Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Gramsci and Hope In Dark Times," or "Finally! A White Guy Weighs In On The Election"

The above quote has been bandied about a bunch on my face book feed today, because all of my friends are nerds. As an unabashed Gramsci fanboy (my first cat was named Gramsci), I obviously like it. And while it's appropriate in both it's bleak realism and the fact that Gramsci was specifically writing about an instance when fascism suddenly, and to many inexplicably, gained prominence in a nation many thought (and traditional Marxist theory held) would be primed and ready for socialist revolution. His conclusions were at once both bracingly negative and outlandishly hopeful (a famous saying of his is "Optimism of the Will, Pessimism of the Intellect"), and I think much the same conclusions can be drawn from the election of Trump.

I haven't blogged here for quite awhile now, about 4 or 5 months if memory serves correct. Part of it was that as a big boy with a big boy job, sometimes shit just gets busy and I don't have time for writing long-winded rants. But a part of it was the vitrolity of this election season; I don't just mean between Trump and Clinton supporters, but also among those on the Left more generally (I'm assuming the same can be said of the Right, but I'm not privy to those arguments). I'm not so naive as to suggest that previous presidential campaigns were all high-minded rhetoric and respectful debate, but this one felt qualitatively different. While I'm rarely reticent to share my political opinions (they are, after all, the central point of this blog), it got to be fucking exhausting debating and defending every aspect of my political views, which is something I'm assuming many others felt as well.

What got to me most in this election is the constant charge of stupidity -- that is, anyone supporting any different candidate from you (and I certainly do not except myself from this criticism) for any reason is not just wrong, but stupid. A moron. Someone who can't see that their actions are going to ruin the nation, and likely, the world. On the Left, this name-calling became inexplicably intertwined with identity politics, as everyone played the Oppression Olympics to prove that their position was not only correct, but the only morally defensible position that can be taken. You're privileged if you're voting for anyone other than Hilary, you're privileged if if you're voting for Hilary, you're privileged if you're not voting, you're privileged if you vote for anyone. Take your pick -- no matter your approach to the election, you can easily find a group of people who applaud your brave stand or who condemn your selfish shortsightedness. Whichever you support probably says significantly more about you than about any sort of larger argument. Why today alone I've already been thanked for my perspective on the election and condemned as a heartless bastard. That is how the Left treats its own.

The Left's attitude toward the right, however, has been much more uniform. The response of nearly all the Left toward the outcome of this election has been pretty uniformly "How could they be so stupid?!?" They of course being those people not like me and stupid being not voting how I voted. Those people were duped by a con man. I get it; I would be lying if I said the thought didn't cross my mind while watching election results pour in.

But, as Gramsci would remind us if he were here today, that is the exact wrong conclusion to draw. Many people have written eloquent post mortems on this race (I highly recommend Thomas Frank's and Glenn Greenwald's), but I want to address the notion of treating Trump voters as uniformly and solely stupid, uniformed, racist, xenophobic, etc. as if they have no actual reasons for having voted for the man (who, just to be clear, I think is a very bad person who will make for a very bad president). This kind of argument is not only overly reductive, but at a very basic level, it doesn't even jibe with the empirical data -- Trump outperformed Romney significantly among Latinx and Black voters, as well as getting the votes of hundreds of thousands who voted for Obama twice. If his support was entirely due to social prejudice, this simply would not have happened (and again, just to be clear, these social prejudices clearly contributed, it's just that they alone do not explain the election).

To be overly simplistic myself (and I highly recommend you read the articles link above that spell this out in detail), a large number of people have been left behind by the global economy and are desperate for some sort of meaningful change in their lives. Much like in Gramsci's Italy of 1930s, the predicted populist revolt did indeed materialize, but it came from the far right instead of the far left. And, again much like in Gramsci's Italy, even the bitter cynics like me didn't really see it coming, even if we thought Clinton was a candidate especially vulnerable to the kind of (faux) populist claims Trump was making. I mean, I was nervous enough about the outcome to shred what little radical street cred I have left and vote for Clinton, even though I didn't truly believe she could lose this thing. But lose she did, and now we have the guy who's been endorsed by the KKK, with many positions that are gleefully in violation of international law and the Geneva convention, and whose only consistent policy has been of hate.

But instead of dismissing this asshole's supporters are mere simpletons, now is the time to figure out how he was able to build such appeal and defeat someone whose rise to the presidency has seemed to be a foregone conclusion since 2008. Because simply turning up our noses and musing to ourselves how those people could be so stupid, we need to figure out how to make our message more appealing than Trump's message. And here's where the hope comes in -- I think we already know how to do that. Really, when you listen to Trump's speeches, the biggest applause lines were often for things like repealing NAFTA, stopping the offshoring of jobs, bucking the corrupt incestuous political beltway, returning power to working people -- these are all standard Leftist beliefs! We can find a way to make our message more appealing than that -- we've done it before and can do it again. A good first step would be to treat Trump supporters as future allies instead of enemies to be defeated.

Here's where Gramsci comes in with some hope. As he forcefully demonstrates, anyone that seeks to govern with any legitimacy at all (e.g. not be an out-and-out fascist dictator) must exercise leadership, which in Gramsci's parlance means operating with the consent of the governed. So now our political task becomes building a movement that lets Trump and his cabinet know they are not operating with our consent (after all, less than 1/4 of the American population actually voted for the guy).

Again, we've done this before and in fairly recent memory: one president established the EPA and OSHA, instituted price controls, initiated major missile treaties with the Soviet Union, and opened diplomatic relations with communist China. These actions would still be considered far-leftist today, and they were implemented by Richard M. Fucking Nixon. Nixon! Quite the opposite of a progressive leftist!

Ol' Tricky Dick didn't do these things because he was some bleeding heart softy, he did them because the Left mobilized civil society to make it clear that he had no legitimacy to govern without doing these things. And while it's obviously far too soon to know what sort of governing style Trump will have, it wouldn't be hard to build an argument that he would be especially susceptible to public pressure, what with his seemingly constant need for validation.

So yeah, today fucking sucks and seeing someone run on a campaign of such unmitigated hate being validated in such a way is impossible not to read as setback of some kind. But often the greatest lessons are learned in setbacks, and the silver lining is that we've been able to overcome this kind of setback before. Let's take a day or two to mourn and then get back to the hard work of building that movement.

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