By George Lakey - Waging NonViolence, November 10, 2016
This was a highly emotional election, and we need time to feel our feelings and sort out what it means for us and for the country. Donald Trump is a con man; his game is to manipulate emotions and activists can be as vulnerable as anyone else. Knowing that, we can give ourselves some space to breathe rather than hype each other’s fear. We can also begin to ask, what does his victory mean for social activists on the left?
First, and most obviously, Bernie Sanders was not Trump’s opponent. Many Trump voters liked Sanders for the same reason they supported Trump: He was an outlier who was an alternative to the establishment that has for decades been implementing what billionaire Warren Buffett calls the economic elite’s “class war.”
We activists on the left, even with some disagreements with Sanders, could reasonably regard him as a standard-bearer for us, but that’s not the choice voters made this November. I voted for Hillary without believing for a minute that she was putting forth my politics — or that my politics even got attention in the general election.
What we learn from the vote against Hillary is that many people who are losing the class war don’t like losing, and took it out on a pillar of the establishment. In 2008 and 2012, many white working-class people in the North gave their support to Barack Obama because he was the most credible hope for change, running in each election against a pillar of the establishment. By wide margins they didn’t let the color of his skin prevent them from voting for the chance of a pause in the battering they’d been getting.
For people interested in learning how to make major change in the United States, the electoral arena is only a tiny peephole covered with gauze. Voter participation is low in the United States compared with, say, Scandinavia, and that was true this year, too. Because the election only involves part of the citizenry and is mostly about money, celebrity and manipulation, it tells us little and invites us to make up stories laced with our own fears.
Nevertheless, combing the electoral data can tell us something. Exit polls, for example, tell us that one in five voters who pulled the lever for Trump do not believe he is qualified to be president.
Why vote for someone so unqualified? One answer is because that voter feels certain they know what a second Clinton presidency would bring: unjust policies that further degrade the lives of the oppressed. Here’s the chance for activist empathy, crucial for our having any chance of success in the future: When people so desire change that they will vote for someone they believe unqualified, they are desperate. Activists are used to calling people who are rendered desperate by unjust polices “the oppressed.” If using that name helps us stop othering working-class Trump voters, let’s use that name.
The white working class reading of recent American history may be more accurate than that of many activists. Bill Clinton betrayed the Democratic Party’s traditional working-class base through the North American Free Trade Agreement, destruction of “welfare as we know it,” and subsidizing corporations’ moving industrial jobs overseas. Even when the presidency and both houses of Congress were in the hands of the Democrats, a union movement that worked night and day to get Democratic politicians elected could not get its priorities enacted.
Many in a social class that once believed the Democratic Party was its ally were bound to notice, sooner or later, that the party’s allegiance is elsewhere. I’ve often heard middle-class liberals complain about working-class people voting against their interests, but I’m not hearing them complain that tens of millions of middle-class people vote against their interests – something they do routinely, and did so again by voting for Trump. In fact, the middle class reportedly provided Trump’s most reliable funding during the primary season.