By Les Leopold
Originally published in Huffington Post and CommonDreams.org
Hillary Clinton underperformed Barack Obama by minus 290,000 votes in Pennsylvania, minus 222,000 votes in Wisconsin and a whopping minus 500,000 votes in Michigan. We don’t know how many of these voters also supported Sanders along they way, but it is highly likely that millions took that journey. Winning them back is the key to the battle for economic and social justice.
Rounding up the usual suspects?
The current resistance to Trump is truly remarkable. Not since the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests have we seen so many people in the streets ― women, Muslim ban protesters, scientists protesting in behalf of facts, people just protesting ― with more to come. Even three New England Patriots are refusing to attend their Super Bowl White House event.
These efforts may become one-off events, spurred by calls on social media. But some show organizational promise. In northern New Jersey, residents are holding large Tea Party-like town meetings to pound away on Republican Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen for his support of all things Trump. (See here.)
In doing so they are taking inspiration from the website Indivisible, where former congressional staffers have written a manual on how to drive your congressional representative up a wall. Thousands of groups across the country have tapped into this effort. But as the Indivisible manual makes clear, the effort is
“A defensive approach purely focused on stopping Trump from implementing an agenda built on racism, authoritarianism, and corruption.”
As Trump’s lunacy and destructiveness grow day-by-day, such defensive struggles are an absolute must. But defensiveness alone is not likely to win back Obama/Sanders/Trump voters.
Reaching out with vision, analysis and education
It is possible that Obama/Sanders/Trump voters will soon get buyer’s remorse and join our defensive struggles. Or maybe a dozen more Nordstrom-like ethics violations could lead to impeachment. But such hopes leave political agency in Trump’s hands rather than in our own. Instead of waiting for Trump to implode, we should be engaging directly with the Obama/Sanders/Trump voters. But doing so requires an understanding of the economic forces that fueled both the Sanders and Trump revolts.
We live in an era of runaway inequality. In 1970 the gap between CEO pay and the average worker was about 45 to 1. That’s a hefty gap. It means that if you could afford one house and one car, a top CEO could afford 45 homes and 45 cars. Today, the gap is an unfathomable 844 to 1 and rising. 844 houses to your one!
That money gushing to the top is the direct result of 40 years of neoliberalism, a philosophy that captured both political parties. It calls for:
- Tax cuts (especially for the wealthy);
- Government deregulation (especially for Wall Street);
- Cuts in social spending (especially for programs and infrastructure that benefit the rest of us.); and
- Free trade (which gives corporations the tools to destroy unions and hold down worker wages.)
Supposedly, this plan would create a massive profit and investment boom, job creation and rising incomes for all. Of course, it failed miserably for the vast majority of us, while succeeding beyond belief for the super rich.
The failure, however, involved far more than rising income gaps. Financial deregulation unleashed Wall Street to financially strip-mine the wealth from our workplaces and our communities into the pockets of Wall Street and corporate elites. This outrageous process has nothing to do with talent or hard work. It also is not an economic act of God. Rather it is the direct result of weakening rules that protect us from the financial predators. This is why the richest country in the history of the world has a crumbling infrastructure, the largest prison population, the most costly health care system, the most student debt and the most income inequality.
Sanders and Trump led revolts against runaway inequality. Both claimed the established order had to be changed radically. Sanders nearly defeated the Clinton machine with a social democratic platform of free higher education, Medicare for All, turning the screws on Wall Street, and taking big money out of politics. Trump, like Sanders, attacked trade deals and claimed he would bring jobs back to America, But he also led the hard right’s racist, sexist and xenophobic calls for immigration restrictions, walls, climate change denial and the curtailment of women’s rights.
Right now Trump is a clear and present danger to us all. But an equally dangerous problem is that the regime of runaway inequality will grow worse as the hard right consolidates its political power. Long before Trump entered the political fray, the hard right was upending neoliberal Democrats. Since 2009, when Obama took office, the Democrats have lost 919 state legislative seats. The Republicans now control 68 percent of all state legislative chambers, and control both state chambers and the governorship in 24 states while the Democrats have such tri-partite control in only 6 states. The Democrats are losing, in large part, because they can’t untangle themselves from financial and corporate elites. (Here’s a terrifying thought: Once the Republicans capture 38 states they can amend the Constitution.)
Resisting Trump alone will not stop the hard right. We need to continue the Sanders attack on the neoliberal order by offering a compelling vision for social and economic justice.
Building the Educational Infrastructure
During America’s first epic battle against Wall Street, the Populist movement of the late 19th century fielded 6,000 educators to help small farmers, black and white, learn how to reverse runaway inequality. Because of their efforts a powerful movement grew to take back our country from the moneyed interests — an effort that ultimately culminated in social security, the regulation of Wall Street and large corporations, and the protection of working people on the job.
Today, we need an vast army of educators to spread the word about how runaway inequality is linking all of us together. Toward that end groups all over the country are conduct workshops that lead to the following takeaways:
- Runaway inequality will not cure itself. There is no hidden mechanism in the economy that will right the ship. Financial and corporate elites are gaining more and more at our expense.
- The financial strip-mining of our economy impacts all of us and all of our issues — from climate change, to mass incarceration, to job loss, to declining incomes, to labor rights, to student loans.
- It will take an organized mass movement to take back our country from the hard right. That means no matter what our individual identity (labor unionist, environmentalist, racial justice activist, feminist, etc.), we also need to take on the identity of movement builder. We all must come together or we all lose.
- We can start the building process right now by sharing educational information with our friends, colleagues and neighbors.
Many of the participants in these workshops are Obama/Sanders/Trump voters and they would tell you the educational process works. Good things happen when people come together in a safe space to discuss their common concerns. There’s something special about face-to-face discussions that social media alone cannot replace.
In order to shift the balance of power away from the hard right, we need more educators ― thousands more leading tens of thousands discussions.
Armed with facts ― not alternate facts ― we can build the foundation for a new movement to take back our country both from Trump and from the financial strip-miners. (For more information about the activities underway and how to get involved see the Join Us page on runwayinequality.org.)
By taking a page from the Tea Party playbook, the Resist Trump efforts are aiming at the mid-term elections as well as at state and local contests. Let’s hope for success. Let’s also hope it also leads to a broader movement to reverse runaway inequality. However, substantive change, rather than just returning to the pre-Trump era of massive inequality, requires a long and sustained movement the likes of which we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.
Sustained movement building on a large scale is foreign to us. For more than a generation we’ve grown accustomed to the neoliberal vision that has narrowed our sense of the possible. It taught us that it’s ok for students to go deeply in debt; that it’s natural to have the largest prison population in the world; that it’s inevitable to have a crumbling public sector; and that it’s an economic law for corporations to shift our jobs to low wage areas with poor environmental protections. Worst of all it conditioned us to think small about movement building ― to work in our own issue silos and not link up together.
Occupy Wall Street, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders woke us up from our stupor. Let’s not slide back by failing to engage, face to face, with the Obama/Sanders/Trump voters who are eager for real change.
Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure of a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.
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