Below are Dissent co-book review editor Tim Shenk’s opening remarks at our debate with the editors of American Affairs, last Friday at the Verso Books office in Brooklyn. To watch the full debate, click here. To read Sarah Leonard’s opening remarks, click here.
As I see it, the question we’re here to discuss is what conservatives who loathe Paul Ryan have in common with socialists who can’t stand Hillary Clinton. The answer, I think, is not much. But before getting into our differences, I want to explain why I feel this is a conversation worth having. Whatever our disagreements, I can second Julius’s description of the Republican Party as “little more than a jobs program for failed academics and journalists.” The same goes for your assessment of what a bipartisan coalition of elites has given us: skyrocketing income inequality, pointless wars, and a sense that we’ve lost something crucial in our democracy.
Your honesty on these subjects encourages me to hold American Affairs to a high standard. Here’s where things get tricky. An article from deputy editor Gladden Pappin in your first issue tells us “the culture wars are essentially over.” That’s a really important argument for your side. If battles over social issues have ended, the fight can shift to political economy, where populists on the left and right might find common cause.
The problem is that the culture wars aren’t over, they’ve just changed shape. The religious right is weakened, but the alt-right is surging. The Christian Coalition might be running on fumes; Breitbart isn’t. In this fight, you’re not allowed to call a truce on social issues in one breath if you’re going to gripe about identity politics in the next—especially when “identity politics” means any discussion about the realities of racism in the United States.
Without understanding this shift in the culture wars, you can’t understand Trump. The man’s basically a cultural-studies seminar come to life. Pappin’s article credits Trump’s victory to the “loyalty and patriotism” of Middle America. Like most of the other people who have examined last year’s election returns, I have a different view. Trump didn’t crush identity politics; he embraced it, encouraging whites to assert membership in their tribe while providing just enough rhetorical cover so that they wouldn’t feel too guilty in front of their kids. Of course, not all of them want cover, which is one reason hate crimes rose more than 20 percent last year.
All of this points to a deeper error at the heart of the American Affairs project. In your current issue, Pierre Manent argues that the left and right are defined by how they think of “the people.” For the left, the unit of analysis is class; for the right, it’s the nation—or at least it was until establishment conservatives sold out to the Davos crowd. American Affairs is hoping to reclaim this vocabulary for the right—to make nationalism great again. But it’s not so easy. Nationalism has always been bound up with race. Historically, this has been the essential divide between left and right: not class versus nation, but class versus race.
Of course, racism alone isn’t enough to win an election. But when combined with a host of other resentments, support from a spineless Republican establishment, a tragicomic Clinton campaign, and grievances from voters who really have been screwed, white nationalism made Donald Trump president.
Which brings us to the most important subject: what do we do now? I believe the great question for our generation is whether it will be possible for us to create an egalitarian, multiracial democracy—ideally, while doing everything we can to stop the planet from being incinerated. Climate change, incidentally, is one of many cases where nationalism just won’t cut it.
On almost every front, the biggest immediate obstacle facing us is Donald Trump. His manipulation of racial anxieties divides a working class that should be united against a common enemy, while his incompetence makes technocracy more appealing than anything Hillary Clinton could have done. It’s not enough to play coy or claim neutrality on Trump. The more you postpone condemning him, the harder it becomes to build a democratic movement that might actually succeed.
This ongoing disaster is all the more excruciating because in 2016 we saw an example of what such a movement might look like. The next time someone in this room is subjected to a lecture on how political correctness has ruined millennials, ask why so many of the kids these days turned out to vote for Bernie Sanders. He won over 70 percent of the under-thirty vote in the Democratic primary, giving him a total greater than Clinton and Trump combined. A democratic socialist built a multiracial coalition with a clear sense of what it was fighting. That achievement’s not a solution to all our problems. But it is a start. And when you have that, why waste time with Trumpism?
Timothy Shenk is a Carnegie Fellow at New America and co-book review editor at Dissent. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.