This will likely be seen as one of the most consequential presidential elections in American history. There are three stark reasons for that.
First, our crazy federalist separation of powers stack of cards has dealt a royal flush to the most reactionary major party formation since the “Slaveocracy” Southern Democrats of the 1850s. No, a unified Republican government can’t bring back formal Jim Crow, or stop gay people from marrying; certain battles that social struggle have already decisively won will endure. But others are more tenuous. And the partnership of Trump—a grotesque, racist, misogynist ignoramus—and Paul Ryan—a smooth talking anti-statist fanatic—the GOP can pretty much do anything it wants for, at least, the next four years, as it implements its program of eviscerating social insurance, ignoring climate change, and cut taxes for its billionaire funders. Mitch McConnell, the party’s smartest and most cynical tactician, will eliminate the filibuster if the Democratic minority in the senate tries to exploit the system’s numerous choke points to slow down the GOP’s extremist express. The Supreme Court will also remain in the hands of conservatives for another generation or more, putting, among many critical policies, voting rights, public sector unions, and legalized abortion at great risk. Trump, an unstable fantasist, will command the most powerful and deadly military in human history. The legacy of Obama’s incremental, but real, policy advances could now be all but destroyed within a matter of months. The actual policy implications of Trump’s ascension are terrifying.
Second, the perverse Trumpist refinement of an already dangerous major party is to institutionalize it as a vehicle for racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. There was already a lot of that floating around the GOP, but Trump’s party now explicitly attracts these excrescent elements and provides them with a home within the mainstream of American political culture as accessories to the president.
It’s important to underscore why this is so important. A lot of people are debating how racist or misogynist (or not) Trump’s voters are. But parties are greater than the sum of their constituencies. Not every Democrat had to support the CIO in the 1940s for it to be, briefly, a quasi-labor party. Nor does every Democrat have to support racial equality today for it to be the party of racial equality—this is a matter of whether a coalitional party makes congenial a certain view and whether its leadership will promote it. Trump will now be president and his coalition contains a congerie of bigots. Of course, millions of Trump supporters are not bigots of any kind. But they are now buttressing a party explicitly articulating and enabling bigotry of various non-white groups, as well as contempt and abuse of women. This has weight; it allows Ryan and McConnell and Trump (and Breitbart) to work separate sides of the right-wing street—the congressional leaders dismantling the welfare state and business regulations to the tune of the donor class, and Trump and his racist sidekicks inflaming the cultural and racial resentments of voters wielding a massive backlash, a half-century in the making, against the egalitarian social justice movements of the sixties.
Third, the election underscored how anachronistic our electoral system is, and how wildly unlikely that it will be radically reformed. Clinton, despite everything, is likely to win the “popular vote” or as the rest of the world calls it (stealing from a friend), the vote. Great that the electoral college, designed to rationalize a political economy of slavery and over-weigh the power of small states, has protected the country from a demagogue becoming a president! The Senate is absurdly unrepresentative, and the House makes concentrated urban votes count less than dispersed rural ones. Our emphasis on federalism leaves right-wing enclaves in the South and elsewhere in the hands of local economic and political elites who, ironically, practice their version of state federalism against the more cosmopolitan cities within their states. The entire mess is designed to limit democratic outcomes. This is the second election in sixteen years where the Democrat “won,” but actually lost. And gerrymandered congressional districts guarantee that the House and many state legislatures will remain in GOP control until at least 2020.
Clinton must be seen as a transitional figure between the Democratic Party of the late twentieth century and its emerging possibilities in the twenty-first. On one hand, with her policy expertise and commitment to a careful, centrist liberalism, she embodied the achievements of post–second wave feminism carefully integrated into the meritocratic liberal elite. On the other hand, she seemed caught between the boardroom liberalism of her husband’s administration and the promise of a more egalitarian social democratic program as championed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Regardless of the heated debate about what motivated the Trump base—economic anxiety or racial and gendered resentments or both—the Democrats are now poised to move to a more redistributionist economic platform, which must also unconditionally uphold the anti-racism and feminism of an egalitarian and communitarian cosmopolitanism. In short, beginning tomorrow, Democrats and their liberal and leftist activists (yes, both—you can argue inside the party about how to take it over) need to cultivate a new generation of leaders. Clinton, Sanders, and Warren are in their late sixties or seventies. These younger leaders—women and men, non-white and white—should propose an aggressive social democratic program, while making it clear that it will apply to everyone and that the human rights gains since the sixties will not be compromised in order to assuage the worries of white people. When next the right is challenged, it must be on the intersecting and reinforcing grounds of economic redistribution and social recognition. In the meantime, things will be horrible enough to test Brecht’s mordant observation that one should always prefer the bad new days to the good old ones.
Rich Yeselson is a contributing editor at Dissent.
This is part of an ongoing series of responses to the election results.