“And the old saying of Heraklitis came to mind today by chance: ‘The awoken are together in life, whereas the sleeping are apart.’ In what dream have we fallen so badly that we are finding it so hard to wake?” --Ismail Kadare
Most of the Left’s explanations for Trump’s victory take one of two forms. One blames cultural ills, namely racism, misogyny, and other forms of hate. The other argues that the problem lies in dissatisfaction with economic stagnation that has squeezed the working and middle classes. Framing the conversation around these two explanations is misleading and counterproductive to creating a solution.
The problem is in fact the intersection of culture and economics, of both the Right’s and the Left’s shared cultural assumptions about the economic role of America. Trump’s assumptions are easy to identify. He flaunts them in headline-grabbing displays of bigotry. However, the Left, even the so-called progressive Left embodied by Sanders’s platform, trades in similar assumptions. We find the assumptions when we examine explanations of Trump from the second, economics camp. Typically, the argument here is some permutation of the assertion that the Democratic Party doesn’t understand the needs of the working class. One example out of many: writing in the Harvard Business Review, legal scholar Joan C. Williams recently commented that
[White Working Class] men aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15 per hour instead of $9.50. What they want is what my father-in-law had: steady, stable, full-time jobs that deliver a solid middle-class life to the 75% of Americans who don’t have a college degree. Trump promises that. I doubt he’ll deliver, but at least he understands what they need.
Last week the New York Times published an article advising men with high-school educations to take pink-collar jobs. Talk about insensitivity. Elite men, you will notice, are not flooding into traditionally feminine work. To recommend that for WWC men just fuels class anger.
Notice that the discussion is not about a lack of jobs, but rather a lack of jobs that are “appropriate” for men in the West. The attitude reveals misogyny (about what is appropriately “man’s work”) and an assumption of dominance (about what is acceptable work in the West). These ideas are thoroughly baked into America’s Leftist political thinking. Sanders, the most viable progressive candidate, built his economic populist platform on the promise of bringing middle class jobs back to America. This necessarily depends on an expectation that work involving the application of skill and knowledge belongs to the West. While, unlike Trump’s, the platform is not overtly bigoted, the Left has similarly internalized nostalgia for and expectation of dominance that desires to reverse recent changes to the international division labor that have benefitted the Third World. Like Trump’s, the agenda has nothing to offer the rest of the world.
This retrograde attitude is not viable because it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of globalization. The prevailing view in Western policy institutions is that globalization is primarily the result of new manufacturing and telecommunications technologies that enable firms to distribute advanced manufacturing and software development supply chains across many countries.
This view is incorrect. The Third World has realized gains in advanced industries first and foremost as a result of political assertions. And the Third World, empowered now more than ever by the inward-looking populist movements in the former colonial powers, will inevitably refuse to cede its gains and return to a Fordist-Keynesian economic order built on its submission. The West will have to get used to it.
Nationalist, me-first agendas will, in the long run, result only in marginalization. America (and other Western nations) must adjust to a multipolar world. Specifically, the white working and middle classes must confront and re-envision, in both sociological and geographical terms, their place in the global context. Only through this process will America be able to field political candidates that can both rally the necessary domestic constituencies and advance platforms that are viable on the international stage.
Achieving this dramatic shift will be painful and politically risky. For politicians, it involves swapping international bogeymen with deeper critiques of domestic exploitation. For the media, it involves abandoning sound bytes in favor of less profitable, more sophisticated political critique. For the public, it involves acknowledging the assumptions embedded within our professional preferences. None of this is easy, but if it is not done, America will find itself increasingly sidelined.
The good news is that, if successful, these efforts would contribute to a productive internationalization of America’s domestic politics. Local progressive groups could find more willing allies abroad to provide, to pick one example, coordinated cross-border responses to the threats labor faces in a world of hypermobile capital. If prosperity will be regained, it will need to be reinvented. Our politics will not survive if they seek to drag the world back into the past. However uncertain the path, we must instead search for a new future.