Glass half empty or half full? Debating the underlying narrative on the US election.

November 13, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

My colleague at Oxfam America, Paul O’Brien, has a book out on Monday (review to follow) on the agenda for a Biden-Harris administration. He must have been chewing his nails more than most on election night. Since then, we’ve had an interesting exchange on what lessons to draw for the wider progressive movement – broadly, Paul is doing cup half full (Tigger), and from several thousand miles away, I am more worried about glass half empty (Eeyore). Here’s the gist.

Paul, like many on the US Left, focusses on the extraordinary impact of grassroots organizing, especially among people and communities of colour:

Here’s me raining on everyone’s parade, (including my own):

What should we take from the fact that Donald Trump increased his vote (and by a lot – 71m v 63m in 2016) and among some surprising/alarming constituencies. Is there such a thing as ‘Trumpism’? Inchoate cry of rage? Popular alienation from the political establishment? Something more? Whatever it is, it hasn’t gone away; it hasn’t been defeated and we need to think very hard about that. It’s not good enough to spend the time on social media rolling our eyes at how stupid/evil the other side is – that’s a dead end, an abdication.

I went back to my agonizing after Trump took the White House in 2016 (a few months after a similarly assumption-upturning moment in the Brexit vote) and was shocked by how little has changed:

‘Why have we turned such a blind eye to regressive populism in Europe, narrowly targeting policy and spending decisions in our campaigns, while ignoring the rising anger beyond our bubble, threatening to overturn the whole system? Is it because our project-constrained, short term approach to influencing, campaigns etc cannot tackle such deep underlying normative shifts and threats? Or we have succumbed to the creeping elitism of wanting to be ‘inside the room’, even as the room itself shrinks? Or because the centre-left has amassed too many victories that must now be protected, forcing it onto the strategic defensive (‘defend the NHS! Stop this and that!’) and meekly handing the symbolic victory of being the mould-breaker to the Right?

Why do we always gather round tangible issues (windmills, xenophobia) rather than trying to understand and directly confront the anger that underlies the backlash?

But the real challenge is in the long term. The progressive coalition has been asleep at the wheel, as the backlash has gathered momentum, and too many people have felt increasingly angered and excluded from the benefits of the system. That requires a long term, deep rethink, and then fundamentally different response, not just a few clever campaign videos.

Shifting norms on, for example, the rights of ‘others’ is a long-term exercise that we can no longer ignore. We are going to have to rebuild social cohesion from the bottom up, identifying and working with islands of social capital (faith organizations, sports, culture and the arts)

To do that we have to give up our fascination with the corridors of power – reconnect with the people who have so clearly rejected the liberal consensus, rebuild our ability to understand and work with them.

Engaging in shifting ideas, norms and debates in the long term means transforming how we talk and communicate. Evidence isn’t enough, particularly in these post-truth times. We have to think about framing, learn to value popular narratives, tap into metaphors and popular cultural memes (the Robin Hood Tax). Not talk down to people or bombard them with statistics.’

Alas, I fear that’s pretty much where we’re at now – check out this painfully on-point diatribe from Fox TV’s Tucker Carlson, who portrays Trump as ‘a living indictment of the people who run this country’.

Can we do better? If not, the progressive side runs the risk of being like the liberation theologians of Latin America – ‘the Left made a preferential option for the poor, unfortunately the poor made a preferential option for the Right’.

Over to Paul.

Thanks Duncan. I wrote Power Switch after deciding two things:  A progressive surge of mostly young people, women, LGBTQ+, and people of color—folks who identify differently from us middle aged white men–were going to deliver the White House to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris; and second, that victory would not reverse extreme inequality without an even greater surge in activism after the elections.

In short, I am in a different place about activism in the U.S. than your 2016 piece.

Power Switch argues that the real swing vote in American elections is not “who to vote for,” but “whether to care” about electoral politics.  Trump did well not because all his voters identified as xenophobic, racist and sexist, but because enough forgave Trump’s attacks on values orthodoxy and establishment politics.  Yes, the far right was motivated by such ideas, but a lot of folks voted for Trump who could still be persuaded about being more anti-racist, feminist and internationalist.  In other words, they could still be reached in the ways you imagined in 2016.

And let’s remember why progressive activism won this time.  Power Switch predicted that an even greater coalition was forming in the United States:  moderates and establishment liberals who care about institutional politics and an incredible coalition of anti-racist, feminist, youth and internationalist progressives demanding deep systems change.    You may have been right in 2016 that a “progressive coalition has been asleep at the wheel”, but that was not true in this election.  What Stacy Abrams and other women leaders, workers, youth, and climate activists did in Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta,  and Milwaukee reset this countries’ direction and political identity. 

So now, a Biden-Harris Administration is just weeks away. And I’m worried again.  My book argues that power switches don’t happen in moments of tepid public satisfaction, but in crises and bursts of reform, when activists get more people to care so that policy makers know their political futures demand something new.   FDR and Reagan reset the destiny of the United States and the world in 1933 and 1980 in almost opposite directions, by using crises to demand transformative politics.  Biden and Harris, facing an existential climate threat, deep race and power injustices, a broken economy tearing our world apart, and the worst health pandemic in a century, can initiate a global power switch in 2021. But will they? 

We agree that the amazing electoral result of 2020 won’t necessarily deliver progressive change, and activists must keep shifting public energy, norms and reach across the aisle to deliver a lasting power switch.   We disagree on how hard that will be or that we still live in the same world as 2016.

As the saying goes “pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong, but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.”  2021 is a year for optimism.

November 13, 2020
Duncan Green