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Six brief thoughts for the left after the unthinkable

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Having watched the U.S. electoral horror show unfolding over several months, I'm trying to stand back from the emotional shock of the appalling outcome, to think of some of the themes for progressive activist debate and research in politics and communication.  What understandings are relevant to the political action that our collective survival now necessitates?

A rock and a harder place

1. How did we get to this point of narrowing the political options to two dismal alternatives -- neoliberal globalization and various forms of ethno- or religio-nationalism (with the "structure of feeling," if not the exact policies, of fascism)?  Not that the two are necessarily antagonistic; as Samir Amin put it in Monthly Review as early as 1996, "culturalism and imperialism" are complementary; and the markets don't necessarily mind fascism.

Indeed, nationalism, the glorification of military power, and the assault on labour and human rights can serve their interests (especially sectors like "defence" and fossil energy production) quite well.  But if we are to rebuild an inclusive and universalizing progressive alternative, we need to understand the various historical factors -- from the hollowing out of social democracy in the West, to U.S. support for Islamicism as a way to undercut socialist and secular nationalism in the Middle East.  

By 2016, these vectors have forced progressives to pin their hopes on a longstanding supporter of corporate-friendly free trade deals who promoted racially biased neoliberal welfare reform and the demonization of Black youth during the 1990s Clinton administration.  

The F-word

2. Review our understandings of fascism, and anti-fascist resistance.  Studying theories of fascism in grad school, way back in the day, I thought it was of mainly historical interest.  Little did we know then that we would need such historical and theoretical knowledge now.  

The analyses I remember best were by Martin Kitchen, then a historian at Simon Fraser University, a very readable review of debates about the relationship of fascism to capitalism; and Nicos Poulantzas's much heavier read on fascism and dictatorship, a structural Marxist interpretation emphasizing capitalism's need at moments of crisis and transition to adopt coercive measures and hand over political power to outsiders with a mass following.  

The C-word

3. The election should encourage in progressive theory and practice the "return of the repressed": class, the concept that Noam Chomsky once described as the unmentionable five-letter word in American politics. Pundits and pollsters prefer to speak of college vs. non-college-educated voters as a surrogate for class; but meanwhile, for several decades, the right has been colonizing real working-class grievances and sensibilities, going back to, say, Pat Buchanan (candidate and Nixon speechwriter in the 1970s) and carried through by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, hate radio, Fox News, etc.  

In continental Europe, the left once defined the primary political cleavage as workers versus capitalists; in recent decades, polarization has been redefined by neo-fascist National Front parties as citizens versus foreigners. In the U.S., the right-wing reframing of grievances of workers thrown on the junkpile of neoliberal trade deals has been facilitated by their dangerously growing distance between them and progressive movements and intellectuals.

Some would date this disjuncture to the government's intentional disruption of a budding worker/student alliance during the 1960s years of anti-war protest; others focus on so-called "identity politics" of the 1970s -- the "twilight of common dreams," as sociologist Todd Gitlin once put it.  In any case, finding bridges between the economically and culturally marginalized seems essential to reinvigorating progressive and pro-environmental politics.

Democracy-as-populism

4. Similarly, the right has re-articulated democracy as populism and opposition to "the elites" (defined in political and cultural terms rather than corporate or economic).  Some of Trump's offhand (and doubtless self-serving) rhetoric parallel longstanding critiques made by the left and it's unsettling to see them harnessed to a rather less-progressive politics.

For example, he has criticized media mega-mergers as a concentration of power dangerous to democracy, and expressed opposition to global financial elites which many pundits took to be a dog-whistling anti-Semitic reference, but which alternatively resonates with the concept of a transnational capitalist class. Not that one can expect Trump to act on these concepts, unless perhaps it suits his personal business interests.

Racialized people are not monolithic

5. At the same time, obviously a broader understanding of the dynamics and complexity of racialized minorities' politics is needed. One of the pollsters' and media punditocracy's frequent blind spots was to treat Latinx and African-Americans as nearly monolithic. Trump could not have won without some degree of support from them, especially the former.  

