With the wisdom of hindsight, it is now clear that the sheer quality of the Obama intellect, and the solid integrity of his character, lulled many of those who twice voted for him into a false sense of security.
It was as though we forgot, with too great an ease and for too long a time, just how difficult and disappointing life becomes for progressive people in this country when both the White House and the Congress are in less intelligent, more conservative hands. We forgot that a president could embarrass us as well as inspire us; and that a Republican-controlled Congress, whose vitriol against Barack Obama had gridlocked Washington for more than half a decade, could very quickly move onto the offensive once the object of their vitriol had gone.
Well, that lulling is well and truly over. The inmates have totally taken over the asylum this time. We have a White House bereft of intelligence and character, and a Congress bereft of morality. There is no space for progressives to take a political nap now. We have serious things to do. The first is to develop mechanisms that equip us to cope with the horrors of one Trump tweet after another, and with a string of outrageously reactionary legislative proposals from the Republican majority in Congress that threaten to blow enormous holes in America’s already thread-bare welfare safety net. The second is to develop strategies that will equip us to replace Donald Trump with a president we can respect again, and to replace the current ultra-conservative Congress with one fully engaged with repairing the damage currently being done to the basic fabric of American society by Tea-Party inspired ideologues and the Alt-Right.
And in doing both those things, there may well be lessons to be learned from watching how progressive politics is currently being played out in the United Kingdom. There is a shared Anglo-American condition, after all – one that generated right-wing populism in both places ( a Donald J. Trump and a Nigel Farage) – but one that is being pushed back in the UK right now far more effectively than it is here in the United States.
American conservatives and British conservatives are not quite the same political animal. There is a venal quality in contemporary Republican ranks that, broadly speaking, the British Conservative Party lacks. There is no orchestrated Protestant evangelical crusade against abortion in the UK, as there is here; and no “Koch Brothers” equivalents. And where the Republican Party in the contemporary United States has attracted a strong libertarian presence into its rank and file, the British Conservative Party still has a streak of “one nation Toryism” within even its parliamentary ranks, a softer conservatism that Americans of a certain age would recognize as similar to an old-style liberal Republicanism – an Eisenhower Republicanism – that has now been largely expunged from the Party.
But for all their differences, both right-wing parties have of late tied their flags to very similar policies. Both are enthusiastic advocates of the austerity route to growth, arguing again for trickle-down economics just as George W. Bush did when heading the previous Republican Administration. Both are responding positively to an upsurge in right-wing populism that blames low standards of living for working families on the influx of refugees hitherto welcomed into the bottom of the labor markets of each economy in turn; and each are in consequence preaching a policy of withdrawal from long-established international treaties and overseas obligations. With Trump, the pitch was initially about the redundancy of NATO – that at least has now changed – replaced in the symbolic center of America’s new foreign policy by a rejection of the Paris climate accords. And, of course, the Administration is still committed to building a wall along the Mexican border for which somehow it will make Mexico pay. With Theresa May, the pitch is for a hard Brexit and a closing of the borders to EU-directed immigration flows: a severe severing of ties, that is, with both the institutions of the European Union and with its people. In both cases, we see ultra-conservative governments reconfiguring their international relationships behind a rhetoric that is heavy on nationalism, and full of the need to restore national sovereignty.
For over seven decades, the “free” world has been led – whether it wanted to be or not – by the United States and its leading European ally – the United Kingdom. Now, apparently, neither government seems to want to sustain that particular role. Unilateralism is suddenly the order of the day. The imperial mindset remains, and the armaments to implement it also remain intact – and are even poised to be inflated in the US case if the Trump first budget is any guide. But now Washington in a loud voice, and London more quietly, preach the virtues of an imperialism without responsibility – each making the case for putting their own narrowly-conceived national interests first, regardless of the international damage that might follow.
The two conservative governments also share one other thing. They are each led by individuals who are deeply unpopular in the wider electorate in each country, and increasingly unpopular within their own partisan ranks. Theresa May is certainly that – largely as the result of a misjudged snap general election in June that left her party without a governing majority, and did so in part because of her appallingly bad performance on the hustings. But Donald Trump is, on this as on so much else, so much bigger than Theresa May. Good though he was on the hustings, it is not just that his visits to countries abroad seems to generate mass protest on nearly every occasion. It is also that his incessant tweeting is widely recognized as demeaning to the office; and in certain hands, evidence too of his growing mental instability. Theresa May struggles daily now to avoid a palace coup that would see her replaced in power by one of her senior colleagues; but Donald Trump struggles with more – he struggles with the possibility of impeachment for corruption or removal of office for lack of mental capacity. There can be no guarantee that either of them will see out their full term, and a near certainty that Theresa May will not.
Her fragile hold on power – her fall from a 20-point lead in the opinion polls before the election to one of trailing by eight points in polls today – is not, however, just the product of personal leadership flaws. It is also the product of the principled and radical programmatic alternative presented to the UK electorate in June by a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, long hailed by some as the UK’s equivalent to Bernie Sanders.As we argued in an earlier posting, Labour eroded the Conservatives’ hold on power by going left, not by chasing the Tories through the centre and towards the right. Labour offered a solid critique of Tory austerity policies, of the kind made so effectively against the Republican Party by Bernie Sanders when campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination in 2016. Both Corbyn now, and Sanders then, spoke to a new generation of young voters frustrated by the options that the neoliberalism of free-market capitalism was giving them, and enthused by the progressive values (and personal humility) of the men themselves. They, as individuals – Corbyn and Sanders both – bridged a generational divide that neither the Blairites in the UK, nor the Clinton-centrists in the US could match; and in bridging it, opened the way for the return of progressive politics to power.
So, if the UK is any guide and if we want Trump and the Republicans gone, the line of political march that we need to adopt is clear. No temporizing with reaction. No fantasizing about recapturing the center if only we practice moderation, in the manner of Mark Penn and Andrew Stein. Rather, we need to tell it as it is, make a total clean break with the moderate economic and social policies associated with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and go for an entirely new social settlement based on the principles of justice, fairness and equality. We, not Trump, need to drain the Washington swamp; and the decent way to do it – first in 2018 and then in 2020 – is to fill Washington with a new generation of radical progressive legislators – people beholden to no-one and no-thing except the program on which they ran. It has happened before. It happened in 1936, and again in 1964. It is time to bring the progressive left to power for a third iteration. The fit between what the economy needs, the society wants, and radicals now offer has never been closer. It is time to make the years of Donald Trump‘s presidency simply the dark night before the dawn of a new and progressive morning.
The arguments developed here are explored further in David Coates (editor), Reflections on the Future of the Left, to be published in September in the UK by Agenda Publishing and in the US in November by Columbia University Press