I, like everyone else, have been doing a lot of thinking about the recent US election and what it means for us on the left. Unlike most of my peers, I cautioned against being too confident in the polls, and, sadly, I was proven right in a devastating manner. What does that mean for us going forward? These are just my thoughts, but… it helps to write them down.
Table of Contents
- Salvation is not in the statistics. At least, not if you’re looking at them wrong.
- Divisiveness is the tool of the enemy.
- There will always be a place for protest and speaking your mind.
- We have to look at root causes and stop playing it safe.
- We have to step back and look at how to start winning, and now, before it’s too late.
1. Salvation is not in the statistics. At least, not if you’re looking at them wrong.
“So be ashamed then, tell me you’re ashamed.”
“We are,” Anaplian assured him. “Constantly. Still, we can prove that it works. The interfering and the dirty-tricking; it works. Salvation is in the statistics.” — Iain Banks, Matter
We’re fond of numbers. We really are. I’m not just talking polling numbers, but statistics is the fundament of the way we understand politics. This trade deal is good because our GDP goes up this much. The GDP per capita is on a rise. The average income is on the rise. So many more people have healthcare. In my experience, the numbers are only as good as your interpretive methodology, and even then, have very little to do with the way people vote.
Take, for example, GDP. We pat ourselves on the back when we’re doing well, because everyone must be doing well, right? The numbers look good, everyone’s incomes are going up. We blindly ignore the fact that the average income is going up in densely populated urban areas way faster than more rural and industrial areas. We ignore that (well, no, we publish academic papers, but then fail to take it into account when we get to the election), in FPTP electoral systems, this means that each person with an increasingly larger share of the vote due to urban migration is conversely decreasingly satisfied with their economic position in relation to the rest of the nation. I mean, it’s not that hard a concept and much has already been written about it, but when it comes time to elections, we pat ourselves on the back for what a great job we’re doing, and then we go on to lose, badly.
Don’t get me wrong. Usually, liberal policies are economically better for people in rural and industrial regions in the sense that cost of living decreases and average wage increases. But when Trump tells his supporters, 90% of whom ranked Economy as their top priority, that he’s bringing back jobs and industry to the US (and therefore the industrial heartland), they’re going to see hope in that. He’s trading on their hope, while we handed them none. No real policy on how to get factories working again.
You cannot look at stats and rely on them without attacking them from every single angle and taking into account the human element. Statistics are useful, but the moment you disregard emotional trends, trends towards resentment, violence, and hatred in favour of statistics that paint a rosey picture, you’re condemning yourself to defeat.
2. Divisiveness is the tool of the enemy.
“To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” Clinton said. “Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” — Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a fundraiser.
A general rule in politics should be: demagogues can use use vast generalizations for the people on the other side. We cannot. Historically divisiveness has never worked for the anyone running against a demagogue. It’s fine when you’re running against a traditional opponent, it’s part of the toolkit. You go on the offensive, they respond. But demagoguery is different. Demagoguery simultaneously plays upon irrational beliefs and a reassurance that, “hey, your views are great the way they are. Let me appeal to them in vague generalizations. The other guys, they’re the enemy because they don’t get you.”
To go on the offensive plays right into their hands. They can thump their chest and tell you, “see, I was right.” There is nothing more appealing to the human ego than being told that you’re right. That the beliefs you hold are right and someone will do something about them. Telling people “yeah, we think you’re pretty gross” isn’t winning any votes, it’s writing off a voting bloc. A large one. When Hillary said that half of Trump supporters were “a basket of deplorables,” what even the people who were on the fence about voting for Trump heard was “you there, you’re deplorable.”
I will concede… yes, there are people on that side who might fit that description. But no one but Hitler is literally Hitler. They’re people with their own concerns, who may or may not hold prejudiced views. The point of rational politics has always been to uplift. To educate. To develop through dialogue that, hey, our way is better. If we lose sight of that we may as well hand the goddamn election over. To be a liberal inherently means our view of the world has to be open to other viewpoints. Who could’ve imagined a century ago that we’d be where we are today with civil liberties, with LGBT rights? And just because we see ourselves developing in a direction we think is right, it doesn’t mean that we have to stop convincing other people that we’re right. The moment we get smug in our ivory towers, and we’ve done this, a lot… lately, is the moment we lose.
Remember left campaigns that have been successful in the last decade. I have in the past ripped on Justin Trudeau for copying Obama’s Hope-y Change-y campaign. I shouldn’t have. In retrospect, it works. The other thing is, it’s not just a platitude. A desire for dialogue to establish the direction of the country has a serious natural appeal because it just makes sense.
