From the point of view of the left in the rust belt—I am based in Cleveland—the November 2016 election is between two unacceptable candidates.
One is of the Washington establishment that has pretty systematically failed to understand the impact of its policies, such as NAFTA, on the rust belt cities like Lorain and Youngstown and Flint. She is the candidate of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
But also, let us not forget, a candidate of reason and (a brand of) feminism.
Unfortunately, much of the progressive community (environmentalists; feminists; civil rights organizations) has taken an uncritical posture toward her. (This happens every four years with clock-like regularity).
Her opponent is an arrogant demagogue of the populist right, a man who plays to racist or at least xenophobic fears of his base (Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers; ban all Muslims), a candidate of unreason (“I’ll make up whatever facts I want”). A staunch advocate for the Second Amendment, sure, but the First Amendment? Not so much.(1) Peaceful succession from one regime to the next—a cornerstone of democratic society—is beyond him, as he indicated in the third debate. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said when asked about acceptance of the result.
Mr. Trump gets mileage with his base when he speaks of rigged elections in America, a breathtaking expression of how disaffected that base—a good twenty percent of the American population—is.
It also now appears that Trump is a boastful advocate and most likely a seasoned practitioner of sexual assault against women. Talk about setting a good example for the next generation.
Should Trump be elected, global capital will likely take flight to quality investments, crashing stock markets and throwing us into at least a momentary recession (this a prediction of international financial analysts and students of global risk, not me).(2)
How this man would handle the responsibility of the mantle of foreign policy leadership is beyond speculation (“we’ve got nukes, we should use them”).(3)
“It’s the economy, stupid”
True, Trump has been picking out tunes from Sanders’ economic populist songbook but he has been playing them in ugly, discordant keys. So, even here, where he often sounds good, his populist message is transposed into a selfish appeal to the worst elements of American society.
The vital issue for America—indeed, for the developed world—is the economic dislocation of working people caused by accelerated globalization and technological change.(4)
As a friend in Lorain, Ohio, a city hit hard by deindustrialization, said to me recently, “The Clintons have had their chance. Things didn’t get better around here in the 1990s. They got worse.” This is one of the reasons that Secretary Clinton is so unpopular with working class people.
But let’s be honest. Another part of why Secretary Clinton is unpopular with working- and middle-class men is that she’s a strong woman. This is worth considering carefully. She is a woman candidate—admittedly a Washington insider representing big capital—opposing an arrogant, sexist businessman who stokes racism.
Yes, Trump sounds an economic populist note. If Trump were a decent, reasonable economic populist; if Trump spoke in terms of uniting working class people instead of dividing them—if, if—well, then he wouldn’t be Trump. He would be Bernie Sanders. But Sanders is not on the ballot.
Taking a longer view
The economic problems that have brought us to this pass in 2016, with a good 40-50 percent of the electorate ready to throw over the mainstream of both major parties and back someone or something new—further left OR right—will only deepen in the coming decade. We will likely see more structural unemployment, more dislocation of workers.(5)
The hopelessness of the inner cities will therefore spread to working- and middle-class suburbs. Young people saddled with student loan debt will find it increasingly difficult to retire as decent-paying jobs for 20- and 30-somethings become ever rarer. Older workers will become discouraged in greater numbers, leading them out of the workforce.
All of the social problems attendant on large scale structural unemployment are likely to grow worse—demoralization; alcoholism; broken families; domestic violence, and so forth. I wish this were not the case and I look for countertrends but I’m afraid this is what is in store in the 2020s and 2030s.
It is not unreasonable to ask: Are we going to be running through a version of the interwar period of the twentieth century? The differences are clear—for instance, we have not been through anything as traumatic as the Great War (1914-1918). But economic dislocation characterizes both periods, as does the nativist response.
Elections don’t change the world, argue abstentionists. True, social movements and underlying economic metamorphoses are far more important in transforming fundamental economic, political or social conditions.
But elections do have an impact on the political mood of the country. A Trump victory would be a victory for the racists, the jingoists, the sexists, the “Second Amendment crowd.”
A Clinton victory should not be seen as an endorsement of Obama’s years in office which, let’s face it, have produced disappointingly precious little, legislatively. True, the Clinton center—including the middle-class feminists who are her strongest supporters—will tout this as the first election of a woman to the American presidency. True, that’s a milestone, just as Obama’s election was.
