As 2016 comes to an end, it is hard to write about politics, policy, and issues affecting the world. Post-truth, anti-fact, fake news, populism, alt-right, and the blame game are the main themes in the media and make it difficult to develop a meaningful narrative. Writing critiques of these motifs requires the rejection of so many layers of populist faulty logic that it seems to be an ever-increasing challenge to make constructive recommendations for moving forward without writing a short book every week.
Part of the issue is the shocked awe and impending doom saturating the commentary of the politically active brought on by the coming Trump Presidency. This sense of doom has been established and fostered through social media and then amplified by traditional media sources.
Then there is the glaring problem of the traditional news industry succumbing to the “disruptive capitalism” of social media companies. The mainstream media is an industry that has acted as cheerleader when this disruption impacted industries with lost jobs and influence, but now the media suddenly expects that things should be different for them. The blinders have been torn away and suddenly they realize the darkness that surrounds them. For those who have bemoaned the loss of in-depth reporting, cut in favour of shock-headlines and higher ratings and ad revenue, the gaping hole left in journalism is obvious and vast. Yet, the question remains of what good journalism and analysis, if any, can fill this hole.
Doom and implosion is a terrible foundation for writing unless you are a dystopian novelist.
The liberal elite – many of whom work in the news industry and in the political system rocked by Trump’s victory – do not seem to grasp what has happened. Their world view – that there is a natural progression toward their notions of freedom, tolerance, and understanding – is shattered. Their conjecture that the Bush years were an abnormal deviation from that progress is being undermined. Their hand-wringing about how they have misjudged working people so much is unending.
For the left and for socialist organizers it is a little more serious. The understanding of the very real possibility of a bigot-in-chief, coupled with the knowledge that the left is not strong enough to combat the coming onslaught, is not a natural mobilizing force. While under existing liberal administrations, the strategy has been to use popular mobilizations to drive pro-worker, pro-rights policies. Under Trump this strategy will have to become more defensive – the fight will shift from moving things forward to a desperate struggle to hold things at the status quo.
That being said, it seems clear that many of the issues raised by What’s Left this year will continue to be rather important. Following twenty years of missed opportunities for the left to shift the course of the US government, the state apparatus has taken on a rather menacing form. Deep connections between the intelligence community, massive technology companies, and the expanding influence of finance capitalists over every aspect of society mean that the interests of the majority, minorities, and working people have been silenced. The militarization of the police forces (a new report shows 1,200 people were killed by police in the US in 2016), surveillance, and attacks on progressive protesters and unionists continue unabated. A preview by Trump came even before taking office, where he targeted an overworked and underpaid local union president simply because he called Trump out for lying about the number of jobs being saved at Carrier. Another one of his first acts as President-elect was to denounce demonstrations against what protestors felt was a broken democratic system in the US – weirdly proving their point.
In the Global South, activists say these developments change little. For them, Trump is a perfect caricature of the USA they deal with on a regular basis. This is probably underestimating the impact that Trump’s cabal will have. Already there have been budgetary shifts in many developing countries due to the economic and foreign policy program changes expected from Trump.
In advanced capitalist countries, technocrats are figuring out how to deal with an autocrat that they did not help place into power. For many of them, the process is an easy one: just ignore it until you are told to do otherwise, then toe the line. The result will likely be a complete capitulation to the global Trump agenda (once they decide what that is).
Already, we see the mood on Wall Street shifting towards an odd mix of nostalgia and enthusiasm. They sense a political climate that will allow their fortunes to grow very quickly over the short term. Deregulation, massive debt financed government spending, ignoring externalities (like the environment), supporting anti-worker laws, and an administration run by Wall Street will pave the way to the exuberance of pre-2008.
For socialists, there is a tinge of fear and more than a little confusion seeping into any conversation about what is to be done. And it is not all Trump and his band of alt-right proto-fascist “conservatives”. It is also the open question of how the liberal establishment will respond to them, and how much deference will be given to more extreme positions. The answer to this will set the boundaries for those on the far right who see the election of Trump as a call to action.
However, there is opportunity in every crisis and this one is no different.
Liberals will not be good at understanding and taking responsibility for why working people have rejected their great historical program of wealth creation (for the wealthy). Many workers voted for Trump to stick it to the elite. And while many on the left have not been clear enough about the differences between the socialist and liberal programs, socialists do have the actual antidote to the Trumps of the world: a program that represents the democratic and economic interest of working people. And, there is historical precedent for the left to come out ahead after such a disaster – if the work is put into organizing.
The right have used a post-truth, fact-light world to advance their agenda. Indeed, such a world is necessary for them to succeed since their agenda is about power over, not empowerment of, working people. Say anything facades do not work if people examine the details and the rejection of facts and evidence have been the hallmarks of the (old and) new rise of the populist right.
A socialist program that is neither post-truth nor fact-light is the alternative to this despair. Facts matter, but unlike the elite program of spoon-feeding certain facts that help an opportunistic agenda, the democratic socialist program is – by its nature – the whole truth and nothing but. The reason for this is that the left’s view of reality is based on critique and alternative.
This orientation will be seen by some as a drag on the ability to engage. Some will think that we must “learn from the right” and incorporate their tactics and simplified talking points. But, this election has shown that, for the left, rhetoric alone will not empower workers to take political control. Anger and uniformed anti-elite rhetoric may have resulted in the rejection of liberal elitism but the lack of substance in these arguments is what made it easy for so many to fall victim to right-wing populism.
Any renewed call of the left must include the phrase “facts matter”. The Left must embrace its diversity and tendency to critique everything as a strength. Now more than ever, socialist activists must make sure they have a fact-based analysis and constructive critique of their own policy and organizing programs, including a clear view, not simply of how we wish it were, but of the existing reality. It is the only way that a real strategy for solidarity and resistance can be successful.
This year, What’s Left has done its best to present a facts matter analysis and a clear-eyed view of where we need to go. We will continue in the New Year to present critique and positive news from across the struggle. We will present recommendations for how solidarity can be won and be there on the ground to make it happen.
Together, we can defend the interests of workers and advance a truly progressive agenda for the future.