I stopped grieving long enough to write a few thoughts on yesterday’s election, and what I think it means locally.
First: there’s lots of focus on Trump’s surprise win, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Republicans held on to both the House and the Senate, which means that together they will also push the Supreme Court to the right over the next 2-4 years — starting immediately with the open seat. Republicans also hold a majority of state governorships, and control a majority of state legislatures. To put this into context: only 26% of Americans are Republicans. A small and shrinking political party has outsized control of government, and they are not bashful about using it.
Second: there is no single reason that yesterday’s election result happened, and attempts to identify the “one true cause” will be both unsatisfying and counter-productive. Part of it is certainly a conservative backlash to a tremendous amount of both economic and social change over the past eight years; people who were more comfortable with how things were in 2008 want to return to that. Another part is a corporate, big-money campaign system driven by small groups of elites out of touch with the voters. Also, the system is indeed “rigged”: voting districts are heavily gerrymandered, and voter suppression laws were passed recently in many states. Also, the media has utterly failed to inform the populace, both about the drivers of change over the past decade(s), and about the candidates running for office. On top of that, our own educational institutions have failed to create an educated and informed populace that could see through Trump’s B.S. and recognize the menace he presents to good governance.
The economic and societal changes are a big deal. The economy that emerged from the ashes of the Great Recession looks very different from the one that existed in 2008; many of the changes were already underway beforehand, but the recession enabled structural changes that make going back to the way it was before nearly impossible. And the new economy, as we all know, exacerbates wealth disparities. But the social changes have also been dramatic, laying bare generational differences in our country: demographic shifts driving the country to majority-minority; recognition of ongoing racial and gender inequities at all levels of society, business and government; promotion of human rights for members of LGBTQ communities; and a re-thinking of traditional policing practices. People resist changes, both financial and social, that make them less comfortable. All the way down to his catch-phrase, “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s campaign was about throwing the car in reverse (even if he can’t actually make good on that promise). To the extent that the progressive movement practices a righteous indifference (occasionally extending to demonization) toward people enjoying privilege as it pushes to promote marginalized communities, the resistance was inevitable. That doesn’t justify efforts to slow down progress on addressing inequities, but yesterday’s election shows that you do have to plan for what the people who don’t benefit from your agenda will do in response — you can’t just declare them to be a “basket of deplorables” (even if they are) and expect they will sit on the sidelines.
Third: there is no single thing that will fix our problems. We need to fix both the Democratic and Republican Parties. We need to improve our news media. We need to pay closer attention to local and state elections — particularly because in 2020 there will be another national census that will drive a round of re-districting. We need to get big money out of politics. We need dramatic improvements to our educational system — and locally, we need the state legislature to get its act together and live up to the McCleary ruling. We need real bipartisan cooperation and cross-community bridge-building. 42% of Americans consider themselves independent — neither Republican nor Democrat. That is a huge opportunity we should be building upon.
Fourth: in the short term, progressive cities will be very lonely. Seattle shouldn’t expect much in the way of new funding to solve the homelessness crisis, build new affordable housing, or address other local social and economic issues. Obamacare is toast. Conservative social policies enacted in state and federal law will not be revisited, and the shift of the Supreme Court back to the right will frustrate efforts to use the judicial system to seek justice. We will need to spend our own money and pass our own laws to get things done.
Last: we’ve seen this before. If Trump had served as a governor before he ran for president, we’d be making comparisons to Ronald Reagan. He used his ability to communicate shallow, comforting, populist messages during a time of social, political and economic upheaval to get himself elected despite his overt racist and sexist policies, militaristic bombast, and unrealistic economic plan that ran up the federal debt even after breaking a promise and raising taxes. To his credit, Reagan at least knew how to reach across the aisle from time to time on important matters; it’s unclear whether Trump has that ability. The country survived Reagan, and it will probably survive Trump. But it won’t be pretty: yesterday’s election will set the progressive movement back a decade or two in the process.