But from the point of view of the progressive left, there are stronger arguments for an anti-Trump vote than there are for a pro-Clinton one. Millions of voters will be turning out November 8 to vote against someone, not for someone at all. This should be a sobering wake-up call for the leadership of both parties. Instead, given their incapacity to plan much beyond the next legislative session, leading Democrats and Republicans will likely go back to the business of governing. They’ll be hiding their heads under the covers, hoping that’ll keep the scary ghosts from the heartland at bay.
But it won’t work. The ghosts, the potential for the return of a militant, class-based movement throughout America, have been stirred. The question for organizers on the left is: Will this opportunity be taken advantage of?
For the left to organize is a vital responsibility in the rust belt. The leadership of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus—an organization that issued from a strong pro-Sanders grassroots campaign in Northern Ohio—argues that wherever they were able to put organizers into communities, they delivered votes for Sen. Sanders against Sec. Clinton. These were the same communities where candidate Trump ran so strongly on the Republican side.
In other words, working class people seek answers. Economic populism can be argued from the left and people can be won to a coherent progressive or social-democratic outlook.
But those same communities are breeding grounds for economic populism wedded to hate.
Vote for Stein?
The left abstentionist conclusion for November 8 is a protest vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. If this were connected with a sober effort to build a party-like organization of the left, it would make good sense. But I’m afraid the Green Party, at least in Ohio, has been studied in its unwillingness (incapacity?) to build solid grassroots organization. Greens should be part of the wider process of reassembling a social democratic left in America. But organizational chops matter. And one vital element of organizational capacity is the recognition that no matter how disaffected American workers are with the Washington establishment, they still are far from ready to break with the two-party system. The progressive left needs to be working in the arena of Democratic Party elections precisely because that is where its potential mass base is today. We need to create a pole of attraction around progressive political principles, in both electoral and issue-oriented campaigns.
Voting and organizing
I’m advocating a critical vote for Clinton (essentially a vote against Trump’s racism and sexism). But this vote must be connected with efforts, however tentative and preliminary, at forming a steady, solid, grassroots organization of progressives that will do far more than attempt to elect progressive candidates to office. We need an organization that mobilizes people of conscience for issue-oriented battles, from the “Fight for Fifteen” to the fight for clean energy, to the fight against violence in the black community. We need an organization that links these struggles together, that builds alliances, and that advances a worldview—a broadly social-democratic worldview—that makes sense of these disparate phenomena.
Young people in particular are calling for a kind of systematic political education that the left has not seriously offered in more than a generation.
Reasonable progressives disagree on what to do on election day. That’s fine, as long as we have a civil discussion of the issues, something that candidate Trump has proven most uninterested in.
The questions facing working people in the United States are not going to be answered on election day. The answers to the fundamental questions are to be found in the self-organization of working people and people of conscience.
That’s why the most important thing is what the left does after election day.
1) Adam Liptak, “Donald Trump could threaten U.S. rule of law, scholars say,” New York Times, June 3, 2016, (acc. Oct. 21, 2016).
2) Economist Intelligence Unit, “Global risk: Donald Trump wins the US presidential election,” October 19, 2016, (acc. October 21, 2016). The fact that the well-respected EIU puts a Trump presidency up there with a prolonged Chinese recession and the break-up of the European Union as threats to the global economy should give anyone with any concern about economic activity—and the lives of ordinary people who always suffer most in recessions—pause. Furthermore, “electing Trump could also start a trade war, hurt trade with Mexico and be a godsend to terrorist recruiters in the Middle East,” wrote Daniel Lippman, “The Economist rates Trump presidency among its top 10 global risks,” Politico, March 16, 2016, (acc. Oct. 21, 2016).
3) Matthew Belvedere, “Trump asks why US can’t use nukes: MSNBC,” CNBC, August 3, 2016, (acc. Oct. 21, 2016).
4) “It’s the economy, stupid,” was the stay-on-message mantra of James Carville, strategist for the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton in 1992.
5) For a more detailed treatment of the problem of technologically-based structural unemployment, see Glenn Perusek, “Cleveland: City of Tomorrow?” Belt Magazine, March 2015, (acc. Oct. 21, 2016).