In the Age of Trump, the Ideas of the Left Have Been Reborn
Enter stage leftAaron P. Bernstein / Getty Politics Features Donald Trump
We know how rough the last months have been for progressivism. All the Trump Administration has done. All they will do. Consider Trump’s upcoming repeal of Obamacare. Or perhaps the multi-front onslaught against the entire social safety net of American life. The astounding incompetence of the Democratic Party. The shocking indifference of the Republicans.
And yet while the war of politics rages on, and progressives fight to resist the all-embracing power of conservative government, another skirmish is taking place: the war of ideas. And there, the results are welcoming. Left ideas are winning.
We know that centrism is a diminished god: Samson could see it. And anybody who has watched the disembodied specter of conservatism understands that movement’s intellectual poverty. Its mouthpieces have been discredited or co-opted by the rise of Trump and the Alt-Right. What little remains of conservative thought is shrunk down to ritualistic acts of trolling, bodiless phantoms in the machine.
The war of ideas is near to, but not the same as, the conflict of electoral victories, Presidential nominations, and Congressional seats. Political battles are fights over scarce resources, but they are also proxy battles for different philosophies of government. These principles provide the ammunition and moral understructure for partisans of either side. The Great Work—the long-term goal—is the discrediting of right and centrist ideas as believable visions to build societies on. And the left is winning that war.
These ideas are not just issues of cultural progressivism, but economic progressivism. History-readers among you will know that left economics were denied under Clinton, verboten under Bush, and patronized and marginalized during the Obama years. So-called liberal Democrats barely fought for working people. During those days, we saw advances the social left, and little advance elsewhere. Business did well, and nobody else did. But the world is changing. The end of consensus is the beginning of freedom. While consensus existed, left ideas could be shut out, and a tidy profit-farm could be run on the back of the American public.
Two examples come to mind: Universal basic income and Medicare for All. UBI, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, has new partisans:
If there’s one thing that many anti-poverty activists and free-market advocates agree on, it’s that our existing social safety net isn’t capable of dealing with the challenges presented by the evolution of the economy and of the very definition of work. … The basics of universal basic income are simple. A check goes to everyone, guaranteed — whether they’re employed or not. No strings attached. No means test. No bureaucrats examining your personal lifestyle or looking for hidden income. No politicians demanding that you seek out even a menial job or leave the children in the hands of caretakers before getting the money. No drug testing.
Ignore the too-smooth marketing phrases like “evolution of the economy” and “very definition of work.” Focus on what a radical message this is, and where it is being published. Now, the fact that some conservatives and libertarians are in favor of UBI does not mean that they are coming around. Nobody needs to mollify them, or court them, or care about their approval. But the fact that right-wing supporters of UBI can even raise their head on the issue says something.
The same is true of single-payer and universal health care. It is accepted now by the broad swath of American society. Americans have long embraced a public option; it was the politicians who lagged behind. No surprise there. But even now, the Republicans must—through a gritted rictus of teeth—defend the idea of medicine for all. Their program will not deliver it. But they must get behind the notion all the same. You can tell, because even the mainstream media recognizes it. In a Marketwatch column, Darrell Delamaide recounted that:
Vox’s Sarah Kliff reported this week how surprised she was when she helped conduct a focus group on health care among Trump voters and half of them spontaneously said they would like a single-payer system like Canada’s. “We hadn’t planned to bring up single-payer health care,” Kliff wrote of the March session. “The focus group was about the Affordable Care Act. But one Trump voter had raised the idea that we’d be better off if we had a health-care system like Canada’s — where the government runs one health-insurance plan for everyone — and wanted to see who agreed.”
One Medium writer, “radicle,” put it best:
People are losing faith in politicians that seem only capable of tinkering around the edges of policies that aren’t working for the mass of people. They want to vote for something that will create a material difference in their life, a change for the better that they will actually experience, instead of having to rely on pundits telling them that, despite what they and their family might be feeling, things are actually good! The stock market is up! Unemployment is at an all time low (assuming ‘all time’ started in 2009)! America is already great!
Trump is the final boss of the nightmare right: he is all of their terrible inclinations given full sway, freed from the cloak of dissimulation they’ve been forced to adopt all of these years. That is why only the left can fight him. Centrism, in love with power, will never have to spine to do it. They will keep their cameras turned off, rather than offend the President.
The great enemy of left policy is not the right. It is the Decent Moderates, who police the boundary of what is and is not acceptable. They have cratered every idea to bring positive change to the world. But the recent upheaval has not been kind to them. The entire chorus of neoliberal critics are on their back feet. The rise of Trump and the derailing of the world-train have given us a rare opportunity. When the approved doctrine has been so thoroughly humiliated, there is a great chance to get through a real message. Even if the millennial generation didn’t lean left—which they do—this would still be case. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
There was a time in the ‘90s that the wackiest right-wing notions, like privatizing Social Security or austerity, were in full flower. Now they are scoffed deservedly. We are returning to an older age, the age of ideological combat. Good. Such a contest favors the left. There’s a long history of left ideas being taken up by the main body of politicians: the eight-hour day, anti-war, Social Security, public ownership of utilities, civil rights. The real narrative of our times is not just about battles over power, but the death of Hayek, Rand, and Friedman’s style of economic malfeasance. That end of that bag of golf-course-conversation-derived economic theory cannot arrive too soon.
The victory of left ideas is not itself the solution to the equation. The battles of day to day politics determine the lived experience of millions of human beings. And we should not lessen our involvement in that fight. But the battle of ideas is turning. The defunding and destruction of Obamacare will probably proceed, and be horrible. But while history is also the story of radical re-establishing privilege, it is also the story of changing minds.
The notions of the right-wing economic machine rose in the Seventies. They had their way, and the world fell under their yoke. But they’re sloughing off now, dropping like scales from a dragon. The death of centrist and the right ideas must seem like the end of the world for the people up top. But that’s the curious fact about power. Change is only a danger to power if your power is insecure, if it can be taken away. The strength of elites is (and always has been) fragile; the might of the public is strong. The power always belonged to the people, much as light is the natural property of the sunrise. It was only contested property during the night, and the dawn is on its way.