losing.
By the way, young voters did not back Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries because he was promising “free stuff.” They voted for him because his social-democratic agenda sounded like a smart proposal for bringing a measure of stability to the chaotic future they are already experiencing.
Yet, even at his best, Sanders barely touched on the topics that will soon confront society, like whether a universal basic income will be required to sustain workers displaced by robots. And once the nomination fight was done, Democrats defaulted to the habitual caution that keeps the party from inspiring young people and disaffected Americans.
Neglect of the essential debate has made it easy for Trump to fill the anxiety void with a combination of over-the-top bragging about his dubious business skills and crude appeals to xenophobia. This was just enough to swing battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—and, with them, the Electoral College—in 2016. But Trump is incapable of addressing the sources of the anxiety, which is one of the reasons why his approval numbers are so low and the prospects that Democrats might take the House in 2018 are so high.
There are plenty of people—many of them Trump voters and potential Trump voters—who recognize that good employment numbers are transitory, that wages are stagnant, and that tax cuts are more likely to be invested in robotification than long-term job creation. Trump has no answers for the real issues of our time. So he will keep going further down the rathole of racialized politics, and he is not going alone.
The story of the Republican Party’s future is being written by Donald Trump. That tweet about South African farmers, like so many of the President’s signals, should be read in the context of the politics of right now.
The evidence from the 2018 campaign is that Trump’s trajectory will be every bit as horrible as his sharpest critics imagine. He’ll keep intervening in Republican primaries on behalf of men like Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach, who peddles lies about “illegal voting” that Republicans use to make it harder for non-Republicans to cast ballots; and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who proved that it was possible to be more venomous than Trump by promising to use his pickup truck to round up immigrants.
The story of the Democratic Party’s pushback against Trump is, as yet, unwritten. There are no guarantees that the Democrats will rise to the challenge of the moment. They failed to do so in 2016 because party leaders at the highest level misread the moment. They spent too much time concentrating on Trump and too little time on the question of why the most divisive and discredited Republican nominee in the party’s history was a viable contender for the presidency.
What Democrats must recognize is that the required response to Trumpism involves filling the void of the uncertainty he creates with information, ideas, and programs. This won’t change the hearts of visceral racists and xenophobes, of the David Dukes and Richard Spencers, who relish the political normalization of white nationalism. But it will speak to frightened and frustrated Americans, and identify an agenda for mobilizing what Democracy for America Executive Director Charles Chamberlain calls “the New American Majority of people of color and progressive white voters [who] are ready to deliver transformative results for candidates who share their commitment to bold, inclusive populism.”
This year’s primary elections have been notable for breakthrough victories by scores of Democratic candidates who recognize the need for this new politics. In Massachusetts, for instance, Ayanna Pressley launched her campaign with a declaration that: “the people of this district deserve a representative who will enlist them as partners in the development, visioning, and governing of their communities. Activism is no longer an option, but is the expectation of our generation.”
That last line went to the heart of the matter. Pressley, a forty-four-year-old African American progressive, shared many positions with incumbent Congressman Mike Capuano. What distinguished her was a promise to combine representation in Washington with movement activism at home. She communicated a sense of urgency that her party has lacked. After casting her primary ballot on September 4, she said: “This is a fight for the soul of our party, and the future of our democracy, at a time when our country is at a crossroads.”
Pressley secured her upset victory with a 59-41 landslide. She was one of dozens of insurgents who prevailed in Democratic primaries during the course of the first nine months of 2018. Gubernatorial candidates such as Ben Jealous in Maryland, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum in Florida won historic nominations, as did Congressional candidates such as Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York (see interview, page 60).
The first challenger to defeat an incumbent Congressman in a Democratic primary, Ocasio-Cortez became a symbol of the movement to change the party. She was open about the failure of the party to speak to the issues that matter to voters—including some voters who backed Trump in 2016, and many more who stayed home.
“[Trump] spoke very directly to a lot of needs that were not being met by both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party,” she told The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald. “Our neglect of that is something we wholeheartedly have to take responsibility for, and correct for.”
That’s a vital acknowledgment, and an even more vital call to action.
Trump’s answers to America’s problems are wrong. Yet he is doubling down on them with a white-nationalist message that could come to fully define his party. The challenge for Democrats is to forge an alternative message that is bigger and bolder than the pathetic agenda that this President and his partisan allies propose.
The alternative to a “make-America-great-again” politics of old policies and older fears is a new politics for a new time. To achieve this new politics, the Democratic Party must be as radical as it was in the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Wallace. It must be more open to social democratic ideals, especially those that will shape and sustain a social welfare state sufficient to provide benefits as the economic order of the past gives way to a new order in which jobs are replaced by gigs.
It will recognize that a universal basic income may be the only answer for workers who are being displaced, not temporarily but permanently, by the robots and computers that Oxford University social scientists say could eliminate half of existing jobs in the next two decades. And it will know that antitrust initiatives to break up, regulate, and tax tech monopolies will allow citizens rather than CEOs to guide a technological revolution focused on the betterment of the human condition.
This is the politics proposed by the most tech-savvy Democrat in the current Congress, Ro Khanna of California, who two years ago defeated an eight-term incumbent Congressman in a primary contest that foretold the intraparty fights of 2018. “Our country is going through a profound transition from an industrial age to a digital age,” Khanna has said. “The gains of that transition had gone to a few people who are creative, brilliant, at the right place at the right time. There are a lot of folks who had been left out in that transition.”
The Democratic Party can’t be too bold. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party does not yet know whether it wants to be bold. This is what the primary battles of 2018 were about, and this is why the results from November contests matter more than a measure of D-versus-R alignment. If next-generation candidates who practice a politics of big ideas and big mobilization win in November, that will be a signal for the only major party that still has the potential to meet the challenges of the times.
Parties evolve, or die. That’s a fact of political science. This year will tell us a great deal about just how dangerous the evolution of the Republican Party has become. But it could also tell us how the Democratic Party might avert the danger and claim the future.
John Nichols, a contributing writer for The Progressive, covers politics for The Nation and is associate editor of The Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin.
First published in The Progressive. Included in Vox Populi for educational uses only.