Why?  So far as I can gather as a white guy up in Canada, factors include the diversity of Latinx communities' class and history, the possibility of psychological identification by some with the dominant group, racially targeted voter suppression in some states, and the lack of enthusiasm for a Democratic party that had taken minorities for granted.  A similar reflection on why millions of women would vote for such an obvious misogynist also is in order.

Social Media? Hah!

6. Then, of course, there's the question of the roles of media.  Take first those elements we used to call "mass media," now too hastily dismissed as "legacy media."  Unlike the U.K., where the press was divided on Brexit, the U.S. press overwhelmingly endorsed Clinton editorially (57 to two, according to one report I saw).  

But so what?  In addition to his real estate empire, Trump was a creation of the media -- a reality TV star who got billions of dollars (an estimate based on commercial political ad rates) of free press and airtime, and news patterns that have for years cultivated a disproportionate popular fear of crime and terrorism, and amongst political and economic elites, an indifference to growing inequality and economic insecurity.  

The election revealed the isolation of the media punditocracy (schmoozing at inside-the-beltway cocktail parties) from rural, religious and working-class populations.  Genuine media democratization has to be part of democratic renewal.  (A plug: don't miss Media Democracy Days in Vancouver, on November 15, 16 and 19).

But don't we have an antidote to the corporate legacy media through the rise of social media? Hah!  (A better term would be "digital connective networks" -- and corporate-owned and State-surveilled ones at that.)  Social media has been useful in progressive organizing, but also for the alt-right's ability to create a parallel mental universe. In practice, social media has facilitated "homophily," whereby people cocoon themselves in opinion-tribes of the likeminded.  

The decline of public spheres and dialogue that cross political, class and cultural divides has been facilitated by the historic weakness of U.S. public service broadcasting, which as James Curran and other communication researchers have shown, makes a significant difference to a polity's political knowledge and engagement.  

By contrast, homophilic social media have facilitated what many now call the "post-truth" society. All the (unprecedented?) fact-checking of candidates' statements seemed to make little difference. People apparently either disregard inconvenient facts, or accept factual corrections but regard them as irrelevant to their voting choice (presumably based on identities and grievances). That's further evidence of the "assault on reason," and adds new urgency for expanding access to university education, and for reinvigorating and redefining objectivity in journalism, rather than simply debunking it.

A post-truth culture makes it too easy to dismiss inconvenient truths, like the complicity of the established order with planetary over-heating; business-as-usual has been described as a process of "creative self-destruction."  And the orange-haired nightmare seems bent on frying the planet as quickly as possible. But that's a topic for another day.

How the light gets in

Back in October -- it seems a year ago -- the editors of Monthly Review offered this trenchant summary:

"It is hard to look at this presidential race without recognizing that the ruling class of the United States is losing both its confidence and mental balance.  Although still the hegemonic power, the United States now rules over a declining empire -- one characterized by open racism, naked imperialism, permanent war, state terrorism, economic stagnation, widening inequality, accelerating climate change, declining education and public discourse, and collapsing health systems.  Even the stabilizing and legitimating functions of its electoral exercises are increasingly less and less effective.  All of this means that the formation of a truly revolutionary response to today's crisis of capitalism is needed more than ever -- for the sake of the 'wretched of the earth' and future generations."

Can those of us in current generations, and who are not yet so wretched, find some grains of hope?  Well, yes.  As the much-missed Leonard Cohen put it, There is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in.  The Mad Mogul threatens to Trumple on so many groups' rights and well-being that it should be easier to broaden anti-fascist coalitions.

You've probably already seen the graphic map showing that if it were up to 18-34 year old voters, Trump would have won only about 6 of 50 states, while demographic trends are against the uneducated old white guys who disproportionately elected him.  In the bastion of global capitalism, self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders racked up 16 million votes during the primaries.  

And don't forget, Trump actually got fewer votes than his main rival.  But Clinton's professionalized, well-financed election campaign nevertheless lost to the Trumpites, who considered themselves a grassroots social movement.  Not all movements are progressive, obviously, but it does show that the biggest war chest doesn't always win, and that political boldness can pay off when it resonates with, and can articulate, popular hopes, concerns and anger.  Something to keep in mind during the inevitable and necessary struggles to come.

Robert Hackett is a professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the forthcoming Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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