3. There will always be a place for protest and speaking your mind.
“Our fight is against real and not imaginary hardships or, to use the language of the State Prosecutor, ‘so-called hardships’” — Nelson Mandela
So all this time I’ve been talking about making nice-nice. I do not mean we should lie down and let our rights be trampled. I do not mean that we should be silent when a demagogue shouts hateful things from their pulpits. Doing nothing is the worst crime.
We will always fight. When people, especially the government, tramples upon our rights, we will fight. When people in power say something that will lead to people getting hurt, we will fight. And we will not stop fighting until balance is restored, we are heard, and our rights are respected.
What I am saying is, when we do fight, we should never lose track of why we do so. We cannot just do it because we’re upset. We can’t do it because we’re full of hatred for the other side. We have to inform people why we’re fighting, to convince them of the righteousness of our struggle. Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. had not worked as hard to inform people of his dream. Imagine if Nelson Mandela had never expressed why he was prepared to die before the Pretoria Supreme Court. Their struggle would have been pointless.
Our goal, when we fight, has to be concrete. It has to be against real problems. And we have to be clear, especially in an internet age when the voices are many, on what it is that we’re fighting for. We cannot let our voices get lost to the wind.
4. We have to look at root causes and stop playing it safe.
“Our Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles are truly made in America. We design and manufacture the rockets in California and Texas, with key suppliers throughout the country, and launch them from either Vandenberg AFB or Cape Canaveral AFS. This stands in stark contrast to the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) most frequently flown vehicle, the Atlas V, which uses a Russian main engine and where approximately half the airframe is manufactured overseas.” — Elon Musk, to the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Defence
I don’t plan on identifying all of the root causes of America’s or any of our problems in detail here. We could go on forever. But let’s just talk about what people are concerned about. A lot has been made of prejudice in this election. Yes. That’s a factor, we can’t ignore it. We have to work on education to combat that, social programs, rehabilitation rather than incarceration. But also we know hatred comes out at its worst when people need a scapegoat for something. The most common? “They’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our jobs.” Hillary stumbled hardest in the Rustbelt. States that were considered safe flipped. Why?
Because Trump had an easy method of fixing their economic woes. He says he’ll get rid of NAFTA and kill the TPP, get rid of the foreign competition. Hillary had no comparable plan. Nothing to pull them in.
I get it. I do. Trade is central to the way we understand the Western world. Offloading cheap labour to China is easy. But we have to remember, actual people, actual jobs… actual really important voters are being affected by this. Brexit fell in areas with the same industrial and extraction industries.
There’s a lot of analysis about why that is, why those industries are losing out to cheaper labour, etc. That doesn’t mean it’s not fixable. Let’s face it, in a global economy, quality is exceedingly important. American cars are notoriously crap. No one’s going to buy anything that doesn’t excite them to get up and drive in the morning. However, none of our countries are short on expertise, nor on innovation. Tesla is proving it by making most of the components for their electric vehicles and spaceships in the United States.
I know this is a crazy concept, but give people whose job security is on the brink a real job, and maybe they’ll vote for you. Stop thinking inside the same boxes. Give cash incentives to the car companies for every person they put on an electric vehicle assembly line. Stop bailing out companies that can’t remain competitive in a global economy, but give incentives for people to hire their workforce and do something better with them. Anything but maintaining the status quo. Yes, you’ll have to fight lobbyists every inch, yes, people will blast you for more government spending, and yes, it’s not going to be easy, but if you want the job, do what needs to be done.
We have to stop playing it safe. We can have our manufacturing sectors and our energy sectors and happily export them around the world with tariff-free trade agreements. We can employ people to work in factories that actually make things that are exciting. Look at the amount of Teslas China’s buying up now that they have the money to. We don’t need to just be consumers anymore. There are lots of people with a lot of money to blow around the world now. Why don’t we make sure they’re buying our stuff, and maybe… just maybe, save the planet too?
Man. Having your cake and eating it. Who wouldn’t vote for that?
5. We have to step back and look at how to start winning, and now, before it’s too late.
“Their world is crumbling. Ours is being built.” — Florian Philippot, chief strategist for Marine Le Pen, in a tweet
Just a final point. I’ve been at this about as long as I’ve been working on my assignments lately. But I had to get this out there. After Brexit and Trump, we’re in danger of becoming very, very irrelevant. Marine Le Pen is knocking at the gates in France. AfD will be looking to replace Merkel in the wake of Brexit. The Kremlin is looking on and smiling ear to ear. Assad is breathing sighs of relief as Trump has clearly expressed a desire to let him have Syria. Kellie Leitch might actually become the Conservative leader in Canada.
We need to fix the way we approach elections. Very, very quickly. The far-right is adapting quickly. They have purpose. They have momentum. It’s time to step up our game.